Sunscreen: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly


Ask any dermatologist, and they will tell you the same thing: There is no such thing as a safe suntan. However, if you are planning to spend the day outside, it’s crucial that you have protection from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun.

Not all sunscreens are made equal. Each one uses a different combination of raw ingredients to provide different levels of protection as well as different types of protection. SPF 30, UVA, Broad-Spectrum, Helioplex, UVB, PABA - those are just a few buzzwords we hear about when it comes to sunscreen and it can be difficult to assimilate all the information we need to make the right choices. Rather than telling you which sunscreen is the best for your needs, we’re putting it all together to offer you a further understanding of a few characteristics of sunscreens as a whole so you can decide what’s best for you. 

The Basics

Sunscreen, also known as sun cream or sunblock, protects you from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation to prevent sunburn and damage to your skin cells. People with fair skin are more at risk because they have less naturally protecting melanin in their skin. Melanin is produced when the skin is damaged by the sun, hence why we darken after prolonged exposure. Individuals with darker skin tones already have high levels of melanin, which increases their tolerance to the rays. however, it doesn’t offer complete protection. Whether you are fair- or darker-skinned, you should still always use sun protection!

In order to protect our skin properly, it must be applied at least 30 minutes before our skin is exposed to the sun (to allow the lotion to get absorbed properly) and it should be reapplied often during the day, especially after swimming or sweating.

Good sunscreens will protect you against both UVA and UVB rays (referred to as Broad Spectrum protection). Not only will you be protected from getting a sunburn (caused by UVB), you’ll also slow down signs of aging like sun spots and fine lines and wrinkles in the long-term (caused by UVA).

If you want to know more about what happens to your skin when you don’t wear sunscreen, check out our article.

Sunscreen comes in several different forms:

  • Lotions or creams
  • Sprays
  • Gels
  • Sticks
  • And other topical products

The combination of different ingredients affects the consistency of the final product as well as the level of protection. Although consistency and texture are a highly personal preference, when reading through the different ingredients, their uses and effects, you may find yourself preferring a type of ingredient rather than a consistency. Finding the right product for you is dependant on how you feel about the ingredients used and the final consistency of the product.

Classification of active ingredients

There are two types of ingredients used in sunscreens: active and non-active. Active ingredients are what provide you with protection from UVA and/or UVB rays, and they’re what makes sunscreens products technically classified and treated as drugs by the United States Federal Drug Administration (FDA), Health Canada, European Commission or other regulatory boards based on where you live.

The different active ingredients that protect you from the sun work in one of two ways and are classified as:

  • Physical sunscreens – Those that reflect the rays away from your skin;
  • Chemical sunscreens – Those that absorb the UV rays and break them down into heat that is less damaging to the skin cells.

SPF: the Measurement of Protection

Sunscreens usually come labeled and rated with a sun protection factor (SPF). Introduced in 1974, the SPF is a measurement of the fraction of sunburn-producing UV rays that will reach your skin.

For example, a sunscreen with an SPF 15 means that 1/15th (or 93.3%) of the burning radiation reaches the skin if applied at the recommended thickness. This measurement is based on the assumption that the sunscreen is applied evenly with a thickness of 2 milligrams per square centimeter.

Let’s bust some myths!

Wearing a sunscreen with a higher SPF doesn’t mean you’ll be able to last any longer in the sun just because the factor is higher. Studies have shown that sunscreen is at its peak of effectiveness in the first hour, 30 minutes after you’ve applied it. The efficacy drops steadily after that, which is why it's recommended to reapply the sunscreen as directed, normally every two hours.

Sweating and swimming will wash the sunscreen off quickly. Even though some sunscreens claim to be waterproof it’s still a good idea to re-apply it just the same.

Active Ingredients: a Review

In many countries, the ingredients in sunscreens usually undergo extensive review by government regulators. The ingredients which present significant safety concerns (including PABA) are usually removed from products sold to consumers, but this can vary greatly from one country to another. Japanese regulations are known to be quite strict whereas American regulations through the FDA tend to be a little 

In many countries, the ingredients in sunscreens usually undergo extensive review by government regulators. The ingredients which present significant safety concerns (including PABA) are usually removed from products sold to consumers, but this can vary greatly from one country to another. Japanese regulations are known to be quite strict whereas American regulations through the FDA tend to be a little more lax. It’s not necessarily a question of right or wrong regulations, rather, it’s up to you to choose what you are comfortable with.

