It is a fact of life that we are surrounded by chemicals. Solids, liquids and gasses in nature are all made up of chemicals, some completely fine for humans, some not so good. Chemicals are all around us in nature.
However when it comes to the concern consumers have about chemicals in their foods, household cleaning products or beauty products, the word "chemical" takes on a different context; they usually mean "synthetic" or "harm causing" chemicals. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, driven by scaremongering marketing by companies selling their "natural"products implying that if its synthetic its "bad" for you. This is completely false and unfortunately one of the biggest urban myths going around. Think about the synthetic chemical cocktail that is injected into human babies on a regular basis from birth.
When it comes to sunscreens however, there is yet again a different context applied to the word "chemical". There are two different types of sunscreens, "physical barrier" and "chemical filter" referring to how they actually work.
Physical barrier sunscreen formulation usually include physical blockers such as the minerals Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide. These work to protect against both UVA and UVB radiation by creating a physical barrier on your skin and reflecting the UV radiation.
Chemical filter sunscreen formulations include a combination of two to six of these active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Some protect against UVA (goes deeper, causes ageing, wrinkling, sagging, free radical and DNA damage and cancers) and other protect against UVB (pigmentation, redness, burning and cancers). Chemical sunscreen work by absorbing UV and then releasing it as heat.
The debate about the different sunscreens relate to the use of "chemicals" and if they are possibly causing long-term harm. The higher the SPF, the more chemicals in the sunscreen. Chemical sunscreens need to be applied at least 20 minutes beforehand to have the chance to absorb in the skin. This is where a lot of people are concerned, how far do these ingredients actually penetrate and are the chemicals harmful.
Chemical sunscreens have become popular over the years because they don't cause that white layer or "ghosting" on the skins. Consumers were demanding "invisible" sunscreens that were non greasy. Chemical sunscreens are usually also cheaper. However, physical blocking formulations have been improved by using minerals with finer particles to prevent that ghosting effect. But like with everything, the better formulations cost a little more.
So are chemical sunscreens bad for you? There is no concrete evidence so far to show that chemical UV absorbers are harmful, yet there is plenty of evidence to show that NOT wearing a sunscreen is harmful. If you have no other choice between sunscreen, clearly applying sunscreen is better for you than not applying.
Where I have no other choice, I will use a chemical sunscreen however when I do have a choice I prefer a physical barrier sunscreen. Not because I am concerned about the chemicals but because chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV and releasing it as heat (which can cause free radical damage) and I personally find that very uncomfortable on my skin. It makes my skin feel like its hot and burning. I also like the added benefits of zinc, being an anti-inflammatory it helps to keep redness and inflammation down. This is why I recommend physical barrier sunscreen for my clients where they are prone to inflammation, have a more sensitive or reactive skin. I also choose to work with professional formulations, which are usually better quality sunscreens with added antioxidant and calming ingredients.
The choice is yours which sunscreen you prefer, but there is no choice when it comes to protecting your skin from the damaging effects of prolonged or regular sun exposure. Wear a sunscreen, and limit your exposure to the sun by protecting with a hat, staying in shade where possible and indoors during the hottest part of the day.
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