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Sunscreens – Helping or Hurting?

There is no question that a lot of people believe that a rich deep tan is attractive, desirable and healthy-looking. Unfortunately, in too many cases the healthy look is far from healthy. Aside from people who have naturally darker skin, the tan look, especially for Caucasians, comes from either exposure to the sun or a tanning booth. Both of these sources expose the skin to UVA and UVB rays. The reason the skin tans or darkens when exposed to these rays is to try to filter, shade and protect the skin from further exposure to these skin cell-damaging rays.


Tanning by definition means the skin cells have already been damaged. Dr. Aaron Shafer from Stanford university wrote in an article for Genetics that “When the sun damages a skin cell, the cell releases chemicals alerting the body that it has taken a hit. These chemicals cause more melanocytes and more melanin to get made.  Melanin is what gives color to the skin. It is interesting to note that because the skin is alive it can produce Melanin and therefore darkens the skin. However, because the hair is made up of dead cells which cannot produce Melanin, hair tends to get sun bleached and lighten up when exposed to UVA/UVB rays.


The longer the skin is exposed UVA/UVB rays the deeper the damage. It starts with the skin cells but reaches inside the body to eventually affect all of the organs.


Dr. Henry Lim Chairman of the Department of Dermatology for Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Dr. Stevin Wang Director of Dermatology for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Basking Ridge, NJ were interviewed for an article by the Skin Cancer Foundation. In that article, they stated:


 “There is a dark side to the sun. The US government has officially identified ultraviolet radiation (UVR) both from the sun and from tanning machines as a known cause of cancer in humans. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the sun causes 90 percent of all nonmelanoma skin cancers,1 and other research links it to 65 percent of all melanomas.2 Each year, an estimated 3.5 million or more new cases occur in the US of the nonmelanoma skin cancers basal and squamous cell carcinoma (BCC and SCC).3 An estimated (annual) 76,250 new cases of invasive melanoma (will also occur)………., with nearly 9,180 resulting in death, according to the American Cancer Society.4


OTC Sunscreens

Without question, from a pure health point of view, light skin and dark hair are preferable to tanned skin and sun bleached hair. However, we know that the desire for the beautiful tan will persist. So how do we find the somewhat mid-ground? Minimize your time in the sun and use a sunscreen when you do get exposed to UVA/UVB rays.


Unfortunately, people buying sunscreens do not always have the right information to make the right choice and can be misdirected by flashy corporate advertising and glamorous misleading labeling. Sunscreens are considered OTC (Over The Counter) Drugs since they protect against cancer and therefore are regulated by the FDA.


The USA is behind many parts of the world when it comes to sunscreen choices. Due to either bureaucracy or a lack of expediency, the FDA has not given approval for any new sunscreen ingredients since 2002. While Europe has moved ahead significantly and approved 27 sunscreen ingredients, the USA is still stuck in 2002 time and has only 17 sunscreen ingredient choices.


It is important to note that the UVB rays are the major cause of skin tanning and although UVB can also cause skin cell damage, it is UVA rays that penetrate deeper into the skin and cause skin ageing. Either by themselves or in combination with UVB rays, the UVA rays are a significant factor in causing skin cancer.


SPF Ratings

The SPF (Sun Protection Factor) ratings cited on sunscreens refer only to the UVB protection. SPF 30 means you get 30 times more protection against UVB rays but means nothing as far as UVA protection. In fact, people can get a false sense of security. They put on a sunscreen, go out in the sun and see little or no burning thinking they are safe. They don’t realize that the non-burning UVA rays are infusing deeper and deeper into the skin and causing skin cell damage. Yet, in the United States sunscreen providers can list their products as being “UVA/UVB protective” or “UVA/UVB blended” without the need to provide proof that their products have any, or very minimal at best, UVA protection. These terms mean nothing.


In Europe, all sunscreens have to pass a UVA/UVB ratio rule. Whatever is listed as the SPF factor for UVB protection, the product has to have a UVA protection that is at least 33% of UVB protection. In other words, if the product is listed as SPF 45, then the UVA protection has to be at least 15. This is still not great, but a lot better than what’s required in the USA.


Another issue is the fact that less than 30% of people using sunscreens apply enough of the product to the skin to get even close to the SPF rating of the cream being used. Dr. Dawn Davis from the Mayo Clinic confirms that most people do not apply enough sunscreen and offers a guideline that states a shot glass (or two tablespoons) filled with sunscreen is only enough to properly protect the face, neck and the back of the hands. Two tablespoons equals one ounce. Depending on your size and the type of bathing suit you are wearing it would take a minimum of three to four times that amount, or 3 to 4 ounces, to properly protect the rest of your body. She also notes that in order to maintain the proper SPF protection you have to reapply that same amount for every two hours you are in the sun.


That means you need to apply a minimum of 4 ounces of sunscreen to your body for every two hours, or 8 ounces if you are at the beach for just four hours. Depending on the size of the bottle your sunscreen is in, you may need to use one or two bottles for just yourself for every day you are at the beach or out in the sun. Most people do not do that.


Using too little sunscreen dramatically reduces the SPF rating. It decreases by a multiple factor ratio, not a direct percentage reduction. In other words, if you use only ½ the proper amount of sunscreen, the SPF does not decrease by half but instead decreases by ½ X ½ or ¼. Now your SPF 30 cream is only giving you an SPF protection of 7.5 (30/4). If you use only 1/3 the proper amount you reduce the SPF factor by 1/3 X 1/3 or 1/9. An SPF 30 cream is reduced to SPF 3.3. Using creams with very high SPF numbers does not compensate because the higher the SPF, the higher the innate toxicity (see below). Either use the right amount of sunscreen or stay out of the sun.


