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We are often warned against the dangers of the sun and how too much exposure leads to premature aging and skin cancer. We also hear about how wearing sunscreen every day is essential to protect your skin, but how safe is sunscreen itself? The beauty and skin care industry is grossly under-regulated, so before you slather yourself in unknown chemicals to keep yourself healthy, be an informed consumer.
The active ingredient in most commercial sunscreens is oxybenzone, a chemical blocking agent that absorbs the sun’s rays, preventing them from penetrating and burning the skin. The problem with oxybenzone, however, is that its an endocrine disruptor – which can, itself, be absorbed through the skin. The Center for Disease Control estimates that oxybenzone can be found in approximately 97% percent of Americans.
Because oxybenzone chemically blocks the sun, this chemical reaction creates free radicals which are then released into the skin. In an effort to counteract this effect, many sunscreen manufacturers have started adding antioxidants to their formulations, which fight free radicals. While some antioxidants, such as vitamin C, can neutralize the free radicals and actually help improve the skin’s resistance to the sun, many sunscreens use vitamin A, a photosensitizer. Photosensitizers, when combined with light, will cause a sensitivity reaction, making you more sensitive to the sun, defeating the purpose.
Is this as bad as skin cancer, or even the discomfort of sunburn? No. But if you are trying to limit your exposure to and use of chemicals, you may want to think twice about the ingredients in your sunscreen. Your best bet: limit your exposure to the sun, wear lots of layers, and if you do need to use sunscreen, look for brands with physical blocking agents like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide instead of chemical blocking agents. They can leave a slight white residue on your skin, although a residue is better than cancerous spots. Skip physical blocking sunscreens with nanoparticles (sometimes touted as nanotechnology), however; these teeny particles are so small that they can pass through cell membranes.