For many years, the health field has debated the safest option for protection against the sun’s rays. Hopefully this article can help you make an informed decision next time you are looking for protection from the ultraviolet (UV) radiation contained in sunshine. 

It all starts and ends with exposure. How much skin is exposed to the sun affects how much UV exposure you get. The first choice most people take is to cover up - hang out in the shade, don a wide brimmed hat, or toss on comfortable long sleeve shirt and pants. When we don’t feel like covering up, we turn to sunscreen. Some sources within the health field claim that standard sunscreens may have potential health risks, and yet research also demonstrates that too much UV exposure can be carcinogenic and lead to skin cancer. If you spend a lot of time in the sun, you have got to make a decision. The following is a brief outline describing the different types of sunscreen available, how they work and their potential health risks. 

There are two main types of sunscreens on the market, chemical sunscreens and mineral sunscreens. 

First, we will start with chemical sunscreens. Have a look on the label of most sunscreens at your local grocery or pharmacy. If the ingredient list contains a multitude of unpronounceable compounds, that’s a chemical sunscreen. Chemical sunscreens can also be labeled as organic sunscreens, meaning the molecules are linked with an atom of carbon. They work by absorbing into the skin, and then by absorbing, degrading or deactivating UV radiation before it enters your body. Ingredients like oxybenzone (careful, this is a known toxicant to coral reefs), avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate are found in many major brand chemical sunscreens. It has been suggested that these chemicals may also break down with sunlight exposure causing free radicals (cancer facilitating atoms with unpaired electrons) in the body. Studies have shown these ingredients can cause skin irritation, allergies, toxicity, hormone disruption and even cancer. The safety of chemical sunscreen is often criticized but may be your only option if it’s all you’ve got!

Next, we will look at mineral sunscreen. The active ingredients in mineral sunscreen are inorganic (the compounds do not contain carbon molecules) and sit on the surface of the skin acting like a shield. They physically prevent UV rays from entering the body much the same way as a t-shirt would. If you look on the label of a mineral sunscreen you will notice the active ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These compounds do not break down with exposure to the sun thus mineral sunscreens are generally considered safer. The downside of this type of sunscreen is that it has a tendency to look white and pasty because the particles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are large and don’t absorb into the skin. You can avoid this by using small amounts at a time or a product tinted to match your skin colour. 

To deal with the issue of sunscreen looking pasty and white, some manufacturers have come up with products containing nano (very, very small) size particles of zinc and titanium. There are concerns that these products may not be as safe. These include the potential for lung damage if inhaled, and environmental concerns. It seems that these types of particles have not been studied exhaustively in sunscreens, so currently, I would suggest avoiding products with nano zinc or nano titanium. 

While considering the sunscreen debate, also remember that some sun exposure is safe and is even beneficial to our health. Sunshine is known to improve our moods, and is our best source for obtaining Vitamin D (which has a whole host of benefits). We went from worshipping a sun bronzed complexion, to dreading 5 minutes in the sun with bare skin. So, like most things in life, finding a healthy middle ground is key. Keep in mind that the amount of time considered safe to be in the sun will vary depending on our skin tone and where we live on earth.

Overall, it is in my opinion that for the greatest benefit to your health, your number one option is to moderate your exposure to the sun. When you have got you daily dose of vitamin D, cover up first with long clothing, hats or shade and then when necessary, find yourself some non-nano zinc sunscreen. A few brands that I have personally tried and like include Thinkbaby, (or any of the think brand sunscreens), All Good Brand, Green Beaver, Badger, and Avasol. Here in Revelstoke you can find most of these brands at Mountain Goodness Natural Foods, Kidz on Main, and Pharmasave. 

Happy Summer!