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Not All Sunscreens Are Created Equal

By: Hasna Kharmouche, MD

While it is a giving fact that the use of sunscreen is tremendously important to protect our skin from the damaging effects of sun rays, it is also important to know that not all sunscreens are created equal.

In my day to day practice as a physician, I constantly notice that, for most people, the idea of sun protection is as simple as grabbing the next sunscreen available at the closest supermarket. People don't know what to look for and what to avoid in terms of choosing an efficient and safe sunscreen.

The problem with sunscreens (just like many other skin care products) is that many of them seem to contain questionable ingredients that raise many health and environmental concerns, all of which we will be addressing in this article.

But before diving in, it is essential to first of all differentiate between two types of sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens also called "organic sunscreens " which, as their name suggests, use chemical ingredients to absorb and scatter UV rays. And mineral sunscreens which use physical compounds to reflect UV rays away from the skin.

Now that you have this in mind, here is a list of the most worrisome ingredients to avoid when looking for a safe sunscreen.

  1. Oxybenzone: also listed as benzophenone-3, is probably the most commonly used chemical UV filter. it has the ability to penetrate the skin, reach the bloodstream and act as a hormonal disruptor. It was also shown to have the potential of causing contact allergies and photoallergies. In addition to that, it raised many environmental concerns as it has been linked to coral reefs bleaching which led to it being completely banned in certain regions like Hawaii.

  2. Octinoxate is another commonly used chemical UV blocker which specifically protects against UVB rays. It has the ability to penetrate the skin and disrupt the hormonal function in many target organs. Just like Oxybenzone, Octinoxate is harmful to coral reefs particularly and aquatic life in general.

On the packaging, Octinoxate is also referred to as octyl-methoxycinnamate, ethylhexyl-methoxy-cinnamate or simply OMC.

  1. Homosalate: also a very common chemical UV rays filter. This ingredient acts by disrupting estrogen, androgen and progesterone after soaking through the skin and reaching the bloodstream. In addition to that, it has also the ability to produce toxic byproducts under sunlight exposure.

  2. Vitamin A (Retinol) found in ingredients such as retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate and retinyl linoleate. Is commonly added to sunscreens, as well as other skin care products, because manufacturers believe it could help slow down skin aging. In fact Vitamin A is highly unstable when exposed to sunlight, which means that it reacts by producing free

radicals that are highly toxic to the skin cells and which have the potential to initiate certain types of skin cancer, in addition to that, they also have the ability to induce post sunlight exposure allergies also called photoallergies.

  1. Avobenzone, which is a chemical filter with UVA protection capacities that is also able to photodegrade into products that cause relatively high rates of skin allergies.

  2. Parabens are synthetic compounds commonly added to personal hygiene products to prevent the growth of pathogens like bacterias, yeast and mold. Those ingredients have an estrogen-like function that was linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity.

  3. Titanium Dioxide is a widely used mineral UV filter which has lately raised big safety concerns after being suspected to be a potential carcinogen associated with the risk of developing lung cancer through inhalation when used in powders and aerosol sunscreens. This led the European commission to label it as a category 2 suspected carcinogen.

  4. Phthalates are generally not explicitly listed by manufacturers as such, but they are widely used as fragrances in sunscreens and personal hygiene products. They lead the group of endocrine disruptors due to their dangerous effects on the reproductive health and breast tissue. They also have negative effects on aquatic life.

As a general rule, choosing a safe and effective sunscreen requires being vigilant and staying up to date with the harmful ingredients they may contain as well as their effects on human health and the environment. It also requires developing the habit of always reading labels before purchasing any sunscreen and making sure to choose a sunscreen that offers both UVA and UVB protection, one that is free from fragrances and that contains as few ingredients as possible.

Mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide as their only active ingredient are the better option.

And last but not least, it's important to keep in mind, that slathering on sunscreen, no matter how safe and efficient it is, should not be an excuse for spending long hours in the sun.


https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2229635 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28510141 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29086472 https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-problem-with-vitamin-a/ https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/chem_profiles/titanium_dioxide.html https://www.madesafe.org/education/whats-in-that/sunscreen/ https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/ https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-problem-with-vitamin-a/ https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/photoallergy

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