Slather, Play, Repeat

Sun encounters of the safest kind
By Vicky Uhland

A few years ago, a group of friends and I took a girls’ trip to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. On our first day on the sugar-sand beaches under the aqua-blue Caribbean sky, we admired each other’s sexy new swimsuits, snagged some comfy chaises, placed our margarita orders with the cute beach waiter, and uncapped our sunscreens. But as I rubbed my natural, mineral-based sunscreen onto my legs, a strange thing happened. The sunscreen refused to absorb, clinging to my skin like sticky white paint. I rubbed harder. Not only did that not work, I managed to spread the sunscreen to my swimsuit, leaving white streaks all over it. Horrified, I gave up, figuring if I just left it alone, the sunscreen would sink in eventually. But half an hour later, my friend looked over at me and gasped, “It’s Casper the sunbathing ghost!”

Things didn’t get better when I stepped into the shower hours later. Even after lathering vigorously, I still had a greasy white film on my skin. I soaped up again. Slightly better, but still Casper-ish. It took a full 10 hours for the white gunk to finally fade from my body.

The next day, I bought some Hawaiian Tropic sunscreen from a beach vendor. Sure, I felt guilty knowing I was spreading a chemical concoction all over my body. But vanity won out. At least I wouldn’t spend the rest of my Caribbean vacay looking like I had fallen into a vat of clown makeup.

Although natural sunscreen formulations have improved in the three years since I first turned into Casper, there’s only so much sunscreen makers can do to make titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, the white, blotchy active ingredients in mineral sunscreens, disappear into the skin. That’s why many natural sunscreen companies opt for either chemical-based formulations or mineral sunscreens made with super-tiny pieces of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, known as nanoparticles.

Both types absorb easily into the skin, but they also have some serious minuses. Here’s what the research shows.

Although they’re approved by the FDA, the chemicals frequently used in natural sunscreens, including 4-methyl-benzylidencamphor, oxybenzone, octylmethoyl-cinnamates, PABA, and homosalates, have been linked in numerous recent studies to hormonal disruption. And a 2001 Swiss study analyzing the effects of each of these chemicals applied to rats concluded that they all could have long-term health effects on humans and animals. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), these common sunscreen chemicals can act like estrogens in the body, increasing the risk of breast cancer and uterine damage.

The young science of nanotechnology creates particles so small, 80,000 of them equal the width of a single strand of human hair. Nanoparticles are defined as anything 100 nanometers or smaller; one nanometer measures one-billionth of a meter.

The FDA is currently considering whether to address nanoparticles in its proposed new regulations for sunscreen, but for now, nano use goes unregulated in the US. Nanos aren’t regulated in the European Union either, but in February, the EU’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products recommended a review of the safety of nanos in sunscreens. As nanos become more prevalent in bodycare products, there is growing concern about whether these tiny particles can penetrate the skin, and what damage they could cause floating around inside our bodies. The Soil Association, Britain’s largest organic certifier, banned the use of nanoparticles in January, and Whole Foods Market’s Premium Body Care standards, which went into effect in March, also say no-no to nano—and chemical sunscreen ingredients.

A 2007 EWG sunscreen report analyzed 15 peer-reviewed studies on nanoparticles and found that nearly all showed no absorption of nanoized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sunscreen ingredients through healthy skin. Still, EWG research analyst Kristan Markey notes that “we have concerns about nanos that are very legitimate.” Markey says the studies were done under ideal laboratory conditions and didn’t analyze the penetration potential of nanos on sunburned, scraped, or otherwise damaged skin, or on the thinner skin of the lips, underarms, and inner thighs. Children and the elderly also have thinner skin than adults, and thus more potential for nano penetration, according to the EWG report. In addition, the report noted that skin around the joints, which is continually flexed and stretched, could be more porous for nanos.

A 2007 Friends of the Earth (FOE) report on nanos in sunscreens takes an even stricter stance. It cites studies that show nanos cause severe DNA damage, disrupt the function of cells, and even cause cell death. Based on that information, the report’s author, Ian Illuminato, says, “The jury is still out on how readily and how deeply nanoparticles penetrate skin. There needs to be a lot more studies before we can tell exactly what nanos in sunscreens can do.”

So why even consider nanoized sunscreen in the first place? Mainly because zinc oxide and titanium dioxide offer the best protection against UV radiation and are safer than chemical ingredients, Markey says. But those minerals don’t have to be nanoized to be effective, Illuminato points out: “Nanos basically just make the sunscreens more transparent and therefore presumably more desirable for consumers.” That desire is so strong that the Australian government estimated in 2006 that 70 percent of sunscreens with titanium dioxide and 30 percent with zinc oxide contain nanoparticles.

Currently, there’s no way to tell if a sunscreen uses nanos—regulations require manufacturers to list the active ingredients, but not their size. FOE polled 128 sunscreen manufacturers and received nano data on only 33 products. Twenty-four of the sunscreens reportedly contain nanos and nine don’t—and a whopping 95 manufacturers wouldn’t say.

To make your sunscreen choice even more complicated, some manufacturers report that they use micronized titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. “Micronized is smaller than 1,000 nanometers, but not all micronized particles are nanoparticles,” says Andreas Dewor, a chemist and co-founder of Lavera natural cosmetics. “They have to be smaller than 100 nanometers to be nanoparticles.” Increasingly, manufacturers realize that micronized particles represent a happy medium between full-size, pasty-white zinc oxide or titanium dioxide particles and their potentially problematic nanoized counterparts.

