by Gayle Picken
Hawaii recently made headlines as the first state set to ban sunscreens containing chemicals harmful to coral reefs. According to this BBC article, the offending chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate, are found in over 3,500 of the most popular sunscreen products on the market today (that’s 70% of all sunscreen products!) Wow! For an island paradise that attracts over 8 million beach-going tourists each year, this decision could not have been made lightly!
If these chemicals are harmful to coral reefs, what are they doing to our human bodies? And what are the alternatives for all of us who’ve been conditioned to lathering up with sunscreen to protect ourselves from the harmful UV rays that are linked to skin cancer?
Intrigued to learn more, I began doing some research and was surprised to find out how many complexities there are when it comes to sunscreen. The good news is that we have many options available to help us prevent damage to our skin from the sun. (Spoiler alert: even the types of foods you eat can make a difference!)
Here’s what I found out ..
How does sunscreen work?
Erin Keyes is a representative of EVER skin care products and she gave me a basic overview about how sunscreen works. It turns out there are two main types of active ingredients that protect against UV rays .. one type is mineral-based like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide which physically block the harmful rays and reflect them away from the skin. And the other type is an organic chemical such as oxybenzone or octinoxate that absorbs the UV radiation through its chemical bond and then releases it as heat.
At first, the mineral-based sunscreens had a white pasty look and tacky feel so manufacturers started using smaller mineral particles to create a clearer application. In some cases, the particles are so small (called nanoparticles) there is concern about potential health risks if they were to enter the human body, especially when in spray or powder form. This is why you’ll find many natural sunscreens made with “non-nano” zinc oxide.
In the chemical-based sunscreens, some ingredients, such as oxybenzone, are increasingly looked at as being potentially harmful to humans as well as the environment.
With all of these variables, how do we make sense of it all when it comes to choosing which sunscreen to buy?
Marcia Sears, a representative of Monat Global and a proponent for toxin-free hair products, recommended that I take a look at the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Annual Guide to Sunscreens.
Not only does this great resource give you a handy list of specific brands that meet its criteria, it also provides a wealth of information for those who want to do more research.
Can the foods you eat help prevent sunburns?
On my quest to learn more about sunscreen, my assistant Monika Star, who has been trained as a licensed nutritionist, suggested that I look into the foods you can eat that can actually help prevent sunburn. Who knew?
This fascinating article 5 Foods that Protect Your Skin from Sun Damage explains how keeping your skin healthy from the inside out can help prevent sun damage as well. It explains how antioxidants are good for healthy skin protection because they help to scavenge the free radicals produced when our skin is exposed to UV radiation. Top foods include tomatoes, carrots, green tea, fish and high-quality dark chocolate…I’m in!
Are reef-friendly sunscreens available?
In Hawaii, some local natural sunscreens include Kokua Sun Care Hawaiian Natural Zinc Sunscreen made with a combination of non-nano zinc oxide and Hawaiian ingredients exceptionally rich in antioxidants to neutralize the free radicals that can cause DNA damage to our skin.
And Mama KULEANA offers hand-made “reef and skin” care products with ingredients including: organic shea butter, organic coconut oil, beeswax, organic safflower oil, non-nano zinc powder, raspberry oil, rose hip seed oil and vitamin E oil. They also use packaging that is biodegradable–even the label!
Many sunscreen brands are now jumping on board with formulas that are safe for the coral reefs. Check the ingredients before you buy!
What else can we do to protect ourselves and prevent skin cancer?
One thing is for sure, sunscreen is a must when it comes to protecting your skin from harmful UV rays. But every source I checked with agrees that you must do more than just rely on sunscreen. It’s best to take a multi-level approach: Wear broad-rimmed hats, clothing and sunglasses, eat foods rich in antioxidants, find or make shade, and use toxin free sunscreens.
It’s estimated that 14 tons of sunscreen end up in the coral reefs off Hawaii each year. The more we become conscious about the chemicals in our sunscreens and other skin products, the better for our bodies and our oceans!
And for an easy-to-read explanation of how suncreen works and definitions of SPF ratings, UVA and UVB, see this LiveScience article.
ps – If you have a special sunscreen tip you’d like to share, please post it it our facebook group, the NW Mind Body Spirit Lounge.
Gayle Picken is an event producer, healthy living advocate, travel blogger, dreamer and the director of the NW Mind Body Spirit Connection. She loves yoga, hiking, kayaking, connecting with people and exploring the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.