Is it too soon to talk about sun care? Of course not, as it is better to be prepared to enjoy the most out of the Spring sun! After being cooped up for months on end, it’s (almost!) time to hit the beach, grab a pint on the patio or pack up the kids for a day in the great outdoors.

And while we all know to wear sunscreen in the warmer months, it’s important to be mindful of how we protect our skin. Here’s a breakdown of the different types of sunscreen and their potential health impacts.

How dangerous is the sun?

According to the National Cancer Institute, rates of melanoma in American adults have tripled over the past 35 years. This alarming statistic is all the more reason to protect our skin. Not sure where to start? Reduce your risk of skin cancer by wearing hats, sunglasses and long-sleeved or UV-protection clothing. And of course, slather on the sunscreen! But be sure to make a safe choice—not all sunscreens contain the same ingredients.

How do sunscreens work?

There are two main types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens use active ingredients that absorb UV rays through a chemical reaction on the skin, protecting it from harmful radiation. Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, create a physical barrier to block the sun.

Different types of sunscreen

The trouble with chemical filters

When activated by the sun, this type of filter causes chemical reactions on the skin’s surface to absorb UV rays. Because they’re easy to apply and convenient, chemical sunscreens are hugely popular. But they have recently come under scrutiny for their potential health risks. Here are some information about the most popular chemical filters.

While oxybenzone is the most commonly used chemical filter, it is also one of the most worrisome. It is easily absorbed through the skin and bioaccumulates, mimicking and disrupting natural hormone function. Because it is used in nearly every chemical sunscreen, it has been detected in the bodies of almost all Americans, and has even been found in breast milk. Research on the compound implies that even newborns’ hormonal systems could be affected. While oxybenzone is meant to protect infants and their parents, it could set babies up for a lifetime of health effects.

Benzophenone-2 has also been the subject of disturbing research. According to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the compound can kill, bleach and cause mutations in corals. Not only chemical sunscreens add on risk to human health, but they also have a profoundly negative effect on other aquatic organisms.

The EWG argues that the risks of chemical sunscreens could affect the benefits. Luckily, there is a safer alternative:100% mineral sunscreen

Physical sunscreens—minimizing negative health effects

Instead of causing chemical reactions on the skin, mineral sunscreens use physical filters made with either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These minerals create physical (often white) barriers on the skin’s surface, deflecting and scattering harmful UV rays. But what’s the difference between the two? Like its name suggests, titanium dioxide is a highly reflective compound made from titanium. Zinc oxide, on the other hand, is derived from the essential mineral zinc, which is instrumental in the body’s immune system. Both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide protect the skin from the sun’s rays, but titanium dioxide doesn’t protect against the full spectrum of UVA and UVB rays. Zinc oxide, on the other hand, provides full protection. In products that may be aerosolized, titanium dioxide is known as a possible carcinogen according to the California EPA (California Environmental Protection Agency).

Physical sunscreens are recommended because they offer strong protection with minimal to no health risks—their molecules are stable and don’t degrade in the sun. Plus, zinc oxide offers broad-spectrum protection. They keep us safe from the sun and unwanted side effects!

Facts from A to Zinc

As an element, zinc helps promote growth and immune health.

Spinach is a great source of elemental zinc. Ever wondered where Popeye got all those muscles from?

The bigger zinc particles and the greater the concentration of particles, the whiter the sunscreen will be. However, it is possible to find the perfect zinc molecule size to get a fine balance between safety and functionality!

Chemical Sunscreen Mineral Sunscreen
How it works? A chemical filter absorb UV rays through a chemical reaction on the skin. Such sunscreen may contain more than one type of filter. A 100% mineral sunscreen contains only physical filters creating a physical barrier to block the sun.
Common filters Oxybenzone: Absorbed through the skin and bioaccumulates (risk of disrupting hormone functions).
Benzophenone-2: In aquatic environment, it is known to damage coral reefs.
Titanium dioxide: In products that may be aerosolized, titanium dioxide is known as a possible carcinogen according to the California EPA).
Zinc oxide: The safest option according to EWG.

What’s a nanoparticle?

It’s not just the ingredients that matter—particle size is important too. Nanoparticles are microscopic particles that may penetrate the skin. Titanium dioxide is always micronized (milled into fine particles), which may have potentially negative health consequences.
On the other hand, zinc oxide does not always have to be micronized. Therefore, non-nano zinc oxide is the safest option for physical filters.

Learn how to read the ingredients and stay safe

The sunscreen you choose for you and your family does matter. While chemical sunscreens will protect you from the sun, you could be exposed to different chemicals known to have risks on our health and other organisms. Physical-filter sunscreens are a safer, more reliable choice, according to EWG. Thankfully, they are gaining traction on the market.

When choosing a sunscreen, be sure to read the label carefully and watch out for hidden chemical ingredients. Some zinc-oxide-based sunscreens aren’t as natural as the label may lead you to believe. For instance, ingredients such as polyethylene glycol (PEG) are contaminated with carcinogens, namely 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide, while preservatives such as parabens are known for their developmental/endocrine toxicity.

Great tools are available to better understand sunscreens and their content. Here are some of the essentials:

EWG Skin Deep

EWG’s 2016 Sunscreen Guide

References

Studies:
Janjua NR., Kongshoj B., Andersson AM., Wulf HC., “Sunscreens in Human Plasma and Urine After Repeated Whole-body Topical Application,” J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol 4 (2008): 456-461.
Sarveiya V., Risk S. & Benson HA., “Liquid Chromatographic Assay for Common Sunscreen Agents: Application to In Vivo Assessment of Skin Penetration and Systemic Absorption in Human Volunteers,” J Chromatogr B Analyt TechnolBiomed Life Sci 803 (2004): 225-231.
Gonzalez H., Farbrot A., Larkö O, Wennberg AM., “Percutaneous Absorption Of The Sunscreen Benzophenone-3 After Repeated Whole-body Applications, With and Without Ultraviolet Irradiation,” Br J Dermatol 154 (2006): 337-340.
Krause M., Klit A., Blomberg JM., Søeborg T., Frederiksen H., Schlumpf M., Lichtensteiger W., Skakkebaek NE., Drzewiecki KT., “Sunscreens: Are They Beneficial for Health? An Overview of Endocrine Disrupting Properties of UV-Filters,” Int J Androl 35 (2012):424-436.

Websites:
Environmental Working Group. “EWG Sun Safety Campaign.” http://www.ewg.org/sunsafety/. Accessed June 19, 2015.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Sunscreen Chemical Threatens Coral Reefs.” http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/news/feb14/sunscreen.html. Accessed June 19, 2015.
The Skin Cancer Foundation. “UVA & UVB.” http://www.skincancer.org/prevention/uva-and-uvb. Accessed July 19, 2015.