But micronized minerals have their negatives as well. Dewor says that at SPFs higher than 20, micronized titanium dioxide looks too white on the skin. And Illuminato says some studies show potential penetration problems with particles as big as 300 nanometers.

There’s also a debate about the safety of zinc oxide versus titanium dioxide. In titanium dioxide’s favor, it’s been around longer than zinc oxide, it’s approved by the EU (which can have more stringent regulations than the FDA), and “we know in many cases it just passes through our system,” Markey says. However, “studies show when it gets very small—in the low 200 nanometers—and is exposed to sunlight, it generates reactive oxygen species, a specific type of free radical that is linked to cell problems and heart disease.” Markey says zinc oxide isn’t approved by the EU because some studies show it could cause cell mutations when it’s exposed to sunlight, but it doesn’t have the free-radical problems of titanium dioxide. It also has been found in some studies to have better UVA and UVB protection than titanium dioxide. Bottom line? “There’s a lot of conflicting information,” Markey says. “I can’t say zinc is better than titanium—it’s really dependent on the formulation.”

If all the suspicious studies and questionable ingredients have made you afraid to ever go out in the sun again, relax. Experts agree that if you can stay away from sunscreen formulations with chemicals and nanoparticles, you can have your (safe) day in the sun after all.

Quick tips!
For safe sun encounters:
Wear a hat to protect your scalp from too much sun exposure, which can lead to melanomas.

To get the full SPF protection, you need to apply an ounce of sunscreen—think shotglass full—on your entire body. (Don’t forget your ears and neck!)

Eat foods high in antioxidants, which can help your skin repair sun damage. Try loading up on colorful fruits and vegetables, drinking green tea, and even allowing yourself a daily nibble of dark chocolate.

Top Cleanest Sunscreens
In a quest to find a safe, effective, non-Casperish sunscreen for our next beach vacation, Natural Solutions polled natural bodycare companies and found seven chemical-free sunscreens that, according to the manufacturers, also don’t use nanoparticles. We tested them all and found that while each of the sunscreens was effective for at least an hour, some absorbed better than others. Using a scale of zero through five, with five being the worst, to rate their absorbability, here’s what we discovered.

Sunscreen: UV Natural Sunscreen (5.29 oz, $33.50;
Active Ingredients: zinc oxide
SPF: 30+
Casper Factor After 30 Mins.: 0—A bit oily

Sunscreen: Alba Botanica Fragrance Free Mineral Sunscreen (4 oz, $9.95;
Active Ingredients: titanium dioxide
SPF: 18
Casper Factor After 30 Mins.: 2

Sunscreen: Lavera Family Sun Spray (6.6 oz, $26.50;
Active Ingredients: titanium dioxide
SPF: 15
Casper Factor After 30 Mins. 0—Editor’s pick

Sunscreen: Nature’s Gate Mineral Sunblock (4 oz, $9.49;
Active Ingredients: titanium dioxide, zinc oxide
SPF: 20
Casper Factor After 30 Mins.: 4

Sunscreen: Erbaviva Sunscreen (4 oz, $28;
Active Ingredients: titanium dioxide
SPF: 15
Casper Factor After 30 Mins.: 2—Fresh herbal scent

Sunscreen: Jason SunBrellas Mineral Based Physical Sunblock (4 oz, $14;
Active Ingredients: titanium dioxide, zinc oxide
SPF: 30+
Casper Factor After 30 Mins.: 4

Sunscreen: Lotus Moon Sage Sun Protective Crème(2 oz, $32;
Active Ingredients: titanium dioxide, zinc oxide
SPF: 25
Casper Factor After 30 Mins.: 1—Easy to apply

How Safe Are SPF Clothes?

There aren’t many options if you want to truly protect yourself from the sun without any health hazards. You could draw the curtains and sit in your darkened parlor like a Tennessee Williams heroine, or channel Jane Austen and only go outside in neck-to-toe muslin, shaded with a parasol. Or you could be thoroughly modern and try some of the new sun-protective clothing.

Created in Australia, where skin cancer is a pervasive problem, sun-protective clothing relies on special fabrics, weaves or chemical treatments to offer ultraviolet protection factors (UPF) of 50 or higher. According to the US Skin Cancer Foundation, a white cotton T-shirt’s UPF is 7, whereas a long-sleeved, dark denim shirt’s is 1,700, which amounts to a complete sun block. Only clothes with a UPF of at least 15 can be labeled sun protective, according to the foundation.

Many of the sun-protective clothes available today are treated with SunGuard, a wash-in chemical made by Rit Dye. SunGuard contains Tinosorb, which is not approved by the FDA for cosmetic formulations like sunscreens, but has been OK’d by the European Union. One British study found that Tinosorb isn’t estrogenic like other chemical sunscreen ingredients, but there have been very few other studies. For that reason, the Environmental Working Group doesn’t have a safety rating for Tinosorb on its Skin Deep website.

There are several companies that make chemical-free, sun-protective clothing that is approved by the Skin Cancer Foundation. Two to try:

Coolibar 50+ UPF hats, clothing, and swimwear are made with non-nanoized titanium dioxide woven into polyester, or warp-knit polyester, which is one of the best UV-ray absorbers.

Sun Busters swimwear, hats, shoes, and cover-ups for children up to age 12 are made from a very tightly woven, nano-free, nylon-lycra blend that has a UPF of 50+.