By now we all know the sun is nothing to joke about. Even if you’re in cloudy London, rather than on a beach in the Bahamas, you should be slapping on the SPF daily during sunlight hours. But not all sunscreen is created equal, and many creams and lotions available in pharmacies and supermarkets leave a lot to be desired in terms of their ingredients list. Some of the chemicals on there have not only been linked to skin irritations and allergic reactions, but can also damage the environment by bleaching waterways and killing coral reefs.
What’s the damage?
Let’s take the environmental effects first. According to a 2015 paper published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter the world’s reefs annually, causing irreparable damage and killing life there. The main culprits in sunscreen are the chemicals oxybenzone, which absorbs UV rays, and octinoxate, which soaks up UVB rays. They enter the ocean by washing off beach goers, and filter into the water supply from showers and toilets, causing bleaching, deformities, DNA damage and ultimately death in coral reefs. This has led to Hawaii banning sunscreens that contain these chemicals, and last year Palau, a small island nation in the Pacific known for having one of the largest marine reserves on the planet, also implemented a ban. Other places like Bonaire in the Caribbean and Key West in Florida will no longer sell these sunscreens or allow their use from 2021.
The negative effects on human health are slightly cloudier, as no definitive tests have ever been carried out on the safety of oxybenzone and octinoxate, in addition to other ingredients found in chemical sunscreens like avobenzone and ecamsule. Although as yet not definitive, links have been made between these and severe allergic reactions, as well as significant uptake of these chemicals into the body from the skin, which could lead to hormone disruption and affect everything from users’ metabolism to their growth and development. The most recent scientific trial in May 2019 looked at the absorption of these ingredients into participants’ systemic circulation, and concluded that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration needed to carry out further non-clinical toxicology assessments, which would include tests for systemic carcinogenicity, as well as studies on their impact on human development and reproduction.
Does this mean we shouldn’t wear sunscreen?
Because of the lack of evidence, the current advice given by the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD) emphasises that sunscreen should definitely still be used to protect the skin during sun exposure. ‘It is important to note there is no evidence from this study that there is any health risk,’ says Professor Brian Diffey of BAD. ‘And even at maximal use, any theoretical risk is almost certainly far smaller than the reduced risk of skin cancer that has been shown to be associated with sunscreen use. Indeed, the authors themselves say that their results do not suggest that people should refrain from using sunscreen.’
‘Skin cancer is the UK’s most common cancer, equalling all other cancers combined. The link between excess sun exposure and skin cancer is well documented and indisputable,’ continues Dr. Andrew Birnie, consultant dermatologist and skin cancer surgeon. ‘This research on sunscreen is very much at an early stage. The first line of defence against the sun should be shade and clothing, with sunscreen used for additional protection.’
The good news is that there are more and more sunscreens entering the market now that are both reef and skin sensitive, and avoid using the ingredients currently under investigation. Many of these are based on minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are considered ‘safe’ by bodies like the FDA and BAD, and provide physical protection by creating a barrier on the skin, and reflecting UV rays, rather than absorbing them. Here’s six mineral-based sunscreens that are good alternatives to traditional chemical creams.
Soleil Toujours 100 Per Cent Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30
Founder of Soleil Toujours, Valerie McMurray, was driven by her wish to avoid the potentially harmful ingredients found in most sunscreens. This mineral alternative features zinc oxide, which provides stable and safe protection against UVA rays, as well as aloe vera to heal and soften skin, skin soothing licorice root extract, and ubiquinone to help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. A lightweight fluid, it’s easily absorbed into the skin.
£36 for 94.5ml, cultbeauty.co.uk
The Organic Pharmacy Cellular Protection Sunscreen SPF 50
A natural mineral sunscreen, this cream from The Organic Pharmacy combines titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to provide protection against harmful UVA and UVB rays, as well as to prevent premature ageing and sun damage. It’s also infused with aloe vera, rose hip, shea butter and calendula to nourish the skin. A thicker cream, this is best worn on active days when you’ll experience maximum sun exposure.
£40 for 100ml, theorganicpharmacy.com
REN Skincare Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30
This mattifying sunscreen from REN is developed for sensitive skin, and features broad spectrum UVA and UBV protection from zinc oxide, as well as protection from blue light, which is emitted by screens. It also has passion fruit extract to protect against pollution, and rice extract to soothe and give a matte finish. Even better for your eco-credentials, it comes in recycled plastic packaging.
£30 for 50ml, renskincare.com
SkinCeuticals Sheer Mineral UV Defense SPF 50
Unlike many traditional mineral sunscreens, this one from SkinCeuticals comes in a transparent fluid that leaves a weightless and matte finish. It contains titanium dioxide for high UVA and UVB protection.
£37 for 50ml, skinceuticals.co.uk
La Roche-Posay Anthelios Sun Intolerance Cream SPF 50+
This cream from La Roche-Posay was developed for people with extreme sensitivity to the sun and a UV intolerance. The brand has developed its own patented blend of ingredients based around titanium dioxide to provide high, photostable, broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection, and has included its own thermal spring water as a soothing antioxidant, as well as its neurosensine to limit UV-induced discomfort, itching and redness.
£20 for 50ml, feelunique.com
Triumph & Disaster No Dice SPF 50
New Zealand grooming expert Triumph & Disaster has used both zinc and titanium to protect against harmful UVA and UVB rays in its No Dice sunscreen. It’s designed to be non-whitening, non-greasy, and non-staining, and is meant to make wearing sunscreen everyday as easy and straightforward as possible.
£36 for 100ml, triumphanddisasteruk.com