It goes without saying that we all need to protect our skin from the damaging effects of excess sun exposure but do you actually know how to protect yourself and your family with sunscreen and how to choose sun care products?
In all honesty, up until recently I hadn’t really understood things like the difference between UVA and UVB rays, synthetic and mineral filers, and why there were so many different products of varying SPF factors. Surely, the higher the number, the more protection it offers and therefore, we should all be using SPF50+ to ensure maximum protection, right?
Choosing natural suncare over conventional sunscreen products is certainly worth looking into because, just as with any other skincare product – our skin, the largest organ, can be really affected by the chemical ingredients inside conventional sun care products,
In this post, I’d like to give you all the information that I’ve gathered myself, so that you can take it away, digest it and then make a decision for yourself before you buy the next sunscreen product. I’m writing this post as a consumer for informational purposes only and you are advised to do your own research as this post isn’t meant to replace professional or medical advice.
Let’s start with the obvious question:
Why is using suncream important?
The main obvious reason that I’m sure most of us will immediately think of is prevention of skin cancer but using sunscreen is also crucial in order to:
- prevent facial brown spots and pigmentation of the skin,
- help reduce the appearance of facial red veins and blotchiness, and
- slow down the development of wrinkled and prematurely ageing skin.
So why should I choose natural sun care products?
More of us are becoming aware of the harmful impact of synthetically-produced ingredients found in many skincare products, and this also applies to sun care.
Some of the key arguments for why you should opt for natural sun care products include:
- Natural sun care products don’t contain potentially harmful ingredients (more on these below), some of which are believed to be responsible for hormone disruption, allergic reactions or even worse, are carcinogenic and may lead long-term skin problems.
- Instead, natural sun care products rely on mineral filters: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (more on these below) which act as a barrier blocking UV (ultraviolet) rays. On the other hand, chemical sunscreens tend to absorb these rays, turning them into heat, and then neutralise once in the skin.
- Consequently then, natural sunscreens are less likely to cause skin irritation which is often caused by chemical UV filters.
- Most natural sun care products also contain soothing and skin-nourishing ingredients, including plant-based oils and butters, such as shea butter or jojoba oil.
What are UVA and UVB rays?
There are two kinds of UV (ultraviolet) rays that can affect the skin:
UVA rays are long-length rays which penetrate deep into the skin and they tend to age it (think ageing for ‘A’ in UVA). The result of excess UVA rays can lead to:
- loss of tightness in the skin,
- development of free radicals, as well as
- permanent harm to DNA, ultimately leading to prematurely ageing skin and wrinkles.
If you enjoy a nice tan after a summer holiday, then you’ll have the UVA rays to thank for as they cause the appearance of a tan. They do this by stimulating the pigment inside our skin (melanin) which we all produce to different degrees (depending on our skin type and heritage). In fact, melanin is an amazing thing in itself as it’s part of our natural defence against sun damage as it acts as a skin protector by filtering out UV light.
On the other hand, UVB rays are middle-length rays which typically cause sunburn (think burn for ‘B’). This is caused by them penetrating the top layer of your skin and triggering the production of melanin. The biggest damage that these rays have is the potential damage to the DNA at the heart of the skin cell, leading to skin cancer.
There are also UVC rays which have the shortest wavelength. Although they’re potentially very harmful to our skin, these rays are completely filtered out by the Earth’s atmosphere so they don’t affect us.
UV radiation isn’t only damaging to our skin but also to many products and their containers. Some UV filters are therefore used in non-sun care products to protect them or their ingredients from being damaged (this may mean things like colours fading or scents decomposing).
What is SPF?
Each sun care product will have a number on the label referring to SPF (sun protection factor). In a nutshell, SPF is a rating of how well a sun care product blocks the sun’s UVB rays to enable you to stay in the sun safely before getting burnt. SPF doesn’t protect you against UVA rays – these are typically labelled separately with a ‘star’ rating or sun creams are marked ‘broad spectrum’ meaning they offer protection against both UVA and UBV rays.
A common misconception is that if you use products with a higher SPF, then you get better protection. In fact, though, there is very little difference between different SPFs. As mentioned before, we all produce melanin which means that we all have our own sun protection time. So if you have quite sensitive skin and start burning after, say, five minutes, then a sun care product with SPF15 will give you extended protection for 75 minutes (5 minutes x SPF15 = 75 minutes) per day. Higher SPF, say SPF50, will give you longer safe sun exposure of 250 minutes per day (5mins x SPF50 = 250mins). It’s important to note here that this doesn’t mean how long one application of sunscreen will protect you against burning but how long you should stay in the sun per day. This is why you should reapply your sun cream, especially after swimming or when sweating excessively.
Here’s the difference in protection against UVB rays between various SPF factors:
- SPF4 filters out 75% of UVB rays & 25% UVB gets through
- SPF10 filters out 90% – 10% UVB gets through
- SPF15 filters out 93% – 7% UVB gets through
- SPF25 filters out 96% – 4% UVB gets through
- SPF30 filters out 97% – 3% UVB gets through
- SPF50 filters out 98% – 2% UVB gets through.
So, as you can see, there’s virtually no difference between SPF25, 30 and 50, but the higher SPF will of course allow you to stay in the sun for longer.
So what’s the difference between synthetic and mineral filters?
The two mineral UV filters are Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide. The main difference between mineral and synthetic sunscreens is that mineral ones work by providing a protective ‘shield’ and reflecting the sun’s rays, whereas synthetic sunscreens absorb the rays converting it into heat.
Zinc Oxide is the main mineral filter which protects against UVA rays, however you need to choose a sun care product with a high quantity of zinc oxide for it to sufficiently protect against sun damage. This means going for products that produce that unwelcome white cast on your skin when you apply it.
On the other hand, Titanium Dioxide is mineral filter that protects against UVA rays (to a smaller degree) as well as UVB rays.
One final thing to mention is that some UV filters can release free radicals which is why some sun care products will contain a selection of antioxidant ingredients to protect from free radical damage.
What synthetic filters should I avoid?
There’s a lot of them but the main are:
- Etylhexyl Methoxycinnamate, also known as Octylmethoxycinnamate
- Homosalate (HMS)
- Octyl-dimethyl-para-amin-benzoic Acid (OD-PABA)
- Octyl-methoyl-cinnamates (OMC)
- 4-Methylbenzylidene Camphor (4-MBC)
On top of those ingredients, some of which are believed to be damaging to our skin (as they can be endocrine disruptors, allergens or even carcinogenic), most conventional sun care products also contain harsh preservatives, including parabens, formaldehyde releasers, DEA, TEA as well as petrochemicals.
What about sun care for babies and children?
As children’s skin is much more sensitive, you should limit the amount of time they spend in the sun. You can follow these tips to ensure safe exposure in the sun:
- Babies under 6 months shouldn’t be exposed to the sun at all.
- Avoid the hottest time during the day between 12-3pm.
- Use UVB protective clothing and a wide-brimmed sun hat.
- Avoid sun care products with synthetic UV filters as well as harsh chemical ingredients. Instead opt for natural sun care with mineral filters and gentle ingredients.
- Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going out in the sun.
- Reapply frequently, especially after going into water.
Where can I buy natural sun care products?
My go-to place for all natural skincare products, including sun care, is LoveLula.
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Disclaimer: I’ve written this post as a consumer, not an expert. This post should only be used for informational purposes and does not replace professional or medical advice. You are advised to do your own research and whatever decision you decide to take following this article is done at your own risk.