Are sunscreens toxic? Organic and safe alternatives

Marianne James

Sunscreens may contain carcinogenic ingredients

The long list of chemicals included in sunblocks and face creams with an spf rating are quite simply a huge concern if we take the research seriously. What is alarming is that the addition of these chemicals has no rigorous safety standards.  

A study published in Environmental Science Technology has shown that the common sunscreen ingredients oxybenzone, methoxycinnamate and PABA are estrogenic chemicals that are linked to cancer.  Here is a list of some of the chemicals used in sunscreens that are considered unsafe and potentially toxic.  

      • PABA (Para amino benzoic acid)
      • Oxybenzone
      • Cinoxate
      • Octyl salicyclate
      • Dioxybenzone
      • Phenylbenzimidazole
      • Homosalate
      • Menthyl anthranilate
      • Octocrylene
      • Methoxycinnamate
      • Parabens as a preservative (Methyl paraben, Ethyl paraben, propyl paraben and butyl paraben)
      • Phenoxyethanol as a preservative

Care needs to be taken that other chemicals or preservatives used in sunscreens are not also potentially toxic.   Phenoxyethanol is a widely used preservative for example in more natural products but there are now some safety concerns attached to it.  

We need some sun exposure

While we are all told to protect our skin from the sun, a little bit of daily sunshine is actually good and even necessary for good health.  It is absolutely vital we get enough Vitamin D3 from sunshine, something we can get from 20 minutes of sun exposure to face, neck and in warmer climates, arms.  The best way we are told is through a daily walk for that amount of time avoiding sun exposure in summer months between 10am and 4pm when UV rays peak in intensity.

Vitamin D3 has been extensively researched in recent years and has been shown to be vital for good health, boosting the immunity system, helping keep cancer at bay and improving mood.

 Different types of sunscreen 

There are two types of sunscreen.  Non-mineral and mineral and some that combine both.  Non-mineral sunscreens rely on various chemicals which are potentially toxic and may include some mineral content as well such as Zinc oxide and or Titanium oxide.  Mineral based sunscreens are not allergenic, have the best safety profiles and are more effective at blocking UVA rays than non-mineral sunscreens.  

Zinc oxide and Titanium Oxide

While Zinc oxide has been rigorously tested and is considered to be very safe and stable when exposed to UV rays.  Titanium oxide however is not stable when exposed to UV rays and has been found to form free radicals which damage skin and DNA. There are also two types of Zinc oxide used.  One is micronised Zinc oxide which has been processed to create ultra fine particles (nano size). These are able to penetrate the skin and pass into the bloodstream.  While Zinc oxide is an element that is naturally in our bodies, it is not advisable to be applying Zinc oxide that is made of nano particles to the skin on a daily and long term basis. However it is virtually impossible for non-nano Zinc oxide to pass through to the bloodstream.  In a recent study of human volunteers, less than 0.01% absorption of non-nano Zinc occurred.  If a product does not say that Zinc oxide is non-nano, it's best to avoid it if you are going to use the product frequently.  

Non-nano Zinc oxide is widely used as a safe and effective sunscreen agent, including in organic formulations. Zinc is a natural mineral which we need in our diet and is beneficial to the skin, reducing the appearance of blemishes, reducing irritations and inflammation as well as the number and severity of acne breakouts – good news for those with oily skin. Dermatologists in the know about the potential toxicity of common sunscreens recommend non-nano Zinc oxide on its own (without added Titanium or commonly used sunscreen chemicals) as an effective and broad spectrum sun-screening agent.  It is safe, nonirritating, nonallergenic and non-comedogenic (does not block pores) and most importantly it is photostable (does not degrade when exposed to UV light). For an interesting article go to:

Sun protecting properties of various plants

Notable plants with sun protecting properties are Raspberry seed oil (high), Carrot seed pure essential oil (high), Wheatgerm oil (moderate/high), Soya bean oil (moderate), Shea Butter (low/moderate), Hemp seed oil (low) and Macadamia oil (low). These botanicals fortify the skin against the effects of UV rays as opposed to reflecting the rays away from the skin as does Zinc oxide.  While Zinc oxide can and does block UV rays from penetrating and damaging the skin, botanicals help to limit the damage caused by the sun - they will not stop you from burning in intense sun the way that Zinc oxide does.  They are nonetheless very useful.  

Raspberry seed oil is rich in omega 3 and 6 fatty acids and has anti-aging benefits due to its ellagic acid content.  Research shows that in human skin cells, ellagic acid seems to protect against ultraviolet damage by blocking production of matrix metalloproteinase enzymes that break down collagen and reduce the expression of ICAM, a molecule involved with inflammation.  It is also very high in Vitamin E and phytosterols.  Phytosterols help repair damaged skin and reduce trans epidermal water loss, so supporting the skin's moisture level.  Raspberry seed oil is considered to be the richest source of ellagic acid, a phenolic compound with known anti-carcinogen properties.  Research has been conducted at the Food Research Program in Canada on Raspberry seed oil.  

At FLORA ORGANICSRaspberry seed oil is a key ingredient in our Framboise skin care range for sun damage protection. This is for people who are looking for a chemical free facial moisturiser that will also help their skin to stand up to the damaging effects of the sun.  Along with the Raspberry seed oil, the range also has other supporting botanicals such as Carrot seed pure essential oil, White tea extract and Fair Trade unrefined (raw) Shea Butter as ingredients.  

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