sun protection

How To Use Sunscreen Safely And Sustainably, According To Science

If you aren’t smart about your skin, the invisible ultraviolet (UV) rays present in sunshine can damage your DNA at serious cost to your health.

But similarly, if you aren’t smart about your sunscreen choice, you could unknowingly cause damage to your body and the environment. What’s a girl (or boy) to do?

Science has come a long way in defending humans from the often ruthless power of sun — and it’s good to be informed of why such protection is necessary.

Here’s what science has to say about sun protection — and why it’s far from perfect in a lot of ways.

sun protection

Science of sunshine

The sun is actually pretty scary.

  According to leading sunscreen researcher John Sottery, there are two types of damaging photons in the sun: UVB, which can result in the most destructive burns, cataracts, and skin cancer, and UVA, which affect deeper layers of the skin to cause premature aging and wrinkling.

Remember, when your skin tans, that’s your DNA darkening in an attempt to protect itself from that terrifying sun up there.

UVA is not protected against in all sunscreens, even though it makes up 95% of rays and contributes to skin cancer and melanoma. Look for “broad-spectrum protection” on bottles to ensure protection from all rays.

sun protection

Sunscreen: Your UV-proof Vest

SPF, which stands for Sun Protection Factor, is labelled by number. Say you have SPF 30 – if you take the amount of time it takes your skin to burn, it will theoretically take 30 times as long with sunscreen protection. Regardless, doctors recommend users reapply every two hours.[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”xtRfKL0klBJORN5t79MPB8dmhR4RIfk6″]

But no matter the factor, no UV vest can protect completely from cancers like melanoma – only reduce damage and slow it. Like a life jacket, it’ll protect you – but you’re still going to get wet, so to speak.

How does it work? Most sunscreens are a hybrid or one of two types: physical and/or chemical.

Physical sunscreen is made up of inorganic particles such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which form physical barriers on skin to reflect and scatter UV waves. Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays and release them as heat.

Over the years, nanotechnology has allowed the particles of sunscreen’s key ingredients to be reduced enough to appear invisible, allowing us to brave the beach without being painted completely white.

sun protection

Sun-proof doesn’t mean risk-proof

Unfortunately, as much as your body needs sun protection, the chemicals in sunscreen can also be damaging to your body and the earth. You need it – but it’s not exactly your friend.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s guide shows that ingredients common in most chemical sunscreens penetrate skin, disrupt hormones, and cause skin allergies.

According to the EWG, the chemical oxybenzone is most problematic – it’s in nearly every chemical sunscreen, and has been detected in 96% of Americans’ bodies.

Chemical sunscreen can also be bad for the environment, having been found to trigger viral infections in coral reef, harm zebrafish and yellow trout, and exist at high levels in lakes, rivers, and oceans around the world.

For these reasons, the EWG and others suggest physical sunscreens over chemical, though it tends to be thicker, streakier, and more difficult to apply.

sun protectionThe inventive future of sun protection

Scientists are also looking to other solutions that would potentially eliminate the gooey and sticky mess of sunscreen — surprisingly, using natural ingredients and models.

For example, a London team is attempting to replicate the natural protective components in coral reef, which could theoretically be consumed by humans in tablet form for weeks of sun protection.

A drinkable sunscreen has also been created, allegedly through the manipulation and duplication of naturally-occurring radio waves in water to give them UV-cancelling properties, then bottling that water up for drinking. (Unfortunately, experts suspect it’s a gimmick).

There are also several other oral sun protection solutions available, which contain cabbage plant extract, though so far they haven’t been proven as effective as traditional methods.

All in all, maybe the perfect sunscreen doesn’t exist quite yet. Until that time, we can weigh the risks of sun, body, and environment to evaluate what’s best, and (hopefully) sit back and enjoy the sunshine — with minimal all-around burn.


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Jennifer Markert