Since moving to Australia, applying sunscreen is now a daily ritual of mine. I seriously can’t leave the house without it, even when it’s overcast. But it’s not as simple as slapping on any old or generic sunscreen and hoping for the best. Ever heard about chemical and physical (mineral-based) sunscreen and wondered what it means?
I used to find it quite confusing when deciding the right brand and type to use. To help you out, here are some facts that will hopefully make it a little clearer and easier for you when you get the next batch for you upcoming surf trip.
Do chemical sunscreens harm our bodies and the reef?
The compounds in chemical-based sunscreen must be absorbed into the skin in order to work. These ingredients are designed to absorb UV radiation from the sun. The chemicals cause a reaction that changes UV rays into heat and is then released from the skin. That’s why you have to apply the sunscreen at least 20 minutes before sun exposure to make it work. Recent studies have shown that chemical-based sunscreens contain potent endocrine disruptors, which means they can mess with our hormones. They can also cause skin reactions and produce cancer-causing free radicals. The scariest ingredients are Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Retinyl Palmitate, Homosalate, Octocrylene, Paraben Preservatives.
Two common ingredients of chemical-based sunscreen, namely Oxybenzone and Octinoxate (particularly found in spray-on sunscreens) also contribute to coral bleaching and leave reefs deformed. It disrupts the reproduction and growth of corals, which weakens the whole system. Therefore reefs can’t bounce back from global events like bleaching and ocean acidification. It also causes the coral larvae to encase itself in its own skeleton, like a coffin. Even small doses of Oxybenzone (about a drop in six-and-a-half Olympic swimming pools) can cause large amounts of damage to the coral.
How do physical/natural sunscreens work?
Physical sunscreens work differently. These physical UV filters (Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide) sit on top of the skin and work like a mirror. They reflect, scatter and block the suns rays before they can penetrate the skin. Because of this, physical sunscreens can be applied at the time of sun exposure and are also less likely to case any skin reactions, especially if you have sensitive skin. With this type of sunscreen it is super important to apply it properly as the sun can get between ‘gaps’. It also rubs off easily so make sure you apply it more frequently.
What about the Vitamin D?
Vitamin D plays a vital role in many of our bodies functions, including calcium absorption and bone growth. When your skin is exposed to sunlight, it makes vitamin D from cholesterol. The sun’s UVB rays hit cholesterol in the skin cells, providing the energy for vitamin D synthesis to occur. Most people (especially in Australia) reach their daily Vitamin D levels through regular incidental sun exposure. And even the best sunscreen can’t block 100% of the whole UV spectrum. There will always be some UVB getting through (unless you apply it from head to toe every hour, every day).
So what sunscreen should I choose?
It really comes down to personal preference. For me, the most important thing about sunscreens is that they are Oxybenzone and Octinoxate free to protect vulnerable reef systems. It should also be preservative, paraben and paba free to reduce the likelihood of skin irritations or have any negative impacts to my body and hormones.
Now that you know a little more about the difference of the two types of sunscreen, here are some of my favourite physical/mineral sunscreen brands: