The sunscreen dilemma

Green Lifestyle

Is slopping on the sunscreen doing you more harm than good?

The sunscreen dilemma

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Australia is the skin cancer capital of the world and according to Cancer Council Australia more than 434,000 people are treated for one or more non-melanoma skin cancers each year, and 11,500 are diagnosed with melanoma.

There are three simple ways to protect your skin from sun damage: remember the catchphrase ‘slip, slop, slap’? It refers to slipping on a shirt, slopping on sunscreen and slapping on a hat.

But concerns have been raised about the ‘slop’, as many sunscreens contain nasty chemicals that may be bad for us and the environment.

The US Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Friends of the Earth (FoE) Australia are among groups raising concerns about chemical sunscreens, many of which don’t even completely protect against UVB rays, which don’t cause sunburn but may be more damaging than the burn-inducing UVA rays.

Also, research from the European Commission and the World Health Organisation suggests sunscreen causes coral bleaching – it’s estimated that each year up to 6,000 tonnes of chemical sunscreen is released into these vulnerable ocean environments. In tourist-heavy areas, such as the Great Barrier Reef, 10% of coral bleaching is attributed to sunscreen.

Chemical sunscreens
Chemical sunscreens are concoctions of about 20 components, such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, octisalate and octinoxate. They work by absorbing UV radiation. Apart from potentially irritating the skin, these chemicals have been known to cause allergies and can disrupt hormones, especially in people who work with agricultural pesticides.

Many chemical sunscreens contain tiny particles – or nanoparticles – which make the sunscreen invisible when applied to the skin, but the jury is still out on whether the particles can penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream. In Australia, labelling the presence of nanoparticles isn’t compulsory, and even voluntary labels can’t be trusted, as FoE Australia and CHOICE found in 2008. According to the EWG, just 25% of sunscreens on the US market in 2013 offered strong, broad UV protection and were safe to use. European sunscreen guidelines are more comprehensive and strict.

Physical sunscreens
Some creams block the Sun’s rays with a physical barrier that is almost as good at reflecting both UVA and UVB rays as covering up with clothing. Mineral-based physical sunscreens are thought to be the safest as most of them don’t contain nanoparticles – but they can have a chalky white tint when applied correctly, and regular reapplications are necessary. Be aware that some types of micronised zinc and titanium dioxide-based creams contain nanoparticles, whereas others with larger particles of micronised zinc oxide are still considered safe to use. In the absence of compulsory or trustworthy labelling in Australia, it’s worth asking the manufacturer about this.

>> Cover up skin with clothing, and stay in the shade in the middle of the day, when UV ratings are high.

>> Avoid sunscreen sprays or loose powder sunscreens – they don’t completely cover the skin and inhaling chemicals is a risk.

>> High SPF products may not necessarily be better, as they can leave the skin exposed to UVB rays. Check the packaging to see if the sunscreen covers both UVA and UVB.

>> Tanning products are a safer way to get a tan, but avoid chemical tanners. Try Eco Tan for an all-natural, and natural-looking tan.