The Green Girl Learns About Sun Protection

When I run in the sun, I always cover myself from head to toe with sunscreen and throw on a baseball cap to keep the sun out of my eyes and the sweat off my face. I tried wearing sunglasses but it was really uncomfortable. I felt like there wasn't enough room for the hat to fit properly when I had sunglasses on. I figured as long as I pulled the cap down as low as possible, I was protecting my eyes and face from the sun's harmful rays.

A television news segment warning consumers of the dangers of ineffective and potentially toxic sunblocks and sunscreens prompted me to start looking into sun protection options. In my research, I discovered dermatologists recommend wearing both a hat and sunglasses.

After reading this, I started searching for some inexpensive sunglasses with UV protection that would fit comfortably with my running hat. I discovered many frames are much too large for my head. Finally, at Target, I managed to find a pair of Ironman Foster Grant TL2-HVC Triathlon sunglasses. They fit well and I love how the frame is made of a flexible and lightweight rubber material. I tried them on runs both with and without the hat and was pleased with the results.

When it comes to sun protection, you want a product with broad spectrum protection that offers protection from both Ultraviolet-A (UVA) and Ultraviolet-B (UVB) rays. UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin and are known to cause long-term problems such as wrinkles and some cancers. UVB rays, which cause suntans and sunburns, are known to cause most skin cancers.

The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of a product tells how long you may stay in the sun while wearing the sun protection product as opposed to not wearing any sun protection product. SPF essentially measures “time to burn.”

Here's how to interpret SPF:
  • Take the time you would normally burn in the sun without protection. 20 minutes would normally produce redness on a light skinned individual.
  • Multiply that number by the SPF factor of your product. Example: with an SPF 15 times 20 minutes of sunburn time = 15 x 20 = 300 tells how many minutes you may stay in the sun without burning. 300 minutes divided by a 1 hour of 60 minutes = 5 hours of sun protection without sunburn.

I discovered there is a difference between sunblock and sunscreen:
  • Sunblock - an opaque formulation which absorbs, reflects and scatters up to 99% of both UV and visible light
  • Sunscreen - synthetic chemicals that either absorb or deflect damaging ultraviolet rays (specific wavelengths - range of 200-400 nm)
From "Chemical Sunscreens - When Are We Safe?" by Virginia Culler, here are some common sunblock and sunscreen ingredients:

An ideal sunblock would be free of synthetic chemicals, parabens, PABA and nano particles. Synthetic chemicals are man made and do not occur naturally. Parabens are synthetic chemicals used as preservatives in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. PABA is an organic compound that was once widely used as a UV filter. It has been determined that PABA increases the formation of a particular DNA defect in human cells, thus increasing the risk of skin cancer. Nano particles are smaller than anything humans have ever put into commercial products before - a nanometer is a billionth of a meter. The process to break down a substance into a nano particle size significantly changes the characteristics. Sunscreens use nano particles to make them more transparent. Some manufacturers erroneously claim their "micronized" particles are not nanoparticles.

With my new found knowledge, I scrutinized the ingredients of all the sun protection products I own. I discovered I didn't own any sunblock and all my sunscreens contained oxybenzone. Oxybenzone is an organic compound that is commonly used in sunscreens (obviously my collection supports this fact). This ingredient absorbs UVA rays but also has been shown to penetrate into the skin where it acts as a photosensitizer. In othe words, oxybenzone increases photosensitivity of an organism and actually makes your skin more sensitive to the sun's rays. This makes this substance a likely photocarcinogen.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested nearly 1,000 name-brand sunscreens to gauge their stated UVA protection, potential health hazards and stability in sunlight. They posted their results here.

It took me about a month to find a suitable sunblock replacement for all my ineffective sunscreens. Based on my research, I knew I wanted something that was free of parabens, PABA and nano particles, was at least SPF 30 and contained at least 7% titanium or zinc oxide.

I went to multiple Kmart and Target stores and every single product they sold contained oxybenzone. Countless drug stores had a few products that contained 3% titanium or zinc oxide but I couldn't find anything with at least 7%.

The only store that carried sunblocks that came close to meeting my requirements was Whole Foods. They carried a number of EWG's top 10 sunblocks. They also all had a price tag over $20. I have yet to find a sunblock that does not contain micronized titanium or zinc oxide. I understand the reason why they want smaller particles is so that the product doesn't leave a heavy white residue and can be more sheer but what about consumer safety?

I wish my sun protection post had a perfect fairy tale ending but for now, I'm not willing to pay that much for my sunblock. Instead, I settled for Trader Joe's $3.99 house brand sunscreen lotion SPF 30+ which contains 7.5% octinoxate, 5% octisalate, 2.5% oxybenzone and 10% micronized zinc oxide. Yes, micronized. This sunscreen was reviewed by the EWG. My logic is that the 10% zinc oxide will block the UV rays before they can get to the oxybenzone and start creating cancer. It's not too greasy and has virtually no scent. I'm going to email Trader Joe's and ask them to consider making an oxybenzone free product with a non-micronized oxide.

Oh, I'm also going to try to eat plenty of dark green, red, and yellow fruits and vegetables, to keep my skin healthy and less prone to skin damage.


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