Why do many sunscreens more harm than help?
I am an absolute sun-worshipper. When I wake up in the morning and the sun is shining, I get up a lot easier. I love the sun, the feeling of sunbeams on my skin, and their warmth. I also look much healthier with tanned skin and I like it way more than my Snow White-complexion in winter. In summer, I am a completely different person. I love balmy summer nights. To lie outside under the stars and search for shooting stars… Not having to think about having to take a jacket with me. I love to jump in the Eibsee, Walchensee, Chiemsee, to spend the whole day at the water. I love the sound of the waves on the shore, the birdsong, sunsets, barbecues and picnics with friends and to cycle through Munich late at night.
As you can see, I am a total summer person. Of course, winter also has many beautiful sides but I personally like summer much more. And not just to recharge my vitamin D storage! I probably have the affection for sunbathing from my dad. He has worked as a carpenter on construction sites all of his life and has always been deeply browned. Now in retirement, the urge to sunbathe has not diminished. Even if I come back from a week-long journey in winter, he is usually even more tanned than me! 🙂
No shade without sun
But as beautiful as the summer is, it is important to pay attention to the right sunscreen. Think of the really ugly burned cleavage of countless women out there…
There is a “too much” sunbathing. UV radiation is strongly associated with skin cancer and general aging of the skin. Depending on the skin type, our skin can protect itself from these harmful rays for a while. After that it needs support. We can give this support primarily via a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF).
An SPF of 20 means that our self-protection time multiplies by a factor of 20. If you are very light-skinned, have freckles, red-blonde hair and bright eyes, your self-protection time is less than 10 minutes in strong sunshine. Fair-skinned blondes can endure 10-20 minutes without additional protection. And so it continues. The darker your skin is by default and the darker your eyes and hair, the better and longer you tolerate the sun. In addition, every skin is different and it also can get used to sunlight. It should not be underestimated that the intensity of UV radiation can be up to twice as high in the mountains!
Why do we need to protect our skin from too much sun?
We need sunlight. We have lived in the wild for centuries and have let far more sunlight shine on our skin than we currently do. The majority of our lives take place indoors. Either in the office, in the subway, or otherwise shielded by thick clothes. But our skin needs sunlight, as described here.
We have to protect our skin because UV-A and UV-B rays reach the sun through the ozone layer. These rays can cause lasting damage to our skin. This can be recognized either by sunburn, faster skin aging, pigmentation, wrinkles, skin cancer, etc. An important way of self-protection of our skin is the skin pigment melanin. Melanin is formed by our pigment cells and is immediately transported to the outer skin layers as a protective shield when irradiated. That’s why we see slight tanning relatively quickly. Sometimes even days later, the actual degree of browning can be seen when its production was shut down again. However, if we exaggerate the tanning process, the skin forms a stronger protective shell and thickens the uppermost skin layer, creating a kind of horny layer. Often this looks very leathery. Many animals have already given this horny skin from nature.
Especially for babies and children, this self-protection mechanism is not yet available. Only in the teenage years the body is perfectly able to produce melanin. Therefore, sun protection is especially important here. Even in the shade, under awnings or parasols, about half of all UV rays still come through. That’s why you still should use sunscreen if you want to spend a long time outdoors.
There are huge differences in sunscreen
I remember very well when I stood on the shore at Strandbad Wannsee in Berlin for the first time. And refused to go deeper than ankle-deep into the water. That was not because I’m picky but because of the really thick layer of chemical sunscreen, which was like a carpet over the lake. I have to admit that I have never seen that before at my mountain lakes like Eibsee or Walchensee. Whining at a high level.
But exactly this carpet of sunscreen has made me think. That can not be healthy!? Neither for me nor for the fish, plants or for the water! So I did some serious research and the results are scary.
Most sunscreens harm our ecosystem
In 2013, researchers found that about 4 kg of titanium oxide gets into the sea every day only at the Balearic Islands. And titanium oxide is just one of the many UV filters that are used in chemical sunscreens. Titanium oxide (also known as additive E171) is strongly related to trigger inflammation in the body to cancers. It can reach the sea either directly via swimming in the sea, via the subsequent showering, via the skin uptake into the urine and later through the sewage system. The wastewater treatment plants can filter only 40-60% of the pollutants from the water. Estimates report 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen that gets into the sea each year.
Shortly after creaming, some filter substances are detectable in our blood. Studies show that high levels of sunscreen can be detected in phytoplankton and in fish such as dolphins or cormorants that feed on fish. Over the food chain they come back to us. The main problem is that these pollutants destabilize the entire ecosystem.
Chemical vs. mineral / physical filter
There are two ways we can protect our skin from UV rays. One possibility is the use of chemical filters via sunscreen, the other is the use of a mineral or physical filters.