Here’s an overview of the most common ingredients found in sunscreen, and the low-down on each:

Avobenzone - A chemical sunscreen that protects from UVA rays only. Since it’s efficacy is diminished by exposure to sunlight (ironically), it’s normally paired with photo-stabilizing ingredients (preventing degradation from the sun). Deemed non-harmful by the FDA, however, it isn’t recommended for use in children under the age of 6 or pregnant women because of a potential for allergic reaction.

Titanium Dioxide - An example of a physical sunscreen, it protects from both UVA and UVB rays and has a very low risk of skin sensitivity (in other words, to cause a rash or an allergic reaction). Although this ingredient came under fire as research showed it could be potentially carcinogenic, studies showed that it didn’t have the ability to reach viable skin cells, and was therefore harmless (study published in 2009 by The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) of Australia).

Zinc oxide, PABA, or p-Aminobenzoic acid, is an organic compound which is effective in blocking UV radiation helps maintain a consistent skin tone and soft texture.

Oxybenzone – This is used to enhance the penetration of the sunscreen. In other words, it’s a chemical that helps the other chemical ingredients to penetrate the skin. It does this by creating a chemical reaction when it’s exposed to the UV rays of the sun.

However, when Oxybenzone is absorbed into your skin, it can cause an allergic reaction similar to eczema. This reaction can spread beyond the exposed area and last long after you come out of the sun.

Experts also believe that Oxybenzone can disrupt the body’s hormones. For example, it’s believed that it mimics, blocks and alters hormone levels which can throw off your endocrine system.

Octinoxate – This is one of the most common ingredients that are found in sunscreens which contain SPF. Octinoxate also helps other ingredients absorb into the skin and, even though allergic reactions aren’t common, the disruption of your body’s hormones is.

The chemical’s effects on estrogen can be harmful to humans and wildlife as well. Even though sunscreen is designed to protect the skin from aging caused by the sun, Octinoxate is thought to actually cause premature aging because it produces certain free radicals that can damage skin cells.

Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A Palmitate) – Similar to Vitamin A, Retinyl Palmitate is an antioxidant. Its function in sunscreen is to improve the product’s performance in slowing the aging process caused by exposure to UV rays. However, the combination of retinol (vitamin A) and palmitic acid, found in such tropical plants as palm trees and coconuts, can cause serious side effects.

When exposed to the sun’s UV rays, retinol compounds break down to produce destructive free radicals which are toxic to cells, cause damage to DNA and may lead to cancer. Studies, conducted by the FDA, have shown that retinyl palmitate may speed the development of malignant cells and skin tumors when applied to the skin before exposure to the sun.

Homosalate – Is an ingredient that is also UV-absorbing which also helps the sunscreen to penetrate the skin. After homosalate absorbs into the skin, it accumulates in our body much faster than we can get rid of it. This makes it toxic and disrupts hormones.

Octocrylene – This chemical absorbs the sun’s rays and produces oxygen radicals when exposed to UV light. This can damage cells and cause mutations. This chemical can also be toxic to the environment.

Paraben Preservatives – These are associated with both acute and chronic side effects, parabens can cause allergic reactions, hormone disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity.

Hormone Disruption

Many of the ingredients in sunscreen that work as chemical filters, appear to be endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors have the ability to interfere with endocrine (hormones) and can cancerous tumors, birth defects and other developmental disorders.

Recent studies by the CDC found that adolescent boys with higher levels of oxybenzone had significantly lower total levels of testosterone. However, the CDC stated that further, more in-depth, studies are needed to conclude the overall effects of oxybenzone, however, this is an issue that cannot be ignored when considering sunscreen applications for male children.

For the most part, sunscreen has been found to be a better alternative to going out into the sun’s harmful rays without any protection. Even so, you still need to consider what type of protection is right for you or your children for the most effective protection.

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