With summer right around the corner, there’s no better time to stock up on sunscreen. We all know that using sunscreen is important to protect our skin from sun damage and ageing. Sunscreen is undoubtedly the best anti-ageing products. It protects us from burning and helps prevent skin cancer caused by sun damage to our skin cells. We have had ‘slip, slop, slap’ drummed into us for so long now that the majority of Australian’s are diligent when it comes to SPF, but what there still seems to be some uncertainty around is the type of sunscreens we are using.
People are becoming more aware of what they are putting on their skin and because of this awareness, the use of natural products are becoming more popular. However, natural sunscreen still doesn’t seem to have found a place in our routines yet. Most of you have probably dabbled with natural alternatives and after 10 minutes of intense rubbing and a very white, streaky complexion have decided natural SPF are not for you.
The good news is that natural sunscreens have come a long way in recent years and scarily the science behind why it is so important to use them has as well.
Types of SPF
There are two main categories of sunscreens: Physical and Chemical. When we refer to ‘natural’ sunscreens we are referring to the physical or mineral forms.
Physical sunscreen uses minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to provide a physical shield, which creates a barrier between your skin and the sun. Physical sunscreens are naturally broad-spectrum, protecting against both UVA and UVB rays. There was previously some uncertainty around the safety of physical sunscreen nanoparticles, but the TGA cleared all that up in 2014 with studies that showed our immune systems can effectively break down the nanoparticles before they enter the bloodstream (Cancer Council, 2016).
Chemical sunscreens differ to the physical forms as they use chemicals (usually oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate or octocrylene) to absorb the UV rays by penetrating the layers of the skin and absorbing the suns rays before they can penetrate the dermis and cause damage.
Chemical sunscreens actually absorb the sun’s rays, which is about as scary as it sounds. They use a strong combination of chemicals, many of which are endocrine disruptors which can mess with everything from our reproductive systems, metabolism and even our development. A 2017 Toxicology report stated that a number of the chemicals used are commonly detected in the blood long after application, and have even been found in the placenta (Ruszkiewicz et al., 2017).
As well as interfering with humans, they have also been found to the damage coral reefs. In May this year, Hawaii banned oxybenzone and octinoxate to protect their reefs against bleaching. If a ‘protective’ skin product can do that to a reef, imagine what it is doing to us over our lifespan.
Getting The Most Out Of A Physical Sunscreen
While physical sunscreen is definitely the safest option this summer, not all of them are created equal. To make sure you are getting the most effective and safest product, keep the following points in mind.
Active Ingredients: Mineral sunscreens will list zinc and/or titanium dioxide as the main ingredient. Look out for terms like“mineral-based” which often means zinc or titanium dioxide have been mixed with chemical sunscreens such as oxybenzone.
Water Resistant: If it’s not stated clearly on the label, it probably hasn’t been tested and therefore can’t state that it is water-resistant. Be diligent about reapplying with these ones as they will come off with sweat and water.
Broad Spectrum: This is important as it means that the sunscreen blocks and protects from both UVA and UVB rays
Inactive Ingredients: Even if the active ingredients are non-toxic (zinc/titanium dioxide) make sure that it doesn’t contain other toxic ingredients. The common ones to look out for are parabens, phthalates, sodium laureth sulphate and fragrances.
What About Vitamin D?
here is very little vitamin D found in foods so we rely on the UV light from the sun to produce the vitamin in our skin. The UV light that we need to make Vitamin D is the same UV light we have been told to shield ourselves from to reduce our risk of skin cancer. With everyone slip, slop, slapping, more of us working inside and there being a lot less sun in winter months it is no surprise that the rates of Vitamin D deficiency are high.
Vitamin D is commonly associated with bone health but it is, in fact, a very important vitamin for many other aspects of our health. Scientists have found receptors for Vitamin D in cancer cells, immune cells and have even made associations with psychological health.
While you can take a supplement, it’s much more ideal to get your Vitamin D the way evolution intended. This doesn’t mean no sunscreen whatsoever, just being conscious of when and how much sunscreen-free exposure you are having. Exposing your forearms and shins for 10 minutes each day before 10 am or after 4 pm or going for a quick walk on your lunch outside should see you meet daily requirements. But if you do have concerns, reach out to a practitioner or dermatologist.
Where Diet & Lifestyle Comes Into Play
Some plants and the antioxidants compounds found in them can play a role in UV protection. The antioxidant, lycopene found in tomatoes has some protective properties against UV-induced sunburn (Story et al., 2010). Load up lycopene-rich foods during summer for extra protection, but please don’t skimp on the sunscreen. Other sources of lycopene include pink grapefruit, watermelon, papaya, guava and red capsicum.
There is also some great research around the protective properties of green tea in non-melanoma skin cancers. One of the main polyphenols in green tea, EGCG has shown to possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic activities. The use of polyphenols in combination with sunscreens may provide an effective strategy for reducing the effects of UV radiation that will lead to the prevention of skin diseases caused by excessive sun exposure (Katiyar, 2011).
The take-home message: try to include a cup of green tea every day or make an iced green tea to take to the beach. Munch on watermelon and add tomatoes to your salads during the hot summer months and rep all the antioxidant and UV protective effects but this is no replacement for sunscreen.
Our Top Picks
I’ve tried and tested lots of physical sunscreens over the past couple of years and these are my favourites.
For Face: Josh Rosebrooke ‘Nutrient Day Cream SPF 30’, Go-To ‘Zincredible’, Juice Beauty ‘SPF Oil Free Moisturiser’ and Invisible Zinc ‘Facial Moisturiser SPF 30’,
For Body: Simple As That ‘SPF 30 Natural Sunscreen’, Little Urchin ‘Natural Urchin SPF 30’ and Invisible Zinc ‘4HR Water Resistant SPF 50’.
For Lips: UV Natural ‘Sport Lip Screen’
The Environmental Working Group recently released its 2018 Guide to Sunscreens, which rates the safety and efficacy of more than 1,000 sunscreens, moisturisers and lip balms with SPF. See https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/ for more information on the ingredients in your sunscreens.
Katiyar, S. (2011). Green tea prevents non-melanoma skin cancer by enhancing DNA repair. Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics, 508(2), pp.152-158.
Ruszkiewicz, J., Pinkas, A., Ferrer, B., Peres, T., Tsatsakis, A. and Aschner, M. (2017). Neurotoxic effect of active ingredients in sunscreen products, a contemporary review. Toxicology Reports, 4, pp.245-259.
Story, E., Kopec, R., Schwartz, S. and Harris, G. (2010). An Update on the Health Effects of Tomato Lycopene. Annual Review of Food Science and Technology, 1(1), pp.189-210.