The chemical and rather harmful sunscreens absorb the UV radiation and, for example, convert it into heat or less harmful rays. The chemical filters penetrate into the skin, consist of many chemical filter substances and are suspected to have an effect on our hormone balance. In addition, they can favor the development of sun allergies. Octocrylene, octinoxate or oxybenzone (benzophenone-3) are among the dangerous filter substances. The latter two chemicals were banned in Hawaii from 2021 onwards because of their damaging effect on the marine ecosystem and especially on coral reefs.
In contrast, the mineral sunscreen acts as a reflector. It lays on our skin and reflects the UV rays. In conventional sun creams, titanium oxide or zinc oxide in nanoparticle size are included in order to avoid leaving a white filter on the skin. They also penetrate by their size in the nano range in the skin. The “white-effect” is missing. In the ingredients, nanoparticles are often labeled with “nano”. For example, as “Titanium Dioxide (nano)”. The higher the SPF or sun protection factor, the whiter the skin usually becomes.
The problem with nanoparticles
Difficult with nanoparticles is that they are so small that they can penetrate through the smallest cell walls. If, for example, they get into the skin via the sunscreen, they are absorbed by the underlying cell layers and distributed further via the blood in the body. Even in our brains, nanoparticles can penetrate by their size. Eventually they end up in the kidney that filters them out. We still don’t know what these filters do to our body cells. However, there is strong evidence that nanoparticle titanium oxide can promote inflammation and damage the immune system.
Which alternatives do we have?
Generally, it is recommended to protect your skin from excessive sunbathing. Especially the midday sun is very dangerous. Think about the siesta in southern countries. Even in the shade under trees or umbrellas about 50% of UV rays still get through! Also, textile protection such as clothing, sun hats or scarfs can protect us well against excessive UV radiation.
A good alternative for the skin is also the use of organic sun creams, also called “eco-sunscreen” or natural cosmetic sunscreen. Because they are not chemically active, they can only be applied to the skin and serve as a physical sunscreen. Here one sees particularly the “white-effect”, since by definition no nanoparticles may be used with sun protection from the natural cosmetics. This way the filters do not get into the skin as they are too big and reflect the sunlight on our skin.
My personal choice after years of searching
Personally, I have been looking for a suitable sunscreen for ages. Not only does it have to be vegan and come from natural cosmetics, but it must also be free from animal-testing and water-resistant. Besides, I do not want to look like a pale face when I’ve creamed myself. A very nice challenge, as it turned out! Until a friend recommended me the RINGANA FRESH sunscreen SPF 20, of which I am completely excited. Although it also contains zinc and titanium oxide, these are coated with a vegetable layer so that the skin does not come into direct contact with it. In addition, the particles are too large to get through the skin in our body. Thanks to the oils it contains, it is super-easy to spread on the skin, nourishes, and moisturizes. I’m really happy and excited!
In addition, an SPF of 20 is usually sufficient. If you think about a self-protection time of 20 minutes, which many have in Central Europe, and multiply this by a factor of 20, you will receive 400 minutes. 400 minutes are more than 6.5 hours! To sum it up: Enjoy summer, take care of yourself and your skin and make the best out of these beautiful sunny days! 🙂
Scientific evidence and sources for this blogpost
Bens, G. 2014: Sunscreens, in: Advances in experimental medicine and biology; Sunlight, Vitamin D and Skin Cancer, Vol. 810, 2014, pp. 429-463.
Ruszkiewicz, J. A./Pinkas, A./Ferrer, B./Peres, T. V./Tsatsakis, A./Aschner, M. 2017: Neurotoxic effect of active ingredients in sunscreen products, a contemporary review, in: Toxicology Reports, Vol. 4, 2017, pp. 245-259.
Sánchez-Quiles, D./Tovar-Sánchez, A. 2015: Are sunscreens a new environmental risk associated with coastal tourism?, in: Environment International, Vol. 83, 2015, pp. 158-170.
Schneider, S. L./Lim, H. W. 2019: Review of environmental effects of oxybenzone and other sunscreen active ingredients, in: Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Vol. 80, 2019, No. 1, pp. 266-271.
Singh, P./Nanda, A. 2014: Enhanced sun protection of nano-sized metal oxide particles over conventional metal oxide particles: an in vitro comparative study, in: International Journal of Cosmetic Science, Vol. 36, 2014, No. 3, pp. 273-283.
Tovar-Sánches, A./Sánchez-Quiles, D./Rodríguez-Romero, A. 2019: Massive coastal tourism influx to the Mediterranean Sea: The environmental risk of sunscreens, in: Science of the Total Environment, Vol. 656, 2019, pp. 316-321.
Yap, F. H./Chua, H. C./Tait, C. P. 2017: Active sunscreen ingredients in Australia, in: The Australasian Journal of Dermatology, Vol. 58, 2017, No. 4, pp. e160-170.