What is really in your sunscreen?

As summer approaches and the temperature rises, there is one product that parents immediately stock up on: sunscreen. But what is your favourite sunscreen made up of? And what is that doing to you, your family, and the environment?


What is in sunscreen?

Sunscreen is primarily made up of chemicals, most of them with ridiculously long names that you could be hard pressed to pronounce. Many of these chemicals work to reflect or absorb UV (ultra-violet) rays, which can damage your skin and increase your risk of having skin cancer. There are two types of filters in sunscreen: physical and chemical. Physical filters reflect sunscreen while chemical ones absorb it. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide act as physical UV filters, and it’s this type of sunscreen that we most think of, as it’s thick and white. Chemical UV filters include octocrylene, avobenzone, oxybenzone, and others, and is a clear, odourless, runny sunscreen. Most sunscreens also contain parabens and parfum.

How can these chemicals be harmful?

Sideaffects of these chemicals are varied. Titanium dioxide can be irritating to the skin, as can many chemical UV filters and parfum. Oxybenzone, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, and octocrylene can mimic oestrogen which, due to sunscreen being absorbed into the skin, can affect fetal development and increase cancers. Naturemoms.com also says that oestrogenic sunscreens have been found in breast milk, and that the developing organs of children are more sensitive to oestrogen exposure, even as old as toddler age. Parabens, as we all know, have also been linked to cancer.

As with all things that you put on your body, eventually sunscreen washes off and, especially if you swim in a body of water, the chemicals enter nature. As a result, marine life is adversely affected. Octinoxate, oxybenzone, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, and butylparaben activate dormant viruses in coral which destroys coral’s food source—algae—and consequently leads to coral death. Just as octocrylene, oxybenzone and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor can cause problems in humans by mimicking oestrogen, so can they cause problems in animals, feminizing fish and disrupting the ecosystem.

What are some organic alternatives?

  • Paul Penders Herbal Sunscreen—while it contains titanium oxides to filter UV rays, it is also made primarily of plant extracts, and is suitable for all skin types. £18.50
  • Caribbean Blue Sunscreen—much of their line boasts 100% all natural ingredients, it’s hypoallergenic, and has both baby and sport varieties. From £11.25
  • Alba Botanica—free from sulfates, parabens, phthalates, animal testing, and more, Alba Botanica has a wide variety of sunscreen, from kids broad spectrum to sport; fragrance free to green tea. From £6.49 depending on retailer
  • Green People—made with 80% organic ingredients, their sunscreen ranges from children’s sunscreen to adult sunscreen to self-tan lotion. They even offer trial sizes. From £3.60

Sources: Save eco destinations, Natural skincare company, New human, Skinacea.

Photography: Bruvyman @ flickr

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