Play it Safe in the Sun—
Sun Protection That Is Good for You and the Environment
People in the Pacific Northwest know how to make the most of our long summer days and ample opportunities for outdoor recreation. In early July, we enjoy 16 hours of daylight, so it is important to take care of our skin when we’re outside.
The research on skin cancer is definitive. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, and UV exposure is the most preventable risk factor. If you think the often-overcast weather in the Pacific Northwest is enough to protect you, think again. Even on cloudy days, up to 80% of the sun’s UV rays can reach your skin, so plan ahead for outdoor fun. And, please remember that all skin types require protection from the sun.
Take these preventive measures to reduce your risk of skin cancer.
- Seek shade from 10 am to 2 pm when the sun’s rays are most intense.
- Cover up! Decrease skin exposure by wearing full-length and long-sleeved clothing, hats, and sunglasses with UV protection when you are outside.
- When you can’t be protected by shade or clothing, use sunscreen.
Seems simple enough, but there are several factors worth considering when selecting sunscreen.
You may recall that in 2018, Hawaii made national news by passing a bill to ban over-the-counter sales of sunscreen containing ingredients believed to damage coral reefs. The ban won’t go into effect until 2021, but in response to the bill, which is certain to usher in similar legislation in other states and countries, a few companies are already starting to produce sunscreen without the two prohibited ingredients specified in the bill: oxybenzone and octinoxate.
On its website, the National Ocean Service of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shared a much longer list of ingredients that can harm marine life: oxybenzone, benzophenone-1, benzophenone-8, OD-PABA, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, 3-benzylidene camphor, nano-titanium dioxide, and nano-zinc dioxide.
That’s a lot of unpronounceable chemical names to track. By shopping for sunscreen labeled as “reef friendly” you’re more likely to avoid all of the above chemical mishmash.
NOAA lists the following ways that sunscreen chemicals can affect marine life.
- Green algae: Can impair growth and photosynthesis.
- Coral: Accumulates in tissues. Can induce bleaching, damage DNA, deform young, and even kill.
- Mussels: Can induce defects in young.
- Sea urchins: Can damage immune and reproductive systems, and deform young.
- Fish: Can decrease fertility and reproduction, and cause female characteristics in male fish.
- Dolphins: Can accumulate in tissue and be transferred to young.
The Environmental Working Group has long been at the forefront of research on the health effects of sunscreen ingredients and debunking the misleading claims made by sunscreen manufacturers. Its “12th Annual EWG Sunscreen Guide” investigated approximately 650 beach and sport sunscreens, and despite improvements made by sunscreen manufactures over the years, the research found that “serious concerns remain.”
It turns out that oxybenzone is not only harmful to coral reefs, but also to human health. “It is an allergen and a hormone disruptor that soaks through skin and is measured in the body of nearly every American,” states the report. Yet the ingredient was found in two-thirds of non-mineral sunscreen products on the market.
When you navigate to the EWG report online, you can look up specific sunscreen products and find an overall rating. Digging deeper into the rating for each product, you’ll find a product summary and a section on ingredient concerns that rates overall hazard, cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and allergies and immunotoxicity. It also discloses which manufacturers use animal testing or share misleading claims.
Speaking of misleading claims, EWG suggests ratings above SPF 50 are misleading and may cause consumers to misuse products. The difference in sun protection between SPF 50 and SPF 100 is negligible, and people using higher SPF products may erroneously feel safer staying out in the sun for too many hours. Also, due to highly concentrated ingredients, higher SPF products may also pose greater health risks.
When applying sunscreen, make certain to apply an even coat on all exposed skin and reapply every two hours and after swimming or sweating.
Due to the prevalence of skin cancer, health care providers emphasize the importance of using sunscreen, so don’t use these issues as a reason to avoid sunscreen altogether. Look for labels that identify products as “reef friendly” or compare ingredient lists on sunscreen products with the above information, look up the ratings for specific products in the EWG sunscreen guide, and seek out safe alternatives.
Where you shop can make it simpler to find products that keep your personal health and the health of our environment in mind. At the Community Food Co-op, wellness department staff review the ingredients and manufacturing practices of the health and beauty products sold in our stores. Wellness staff can also share resources for you to look up information about specific ingredients and products, thereby empowering Co-op shoppers to make informed purchasing decisions on personal care items.