The tail end of spring in Maine usually consists of crawling out of our den and being blinded by the first sighting of the sun. We’ve made it to May which means that we can finally rule out the daunting idea of an April blizzard. However, this spring is obviously quite different. The sun may be out but most of us are hunkered down in our homes due to the current pandemic. We are being called by our country to be selfless during this time, to think about high risk individuals and those who are risking their lives to provide the care and supplies essential to our lives. This means staying home, keeping distance, and staying safe. These steps are crucial, but can leave us feeling trapped, anxious and lonely. And no matter how many times we hear Kim Kardashian, Ariana Grande, or Oprah tell us that “we’re all in this together,” it doesn’t change any of those feelings. Mind blowing.
However, if there is one thing that has helped me during this time, it’s getting outside. Whether it’s sitting on the lawn or going for a long bike ride, feeling the warmth of the sun and a fresh breeze is a sure fire way to flip my mood. I know I’m not alone in this, so I figured now is as good a time as any to talk about sunscreen.
I am a self proclaimed sun worshipper turned sun hat wearer. As I’ve mentioned before, I used to despise sunscreen. It took my mom getting diagnosed with skin cancer (multiple times) for it to really sink in that I was causing myself long-term damage.
This photo was taken in the summer of 2014. I was working as a landscaper in the hot sun, and when I wasn't working I was convincing Izzy (second from the left) to call out of her waitressing job so that we could go lay on the beach. I was usually successful at convincing her, clearly.
When I get my first wrinkle, I'll curse this photo that's for sure.
Once I committed to the SPF life, I developed an interest in what I was putting on my skin and into the ocean (I’m not just a beach sitter, I love a good boogie board session with Iz). What I found was quite concerning. I’m sure we’re all aware by now of the damage that sunscreen can do to the ocean’s ecosystem. In fact, according to Nat Geo, “14,000 tons of sunscreen are thought to wash into the oceans each year; 82,000 chemicals from personal-care products may be tainting the seas; about 80 percent of corals in the Caribbean have been lost in the last 50 years due to pollution, coastal development, and warming waters.” But what exactly is it about sunscreen that is so harmful?
Looking at the ingredients list in sunscreen is overwhelming. Every word has 16 syllables and sounds a little scary. So for the sake of your sanity, because this could go on all day, I am going to give you three major culprits to look out for.
Oxybenzone, also known as benzonephenone-3. This compound’s primary function is to, you guessed it, absorb UV rays (UVB and short UVA to be exact).
Although oxybenzone is FDA approved, many studies have linked the following with long term use: hormone disruption (early puberty in girls, male infertility, increased risk of cancer), cell damage, and skin allergies, hair follicle inflammation, and acne. In addition to the damage caused to the human body, oxybenzone plays a major role in disrupting the ecosystems of the ocean, the most prominent being reef bleaching and death.
Octinoxate aka octyl methoxycinnamate and ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate is used to absorb UVB rays alone. This compound shares many of the same side effects as its partner in crime oxybenzone such as hormone disruption and reproductive complications. We’ll throw thyroid dysfunction into the mix as well. This is also approved by the FDA. I hope you’re starting to see a pattern.
Butylparaben, or any parabens for that matter, are on the metaphorical no fly list but again FDA approved. Parabens are preservatives (found in the majority of skin care products) linked to breast cancer and reproductive issues as they disturb our hormone levels and functions. Say no more.
So now for safer active ingredients. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are minerals that block rather than absorb like their dirty nemesis’. Both of these active ingredients are considered to be the lesser of two evils when compared to oxybenzone and octinoxate. They do not break down as easily because they are sitting on the surface of your skin creating a barrier, hence the reason most European sunscreens don’t blend well. Although this duo gets the green light, we enter new territory when labs break these minerals down into nanoparticles.
Nanoparticles are a whole other beast. Have you ever worn a sunscreen that, no matter how much you rubbed in, left you looking like Morticia Adams? Same. I give you nanoparticles. These micro minerals solve an inconvenient vanity problem, but as you’ve probably guessed, comes back to bite us in the bum. When ingested, even “safe” minerals in the form of nanoparticles, can cause internal damage (to us and sea life). This often happens when aerosol sunscreen gets unknowingly inhaled or SPF lip balm is inevitably transferred into the mouth. The jury is still out on if nanoparticles in sunscreen cause us damage when applied to the skin, but most studies say that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide do not penetrate the skin.
So, now that we know that these nanoparticles are potentially harmful, our natural reaction would be to avoid them, right? Well, here’s the kicker- there’s really no way to know when these particles are in our products because disclosure is not required by the FDA. So what can we do?
Do your research
The EWG (Environmental Working Group) is a an excellent resource. Visit their Guide to Sunscreens to ensure that your products honor your body and our environment.
Say nay to spray
The fine mist emitted by aerosol cans not only harms us by inevitable inhalation, but it’s also nearly impossible to contain. A swift breeze has the power to change the course from your skin directly to the sand. This not only empties more chemicals into our oceans and lakes, but it’s quite frankly a waste of money. Cream and stick sunscreens are safer and generally more cost efficient.
Wear a hat or stay out of the sun
Especially during peak hours which, according to the American Skin Association, are between 10a and 4p. It obviously, at least in my life, isn't feasible to stay out of the sun. So just, as my dad always tells me, "make good choices." Be smart, be safe.
Here are a few clean, cruelty free, tried and true favs
Enjoy this beautiful weather!
Sources / Photos