Sunscreen: Waste or Wonder


Last year I underwent a treatment for removing loads of basal cells on my face from too much exposure to the sun.  I never used sunscreen under the intensity of the famous New Mexico rays so I am not conditioned to apply it when I am in the sun.  Now, Martin adamantly reminds me to lather it on every time we kayak.

Sunscreen offers protection from UV rays, reduces the risk of skin cancer, and even slows down signs of aging.  Not so much for marine life though.  Sunscreens contain chemicals for UV protection, color, fragrance, and texture that create the all too familiar iridescent sheen on the surface of water that compromises marine life.

People have been lathering on these products for decades and the effect of sunscreens, as a source of introduced chemicals to the marine system, has not yet been addressed.

Craig Downs, executive director of the Global Coral Repository and the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory has been looking at the effect of cosmetic chemical byproducts in coastal waters for years.  His particular concern is how they affect coral reefs because he is collecting coral reef DNA like the seed bank is collecting seed DNA.

National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration published a study demonstrating that a common UV absorber found in over 380 different product lines of soaps, laundry detergents, cosmetics, and body fragrances is highly toxic to corals.  This chemical, benzophenone-2, commonly known as “BP- 2”, is released into the environment through waste-water discharges from cities, residents, boats, sewage and people swimming.  Once in the environment, BP-2 can quickly kill juvenile corals at very low concentrations.

Craig Downs was initially tasked to investigate the decline of coral reefs in the Virgin Islands National Park.  He explored many different components that can stress coral life, from pesticides to other sunscreen ingredients like titanium dioxide, TiO2.  He found major changes in baby coral caused by these chemical additions to the water.

The element titanium is finding more and more applications.  Titanium metal is used in aerospace, sports and medicine.  But, over 96% of the worldwide use of titanium is in the oxide form.

Paint’s high gloss and rich depth of color is titanium dioxide.  It replaced lead that was dangerously used in paint for years.  It is a coloring agent for food, cosmetics, and crayons.  It is the UV protection in sunscreens and many other products we use every day.

Titanium dioxide is like a miracle chemical!  Its disinfectant and self-cleaning qualities  are used in coated ceramic tile, reported to last the life of the tile and activated by a UV light source and water.  Other applications are coated self-cleaning roof tiles for homes and buildings activated by the UV light of the sun.

TiO2 is used to treat the air in fruit, vegetable and cut flower storage areas to prevent spoilage and increases the products’ shelf life.  The photocatalytic properties of TiO2 remove ethylene gas, a naturally occurring gaseous hormone produced by plant tissue, internal combustion engines, certain fungi, and cigarette smoke.

Titanium dioxide protects the skin from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays by scattering the rays or absorbing them before they reach the skin.  Both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays have been scientifically proven to cause skin cancer, therefore a good sunscreen needs to cover both the UVA and UVB spectrum of radiation.  The American Academy of Dermatology recommends choosing a broad-spectrum product (meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB) with an SPF of at least 30.  For the best protection, it should be reapplied frequently (every 1-3 hours depending on activity level) while in the sun and immediately after swimming or sweating, so that means a lot of sunscreen!  And applied more is better!!! Yikes!

Sunscreens can be classified into two major types: chemical and physical.  Chemical sunscreens have ingredients that absorb and reduce UV radiation penetration into the skin.  These sunscreens are popular because they provide good protection while being invisible and feeling light on the skin.  Many of these sunscreens are also reasonably priced making them a great choice for many people.

Physical Sunscreens are products containing ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide which reflect and block UV radiation. Because these products are made of small particles that sit on the surface of the skin, they can be cosmetically unacceptable to some people, because they can leave a thick, white film.  However, with newer formulations, the zinc or titanium particles are miniscule, in effect rendering them “invisible” on the skin.  The process to manufacture these cosmetically elegant products is more involved, therefore this type of invisible zinc or titanium sunscreen is often more expensive than other products.

Environment & Energy Publishing is an online media company that covers environmental/energy policy and markets.  Based in Washington, D.C., it publishes approximately 70 global energy and environmental news stories each day and has some of the most extensive coverage on issues like sunscreen.

In addition, the Environmental Working Group has thorough research on sunscreens and a website that gives the consumer great information about each brand on the market. 

There are a lot of sunscreens out there: some good, some bad and then some shameful.  All sunscreens benefit by the positive media coverage they get.  They are very inexpensive to produce with very high profit margins, so false claims are easy for manufacturers to get away with.  Be aware that:

Spray sunscreens can be inhaled and they don’t cover skin completely.

SPF values above 50 try to trick you into believing they’ll prevent sun damage.  SPF protection tops out at 30 to 50.

Oxybenzone, a common ingredient,  can disrupt the hormone system.

Retinyl palmitate, another common ingredient, may trigger skin damage and possibly cancer.

Banana Boat, Coppertone, CVS, and Neutrogena are some of the top brands that have the worst products.

How You Can Help:

  • Wear clothes that reduce exposure to the sun’s UV rays.
  • Find or make shade.
  • Don’t get burned.
  • Wear sunglasses.
  • Avoid Vitamin A skin applications when exposure to sun is great.
  • Check the UV Index and become familiar with what it measures.
  • Plan your activity around the most intense direct sun exposure.
  • Be aware that your sunscreen application may be harming the marine life you spent so much money to see!

Until next week,  images-2

Garbage Girl







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