Is Sunscreen Safe?

Several months ago, while standing in line at Whole Foods, I started reading the print on the side of one very famous red, black and white bag printed up by an even more famous yoga attire company and I read these words: “Sunscreen absorbed into the skin might be worse for you than sunshine” . 

What!? At first blush I was shocked, and then furious. Was this a responsible message without more context? I didn’t think so, but I also didn’t know enough to know just how irresponsible this message was. As someone that works outside for a living I have to use sunscreen daily. Was I doing more harm than good?

Unsure, I turned to my gal Shelly Belinko, who is the most credible person I know on the topic of natural beauty products. Her company, Blinking Owl Acres, is a makeup and body care company that is uncompromising when it comes to transparency on what goes into their products. Shelly is the first to point out that the natural beauty industry is full of fear mongering on one side, and so much “green washing” on the other. Shelly offered to write a blog educating all of us on the sunshine vs. sunscreen debate, and settles once and for all what to use on your skin to protect it from excessive sun exposure while also keeping you safe. What follows is Shelly breaking down the debate and sharing her best tips for choosing a safe sunscreen!

Texans know sun is no joke, but do we fear the sun too much, or not enough? Here’s the scoop on sunshine and sunscreen:

The best way to navigate sun exposure is to find balance. A holistic approach to anything requires consideration of the whole system rather than small aspects taken out of context. Sun exposure triggers your body to produce essential Vitamin D, and hormones like melatonin which regulate restful sleep and good moods. Yet too much unprotected sun exposure causes sunburns, accelerates aging, and may trigger development of skin cancer. Finding the sweet spot becomes easy if you know a bit more about sunlight and sun protection.

Let’s start with sunlight. It reaches the earth in the form of ultraviolet light (UV for short). 95% of UV rays that reach us are UVA, 5% are UVB. What most of us associate with harsh afternoon sun (between 10am and 4pm) and sunburn is the result of UVB rays. While UVB rays might motivate most people to slather on the sunscreen at the pool or beach, it is those UVA rays that are much more penetrating.

UVA rays, the ones that make up 95% of UV radiation, are present during all daylight hours, and all seasons. They penetrate cloud cover and they penetrate glass. They also penetrate our skin’s protective layer and reach deep down affecting collagen production and triggering wrinkles and fine lines.

If you want to remember the difference, you can think of the A in UVA for AGE and the B in UVB for BURN.

However, I believe that in modern western society, sun exposure is demonized somewhat excessively and the beautiful healing energy of the sun is not addressed enough. For example, while it is true that UV exposure could cause skin cancer, it has also been found that Vitamin D, triggered by an appropriate amount of sun exposure, actually reduces incidences of other forms of cancer! And, countless studies have confirmed what we instinctively know to be true: sunlight makes us happier and more productive. It fills us with life energy and calibrates our bodies’ circadian rhythms. Now, how do we find that balance between healthy sun exposure and proper sun protection? First, not all times of day are equal. Early morning (pre-9am) sun exposure is great. If you have the time to step out into the early morning sunshine for 15-30 minutes without sunscreen, you will jump start your body’s systems and be on track for hormone and Vitamin D production.

Optimally, you want to stay away from direct 10am-4pm sun. Although, for those of us working outside, this is not always possible. Furthermore, even those of us working inside or driving during those times, might be inadvertently getting UVA exposure. Remember, UVA (aging) rays penetrate glass – so they go right through your windshield and mess with your skin’s youthful glow and elasticity. Thankfully, your youthful beauty is easily protected if you use the right type of sunscreen. I recommend that everyone apply sunscreen to face, neck, chest and backs of hands daily to prevent dark spots and easily fight those early signs of aging. For those of us working in more exposed conditions, you probably want to apply to other exposed areas (shoulders, back of neck, etc).

These days, with thousands of options lining the shelves, and all sorts of misleading product labels, how should you go about choosing a sunscreen? Here are some pointers:

  • SPF is only a measurement of how well sunscreen protects you from sunburn! This means it is only referring to UVB rays! SPF15 filters out approximately 93% of incoming UVB rays. SPF 30 filters up to 97%. SPF 50 keeps out 98% of incoming UVB rays. These will all keep you from burning in the sun longer, but will not necessarily protect you from the more penetrating and less noticeable UVA rays.
  • “Broad Spectrum” means that the sunscreen protects from both UVA and UVB rays. Always get broad spectrum sunscreen!
  • Physical sunscreens are the natural mineral sunscreens: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. They are both broad spectrum, although zinc oxide provides more protection against UVA than titanium dioxide. They are much gentler on skin and better for the environment. The cons are that they must be reapplied to physically maintain a barrier on your skin, and that unless they are nano-sized particles, they will leave a whitish tint on your skin.
  • Chemical sunscreens contain active ingredients such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, etc. They absorb UV rays into the skin and convert them into heat. They can cause brown spots or discoloration due to high skin temperatures and may cause irritation to sensitive skin, however, the big draw of these sunscreens seems to be that they tend to be lighter weight and transparent.
  • Beware of tricky labeling! I have seen sunscreen labeled “ZINC OXIDE SUNSCREEN” in huge letters, and then the active ingredients were chemical sunscreens, not zinc oxide!

I personally use and recommend zinc oxide sunscreens. The weight and stickiness of the sunscreen will vary depending on the base it is in, so if you don’t like sticky sunscreens, try one with lighter oils, or less beeswax. For the face, my mineral makeup contains zinc oxide so it works double duty to protect my skin.

I hope you enjoyed this article! Questions? Feel free to contact us at:

Shelly Belinko is the owner and founder of Blinking Owl Acres, and the smartest person we know on all things natural beauty!

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