Feature

Is sunscreen safe?

G Magazine

Is sunscreen really that good for you, or for the planet?

Woman applying sunscreen

Credit: iStockphoto

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The days of coating ourselves in coconut oil for a fabulous tan are gone, and SPF 30+ is all the rage on Australian beaches.

But some researchers are questioning the very stuff that is meant to protect us - sunscreen.

On top of this, some environmentalists point out that the chemicals used to protect our delicate skin from too much solar power can cause damage to the delicate Earth.

According to Michael Kimlin, director of the Australian Sun and Health Research Laboratory at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, "We [Australians] have the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world. One in two of us will be diagnosed with skin cancer in our lifetime."

And climate change may be playing a role in the global hike in skin cancer rates, he believes.

"It's changing our behaviour. As the weather warms up in areas with traditionally colder climates, people are getting out into the sun more. It's always been that way - when the suns shines, people go out to play!"

But with the hole in the ozone layer letting in more damaging UV light than we would like, and sunscreen potentially worse than the sun, what's a cricket-loving, beach-going, barbeque-eating Australian to do in the hotter months?

Sunscreens and the planet

Sunscreens come in all manner of bottles and tubes, but they fall into two categories.

There are the physical ones - they work by reflecting UV rays. The active ingredient in these is minerals such as zinc and titanium.

Then there are chemical sunscreens, which work by absorbing the harmful UV rays before they reach your skin cells.

According to a study commissioned by the European Commission, chemical sunscreens may promote coral reef destruction, leading to bleaching and the disruption of aquatic food chains. According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 tonnes of sunscreen are released annually into reef areas, with a 20-minute swim releasing 25 per cent of sunscreen ingredients from the skin into the water.

Unfortunately the physical sunscreens have their problems too.

Titanium dioxide is manufactured using a chlorine process that releases harmful dioxins into the atmosphere. These dioxins don't break down and work their way up the food chain, accumulating in animals that eat other animals - like humans.

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