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Is Your Sunscreen Safe? And Does It Even Work?

Is Your Sunscreen Safe? And Does It Even Work?

By: Sarah Grace Powers – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.

I live in a land of sun, and I thought I was doing pretty good by using a face cream with SPF every morning, along with slathering a stronger sunscreen on my arms and exposed areas.

That is until my daughter sent me some extremely scary links to sunscreen research. She is working with a company that is on a mission to make safer skincare and cosmetics available to the masses.

By safer, I mean products that won’t put toxic chemicals in your body, or cause damage to the planet. They are doing this both by manufacturing safer products and also by lobbying for more stringent regulation laws in the US.

In any case, the news is not great on the sunscreen front. I, for one, will be making some changes in my habits.

You might want to do the same.

With the arrival of summer, you are likely pulling out your sunscreen. You may want to educate yourself so you can be sure you are protected from harmful rays in the safest and healthiest way possible.

It turns out that most commercial sunscreens not only contain unsafe ingredients but they, in fact, are contributing to the destruction of the environment.

For example, a 2015 study showed that oxybenzone, a popular UV-filtering ingredient, is threatening coral — especially in Hawaii and the Caribbean. Not only does the chemical kill coral, it also causes early DNA damage that stunts the growth of the organisms living in it.


Hawaii lawmakers can be commended for actually giving a darn and passing a bill last month that bans the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone throughout the state. However, the coral will still be suffering for the next three years as the bill does not take effect until January 2021.

Why Do We Need Sunscreen?

I’m dating myself, but I can remember lying for hours in the sun as a young girl, after slathering my body with suntan oil so I could get a deep dark tan. My mom was a sun worshipper and I followed suit.

What changed, and just how did suntan oil switch over to sunscreen?

Everyone gets it that a good sunscreen will help prevent painful sunburns and wrinkles. So, some level of SPF (sun protection factor) has been around in suntan lotion for a long time. But, in recent decades research has linked some skin cancers to sun exposure.

The reason is because sunlight contains ultraviolet radiation, mostly in the form of UVA and UVB. The latter causes the most common forms of skin cancer. One is basal cell carcinoma, a form of cancer which is not usually deadly, but can be quite disfiguring and unpleasant. Another is squamous cell carcinoma.

UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply and are responsible for those unfortunate premature wrinkles. But, some recent research is showing that UVA can actually exacerbate the carcinogenic effects of the UVB rays and might also cause skin cancer.

Unfortunately, many sunscreens only block UVB, leaving us vulnerable to UVA rays which may be more dangerous than previously thought. The SPF only refers to UVB. Yikes!

All of this leaves most of us (even those with darker skin) needing to use a good quality sunscreen ALONG with additional protection in the form of hats and proper clothing.

What’s Bad About Sunscreen?

The most popular sunscreens—those ones you see on the shelves of every supermarket and drug store at this time of year—pretty much all contain some super nasty and toxic ingredients.

The problem with that is your skin is one of the most absorbent organs on your body. So, the lotions and skincare products you apply to your body go pretty much directly into your bloodstream. These sunscreens contain ingredients that most of us would never dream of eating in our food (and the FDA would never allow it), yet somehow it seems okay to put them on our bodies.

A huge percentage of mainstream sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a chemical that can act as a hormone disruptor, causing things like reproductive and developmental toxicity, thyroid problems and other hormonal havoc. (Who needs more problems with their hormones?!) Additionally, as mentioned above, this chemical is now known to damage coral reefs.

Another ingredient that may well be an issue is a form of Vitamin A called retinyl palmitate, which has been linked with skin tumors in animal studies. Although many companies have dropped this ingredient from their formulas, about 12 percent of sunscreens still contain it, according to The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. that focuses on environmental issues and public health.

Are all Sunscreens Created Equal—And How Can We Find the Good Ones?

About two-thirds of sunscreens available in the U.S. offer less than perfect protection and/or contain ingredients that can harm your health, an EWG report released a couple of weeks ago found.

The researchers reviewed 650 sunscreens and ranked them according to various criteria, including whether their ingredients were linked to health hazards and how well they worked to block both UVA and UVB rays. They found that only about 33 percent of the sunscreens reviewed met the organization’s strict health and environmental standards.

That’s actually good news! There are some pretty decent and reasonably safe ones in that 33%, almost all of which include some UVA protection as well as the required UVB SPF.

It’s a good idea to check what you are currently using and, if it doesn’t make the grade, replace it with one of those. Why mess around with potentially damaging your natural hormone function? And why contribute to the decline of our great coral reefs?

You can check out how your own sunscreen ranks (and read the full report if you want) over on the EWG website. You can also find out which sunscreens have been named ‘reef safe.’

Or, simply check your tube of sunscreen for the following ingredients, which should definitely be avoided:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC)
  • Homosalate
  • Octisalate

If you find you need to find a new sunscreen, look for products that use physical blockers such as zinc oxide, instead of chemicals. The blockers sit on top of your skin—instead of getting absorbed—and physically block the UV rays from getting in. That’s way better for skin aging anyway.

And hold on! Before you turn up your nose at the idea of zinc oxide—remembering the days when it coated your body with thick white goo—you should know that the newer zinc oxide sunscreen formulas are much improved. Many of them glide on easily, sink in readily, and don’t feel scratchy or stiff.

I’m biased, I know, but I am loving the sunscreen made by Beautycounter—the company my daughter is representing. It is super high ranking in safety with the EWG, and it glides on like your favorite lotion. It’s a little pricier than some other sunscreens, but at this point, it’s my fave.

Some other viable options that rank well are DeVita Solar Body Moisturizer, and the variety of sunscreens put out by Alba Botanica and Badger.

You can check out all your options for best beach and sport sunscreens, determined by the EWG’s research HERE.

Best Sun Practices

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by high SPF numbers on your tube of sunscreen. More and more research (including that by EWG) is showing that higher SPF sunscreens (above 50) don’t necessarily offer better protection from UV-related skin damage, and people who use these products often think a high SPF is a go-ahead to spend way too much time in the sun.

You also need to re-apply the darn stuff way more often than most of us do. Claims that a sunscreen lasts all day or several hours are questionable at best. Apparently, most sunscreens begin to deteriorate in as short a time as 15 minutes. Add in sweating, and normal body movement and you might be only minimally protected a couple of hours after applying.

So much for my morning sunscreen routine being enough to take care of that blazing midday sun! I am now making sure I put some on right before I step outside.

And here’s the part that I personally hate:  the best protection is to stay out of the sun when it is strongest, between about 10AM and 4PM. And, when you do need (or want) to be playing or working outside, wear a good hat, and cover as much skin as possible.

Doesn’t work so well for beaching it, now does it?

The bottom line is, for most of us, sunscreen continues to be a necessity. Educate yourself, choose wisely, and have fun out there this summer!


More by Sarah:

The Magical Healing Power of the Humble Nap

Want Superior Nutrition & Taste Too? Try Some Kale!


Sarah Grace Powers is a certified life coach and EFT Practitioner. She is a ‘dream resuscitator’, helping clients rediscover their passions and reinvent themselves no matter what their age or circumstance. In her previous career she owned and operated an herb shop and has practiced holistic living for over three decades. Find her at




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