Remember, getting skin cancer from the sun is akin to getting lung cancer from cigarettes. One cigarette does not cause lung cancer, one sitting in the sun does not cause skin cancer. However, one sitting in the sun can cause skin cell damage and it can take far less time to irreversibly damage your skin in the sun than it takes to permanently damage your lungs from smoking.


You should never use a sunscreen with an SPF rating over 50. In an EWG (Environmental Working Group) report it states five major reasons for not using SPF’s over 50. The biggest factor being that a rating of SPF 100 will give only a 1% increase in sun ray protection and manufacturers tend to add too many toxic chemicals to even try to reach those numbers.  In that same report it is noted that The FDA has long contended that SPF higher than 50 is ’inherently misleading’ (FDA 2007). Australian authorities cap SPF values at 30; European and Japanese regulators at 50 (Osterwalder 2009b), and Canada allows a maximum of ‘50+’.”


The last major FDA rules revision for sunscreens was passed in 2011. In those rules a provision was made that stated a sunscreen product could list itself as being UVA/UVB Broad Spectrum if they used the same 1/3 UVA/UVB ratio as required in Europe.


Consumer Reports found that almost half of all sunscreens in the USA market do not meet the SPF claimed on the bottle.



Even worse were the findings of the EWG. The EWG is one of the most prestigious independent testing organization in the USA. In 2016 after exhausting testing of sunscreen products, they put out a report in which they found that “Almost three-fourths of the 750 sunscreens evaluated for EWG’s annual Guide to Sunscreens, released today, offer inferior protection or contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor, or retinyl palmitate, which may harm skin.” That means 3 out of 4 of the sunscreen products sold in the USA are potentially harmful. Generally speaking, sunscreens whose active ingredients are chemicals are the most dangerous. The six most popular chemicals used in USA sunscreen products are listed below along with the EWG toxicity rating. EWG rates on a scale between 1 and 10, where 10 is the most toxic. Any rating over 3 brings it into the toxicity concern range.


Chemical Name              EWG Toxicity Rating

Avobenzone                                 2

Homosalate                                 4

Octisalate                                    4

Octocrylane                                 3

Oxybenzone                                8

Octinoxate                                  6


Since no one chemical gives a complete range of UVA/UVB protection, virtually all sunscreens use a combination of three to six chemicals with Oxybenzone being the most popular, even though many studies have found it is the most harmful to the body since it is a major endocrine disrupter. You should never use this ingredient on your body.


Another factor to be concerned about is that in order to reduce manufacturing costs, well over 90% of sunscreen products contain water. Water can oxidize other ingredients in the sunscreen which at best will diminish the SPF rating and at worse cause induced toxicity. When water is in a solution, the formula requires the addition of emulsifiers (chemical processing that allows the water to mix with the oils in the solution), preservatives and thickeners. In many cases these required chemical additives add to the toxicity of the sunscreen.


Since sunscreens are considered a drug, the ingredient listing is broken into two parts. One part has to list the active ingredients by percentage of concentration. The other part has to list the inactive ingredients. Because of FDA drug specifications, the manufacturer can choose to list the inactive ingredients in descending order of volume or can list them alphabetically. When alphabetical listings are used you never know the amount of water in the solution or the quantity of each of the toxic chemicals. Inactive chemicals can actually become very active to the skin but in a negative manner.


Zinc Oxide

The one single ingredient that gives you the widest range of UVA/UVB protection is not a chemical at all, it’s a mineral known as Zinc Oxide. Pure Zinc Oxide is what many life guards put on their face when out in the sun all day. Zinc Oxide is natural and completely non-toxic.  It works on a completely different basis than chemicals. Chemical sunscreens work by having the active chemical ingredients absorb the sun’s rays into their composition. The problem occurs when the chemicals absorb too much UV rays, they can become toxic and unstable. This toxicity can be passed into the skin directly. It is the reason that if you are using chemicals you want to replace or recoat the skin every 45 to 60 minutes so that new uncontaminated chemicals are facing the sun. Chemical sunscreens achieve their SPF rating by applying enough thickness to absorb a certain quantity of sun rays. If you don’t put enough thickness on, or worse yet, use a spray which takes the sunscreen airborne, your SPF protection can drop significantly.


Zinc Oxide, unlike chemicals, is nowhere as fragile or sensitive to improper application assuming you use the right Zinc Oxide product. Zinc Oxide is virtually inert and unaffected by UV rays. It does not absorb the rays, it deflects and reflects the rays before it can reach the skin. Because Zinc Oxide in its pure state is quite thick, chalky and bright white, many manufacturers who provide Zinc Oxide based sunscreens tend to bastardize their formulations to make them thinner. Many sunscreens use “nano sized” Zinc Oxide particles to make them less white and more transparent. In simple terms, this is taking the full-size molecules of Zinc Oxide and breaking them down into extremely small pieces. One definition of nano size is there are as many nano particles in one inch as there are inches in 400 miles. The problem is that nano can have different meanings to different manufacturers as far as size and inertness. The safest way to use Zinc Oxide and get maximum protection is to use non nano (full size) particles which, when provided, are always stated as such on the jar. If it doesn’t say non nano you can be sure it isn’t non nano. Non nano gives a bigger reflective surface and is always the most stable in the sun. With proper formulation you can still reach a more transparent product without losing any protection factors.


At Replenish Plus we use a patented, non nano, extremely stable and a proprietary beneficial form of Zinc Oxide in our formulations. Learn more about our sunscreen product Sundone.



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