Several things have happened lately which have sparked my interest in sunscreen. Firstly, and most importantly, is the fact that my husband is now more sun sensitive following treatment for leukaemia. He has gone from never getting sunburnt to having to wear SPF 50 and still only being able to stay out in the sun for a couple of hours. Add to this some recent posts on Facebook on what the labels on sunscreen actually mean and the use of natural oils as an effective alternative to conventional sunscreen. This was enough for me; I needed to learn more about what we are putting on our bodies and whether it is actually protecting us from skin cancer.
SPF, UVA and UVB – What does it all mean?
I’ll deal with the sunscreen labelling first as for me this is the most important element.
Naively I had always believed that if you went for Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 50 you were about as protected as you could be. I didn’t really pay any attention to the different types of UV radiation or what the little stars on the bottle meant.
Well, now I know a little bit more… There are in fact three types of UV radiation – UVA, UVB and UVC. We don’t need to worry about protecting ourselves from UVC as this doesn’t penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere, however UVA and UVB should certainly be on our radar as both are linked with causing skin cancer!
UVB is the more straight forward of the two. It is the form of radiation primarily linked to sunburn and it is the one which the SPF relates to. So, if you are buying an SPF 50 cream you are protecting yourself from UVB radiation and therefore sunburn.
This is all well and good but I now realise that we should also be protecting ourselves from UVA radiation as well as it is associated with skin ageing and cancer. Fortunately the level of UVA protection is also identified on sunscreen bottles but it is represented by stars within a circle which range from 0 to 5.
The thing to realise is that it is possible to have a low SPF factor (i.e. 5) but still have a high UVA protection (i.e. 5 stars). Or, vice versa, you could be lagging yourself with SPF 50 but have virtually no protection from UVA radiation.
Although this may seem complicated, once you know how the labelling works you can look for the level of protection that you need. For instance, in our house, Martin and the kids might go for SPF 50 and UVA 5 stars and I might go for SPF 15 and UVA 5 stars as I don’t tend to get sunburnt. The other good thing about it is that the broad spectrum creams are not usually the more expensive brands. We have switched to a Boots own brand – Soltan Kids – as it is SPF 50+ and UVA 5 stars.
Vitamin D deficiency
If only it was as simple as being able to look out for an SPF rating and count how many stars there are within a circle! Unfortunately the sunscreen story gets more complicated.
There has been quite a lot in the media over recent years about how many of us are vitamin D deficient. This is concerning because we need vitamin D for healthy bones, teeth and muscles as it helps the body absorb calcium and phosphate from our diet. The best source of vitamin D is from sunlight exposure and more specifically from UVB radiation.
Wearing a high SPF sunscreen will limit how much vitamin D gets into our bodies as the sunscreen is working to block the UVB radiation. There therefore seems to be a bit of a play-off between allowing your body some exposure to the sun whilst protecting yourself with sunscreen.
Luckily we don’t need to run this roulette as it is possible to take vitamin D supplements with some advising that this is what we should all be doing in the UK due to the lack of sunlight in winter months.
Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreen
Now for the scary bit…
Studies have shown that rates of skin cancer are increasing even though we all know about the importance of wearing sunscreen.
This could be because of the rise in popularity of sun holidays or because we are staying out in the sun for longer because of the false sense of security that wearing sunscreen gives us. It is therefore always important to not just rely on sunscreen but also to limit your exposure by covering up or sitting in the shade.
There are also studies which link the chemicals used in sunscreen to negative effects on our health including hormonal disruption and cell damage.
The problem seems to be connected to two chemicals; oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate. Oxybenzone is said to convert UV light into heat which could be causing hormonal disruption and cell damage, whilst retinyl palmitate is said to speed up malignant cell growth and the spread of skin cancer.
The key thing in all of this is the way that sunscreen works. Chemical sunscreens work by permeating your skin to absorb UV rays but by doing this they also allow the chemicals used to pass your skin barrier.
I wouldn’t like to surmise either way on whether sunscreen is actually causing us harm as I would need to do a lot more reading to come to a conclusion. My priority is still to protect myself from the sun but there is one element to this story that does make me stop to think. In Hawaii some sunscreens have been banned. These are the ones which contain oxybenzone and octinoxate due to the ‘significant harmful impacts’ these chemicals have on coral reef ecosystems, including mortality in developing coral, bleaching of coral and genetic damage to coral and other organisms. Both chemicals have also been found to induce feminisation in adult male fish, increase reproductive diseases in a range of species creatures and induce neurological behavioural changes in fish. I can’t help myself thinking that if these chemicals cause this sort of damage to marine life how confident can we be that it isn’t having some level of impact on us!
Luckily there are natural and organic alternatives out there that have been properly tested and found to be effective and comparable with leading brands. These alternatives are mineral creams which work as a barrier, reflecting sunlight away from the skin.
Better known mineral based brands include Badger Balm, Raw Elements, Alba Botanica and Green People. They use biodegradable chemicals such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide to block UV radiation which all sounds great. The only issue I have with these creams is purely based on my own vanity; because they do not permeate the skin they can make you look like you have just applied white face paint before venturing out to the beach. I am guessing that this is the reason why they are not more widely used.
Oils with Natural SPF
Now for the final piece of the confusing sunscreen puzzle.
I have seen a few articles discussing the UV protection offered by some natural oils such as shea butter, coconut oil, hemp seed oil and sesame seed oil. The natural SPF of these oils ranges from 2 to 6 but the real stars of the show are red raspberry seed oil and carrot seed oil which could have an SPF as high as 40 in the case of carrot seed and 50 for red raspberry seed oil.
My main question upon reading this is whether they also protect you from UVA and how confident we can be that they are actually delivering what you hope. After giving it a bit more thought and doing some research online I have decided not to explore this as an option any further. For me, the stakes are too high to try making my own sunscreen without any certainty over what protection you would get from UVA or UVB radiation. I can also imagine that it would get quite costly when you start shopping for some of the lesser known oils.
This is just my opinion and there are lots of recipes out there if you feel differently.
1. I will always look for the UVA star rating now on sunscreen.
2. Having some sun exposure without sunscreen can be beneficial to boost your vitamin D as long as you are careful.
3. I am quite concerned about some of the research into what chemicals are used to make conventional sunscreens and the impact it has on marine life. I am therefore planning to try Badger Balm to see if I like it.
4. DIY sunscreens are not for me.