Regular sunscreen usage is important, and it’s hard to argue it’s unhealthy. A rise in “organic” and “natural” sunscreens has many people questioning the health effects of chemical sunscreens, but should they be?
The Different Kinds of Sunscreen
There are essentially two categories of sunscreen. Chemical sunscreens actually absorb the sun’s rays rather than reflecting them. Most traditional sunscreens are chemical sunscreens and include ingredients like octocrylene, octisalate, oxybenzone, and octinoxate.
Natural sunscreens – also known as barrier or mineral sunscreens – effectively create an invisible shield on the surface of the skin that reflects the sun instead of absorbing it. They’re usually made up of fine minerals like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
Are Chemical Sunscreens Unsafe?
In a word: no. Many, many studies have been performed by respected scientific organizations on the subject of chemical skin permeation through sunscreen. None have found any real evidence that common sunscreen chemicals are able to permeate living human skin or be harmful to skin. Like any chemical compound, some formulations may irritate sensitive skin, however.
The biggest downside to using chemical sunscreens, science says, are the potential environmental effects of using chemicals then washing some of them off in ocean water. Limited information says that common sunscreens can possibly be harmful to coral reefs.
Do Non-Chemical Sunscreens Work?
Not as well as chemical compounds. A recent Consumer Reports study showed that while 58% of tested chemical sunscreens measured up to their purported SPF levels, only 26% of natural/physical sunscreens did. Says dermatologist Darrel Rigel, M.D, spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology, “The most important criteria in evaluating sunscreen is whether it protects you from skin cancer.” Concerns over a particular chemical – retinol – found in chemical sunscreens are also overblown, says Rigel.
What’s most important, say doctors, is the regular, proper use of effective sunscreen. Effective application starts at the scalp and goes all the way to the toes, and a full shot glass-sized portion of sunscreen should be applied about once an hour in full sun.