Sunscreen is an essential cosmetic item used by almost everyone. It is commonly available in various forms like lotions, creams, gels, and sprays. Prolonged exposure to sunlight can cause premature aging, sunburn, spots, wrinkles, freckles, as well as skin cancer. Hence, application of sunscreen is always advised before moving out in the sun. Once you apply sunscreen, it starts absorbing the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun and protects the skin from all the aforementioned problems.
Despite its potency, the ingredients in sunscreen have time and again led to a series of questions regarding their safety. Shocking studies performed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) showed that most leading sunscreen products were inadequate to protect the skin from UV rays. The study also stated that most sunscreens actually cause a few irreversible health risks too. As a sunscreen user, you must be aware about the active ingredients in sunscreen and their possible side effects on the body.
Ingredients in Sunscreen
Most of the UV ray protection properties of a sunscreen depend on its active ingredients. Amongst all chemicals that are used for sunscreen formulation, only 17 chemicals are approved by the USFDA as relatively safe for the skin. Primary ingredients include molecules of aromatic substances that are conjugated with other substances of the carbonyl groups. This structure actually allows the sunscreen to absorb or reflect the UV rays, before it comes in contact with your skin. Most of these ingredients retain their ultraviolet absorbing potency even after long exposure to the sunlight. This characteristic is called photodegradation.
Here are some of the active ingredients that are commonly used in various sunscreens
- Ethylhexyl p-Methoxycinnamate
- OMC (Octyl Methoxycinnamate)
- OCS Octyl Salicytate
- Homomenthyl Salicylate
- PABA (Para Aminobenzoic Acid)
- Octyl Dimethyl PABA
- Padimate O
- Padimate A
- Glyceryl Aminobenzoate
- Titanium Oxide
- Zinc Oxide
Amongst all these ingredients, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are considered as physical ingredients because they 'reflect' the UV rays, while other active ingredients are called chemical ingredients because they 'absorb' the UV rays.
Harmful Sunscreen Ingredients
Most of the mentioned ingredients only prevent the UVA sunrays; while ingredients like Benzophenones, Oxybenzone, Dioxybenzone, Avobenzone etc., that are present in the sunblocks, are effective in barring the UVA as well as UVB sunrays. In short, sunscreens can protect you from only the UVA rays, while sunblocks are the most effective to protect you from both UVA as well as UVB rays.
Along with the questions about their effectiveness, some ingredients can raise a few potential health risk including―dry skin, eczema, acne, skin irritation, and increased skin irritability. Whatever the ingredients, it is very important to select sunscreens that can protect the skin from both the types of UV rays and will cause least amount of damage to the skin.
A few recent studies state that more than 84% of the ingredients are actually harmful to health. Hence, picking out their names is a bit of a tedious task. Still, some of the ingredients like PABA, Benzophenone, Benzophenone-3, Octy-methoxycinnamate, Homosalate, Padimate-O and Parsol 1789, Butyl-Parabens, Ethyl-Parabens, Propyl-Parabens, Diethanolamine (DEA) and associated compounds like triethanolamine or TEA, and titanium oxide are some ingredients you should avoid to curb problems like skin allergies, hormonal imbalance, skin cancer, DNA damage, etc. Synthetic fragrances that are used in sunscreens can lead to allergies like asthma and other breathing disorders.
Natural Sunscreen Ingredients
One must opt for natural ingredients to avoid potential health damage. Some natural ingredients are―black tea gel, green tea polyphenols, broccoli extract, etc. You can also use things like Shea butter as a natural sunscreen, and lemon juice as a natural skin tanner. Consuming plenty of antioxidant fruits and vegetables can prevent damage which can be caused by UV rays. For that, you need to consume fresh berries and spirulina (blue green algae) on a regular basis. Adequate levels of vitamin D are also said to be effective to combat the irreversible side effects of sunrays on the body.
Along with the active ingredients; SPF is also the key factor that determines effectiveness of the sunscreen which you choose. SPF stands for the Sun Protection Factor, and the number you choose stands for the minutes for which that sunscreen can be effective. Once this timespan is surpassed, you need to reapply the sunscreen. Generally SPF formulations are SPF 10, SPF 15, SPF 20, SPF 30, SPF 40, etc. Effectiveness of the sunscreen also depends on a few other things like the complexion, skin tone, and skin composition of a person.
Selecting products with the least harmful sunscreen ingredients, consuming plenty of antioxidants, and selecting the correct SPF factor of the sunscreen, are the three cornerstones to ensure healthy protection from the sun.