What’s the Safest Choice for Sunscreen?
I think it’s probably best to strike a healthy balance between sun protection—to help avoid premature skin aging, and reduce the risk of skin cancer—and the biological need to bask in sunshine occasionally to reap some important health benefits. And trust me, the benefits of sun exposure should not be dismissed. They include production of vitamin D and enhanced production of the blood-pressure-lowering chemical, nitric oxide.
So it’s probably a good idea to get a little sun exposure occasionally. But when it’s time to limit your exposure, sunscreens can be useful. There are questions, however, about the safety of some of the chemicals used to achieve broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection. When choosing a sunscreen, two choices are available: 1) sunscreens featuring inorganic “mineral” ingredients (zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide), and 2) organic chemicals, such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, ecamsule and octinoxate.
According to the non-profit consumer watchdog organization, Environmental Working Group, the “chemical” ingredients may be problematic. Some of these chemicals may get into the bloodstream, where they can mimic human endocrine hormones. Unfortunately, little is really known about how harmful these so-called “endocrine disruptors” may be. A 2011 article in JAMA Dermatology suggested that they are probably completely safe. It’s disturbing to think, though, that they may affect our reproductive systems in ways we don’t fully understand. Worse, one of the most troubling of these ingredients, oxybenzone, is found in 80% of commercial sunscreen formulas.
The safest alternative to chemical sunscreens appears to be good old zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. These inorganic agents physically scatter UV radiation, providing effective protection. Thanks to advances in technology, using mineral-based sunscreens no longer means putting on white warpaint. Newer formulations use nano-scale particles to achieve virtual invisibility once applied. Most scientists agree that these “nanoparticles” do not penetrate beneath the outer layers of the skin and are therefore quite safe.