Sunscreen Safety – Which Ingredients to Avoid

It’s summer and you’re diligently covering your child with sunscreen every day! Make sure you’re happy with what’s inside your lotion though – here’s the lowdown.

It’s summer! Goodbye to squeezing squirming children into socks and jerseys… and hello sunscreen wars! Smearing unwilling kiddos with lotion first thing each morning is far from fun, but it’s for their own good… isn’t it? Well, some say that depends on what you’re smearing them with!

Most sunscreen on South African shelves contains chemicals to protect the skin from harmful UVA and UVB rays – but some of these chemicals make it all the way into your blood stream. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an American activist non-profit organisation, looked at whether some of the common sunscreen ingredients that penetrate the skin, act as hormone disruptors – chemicals that cross cell membranes and affect natural hormone levels in the body. Here’s their assessment of three common ingredients:

  • Oxybenzone: This chemical filter acts like a weak oestrogen, blocking other hormones (such as testosterone) from being fully effective. EWG also cites a Danish study which linked oxybenzone to poorer sperm quality in rats. Oxybenzone has also received a lot of negative attention for the damage it causes to coral reefs.
  • Octinoxate: This organic compound mimics hormones and has been shown to cause reproductive, thyroid and behavioural changes in animals.
  • Homosalate: Another organic compound, this one disrupts oestrogen, androgen and progesterone levels and accumulates as a toxin in the body.

But if you’ve been diligently covering your child with these chemicals daily, there is no need to panic. Dr Jennifer Lin, an assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School˘, states that there’s no conclusive evidence of oxybenzone disrupting hormones in humans. In the case of the study on rats, she points out that it would take a human more than two life times to reach the dose-size the rats were given. She also points out that oxybenzone is present in many other common products, so avoiding it is difficult.

The good news is that, if you’re feeling you’d rather not use the chemicals, there’s another option. Mineral based sunscreens use either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as a physical barrier on the skin. They are effective, have fewer health concerns, start working as soon as they’re applied, and are usually not tested on animals.

There is debate about whether nano-sized mineral particles can penetrate the skin, but Dr Siegle, clinical professor of Dermatology and Otolaryngology at The Ohio State Universityª, states that “multiple studies have shown that nanoparticles do not penetrate living skin. The general consensus is that they pose no risk to human health”. Unfortunately, there have not been as many studies carried out on the effects of mineral sunscreen on the environment, but the New York Timesº, claims that non-nano sized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are safe for coral.

Choosing which bottle can be tricky, but there’s no doubt that persevering through the sunscreen battles IS for your child’s own good! CANSA emphasises that using an effective sunscreen lowers your skin cancer risk, so whatever you do, don’t give up – arm yourself with the right sunscreen, sun shirts and hats and remember to stay out of the midday sun!





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