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Sweatpants & Beauty | Sunscreen: the Good, the Bad, and the Unnecessary

By Charlotte W.F. Smith

New year, new sunscreen article. Sure, we could just reshare our article from last year, but where’s the fun in that?! Today, we have an article to scare you into never going outside ever again in your life.

JUST KIDDING!

The sun is good! It gives us vitamin D, which I call the “depression dumper” vitamin for its ability to drastically improve mood, strengthen bones, decrease chances of asthma in kids, and possibly help treat blood sugar disorders. But the sun is a bit too powerful for the plain Jane skin of humans, and as a result, we have the wonderful invention of sunscreen, which blocks out some of the rays so we can reap all the benefits of sunlight with none of the sunburn and sun damage. Even I, a vehement sunscreen shunner for a lot of my life, have accepted sunscreen to be a necessary thing (much like taxes).

We’ve figured out that some sunscreen ingredients are just, well…crap. They do more harm than good. Some manufacturers still use them, for whatever reason (usually cost), but as consumers, we can make educated decisions and put our money where we want.

1) Citrus ingredients: Whether citrus extracts, essential oils, or juices, citrus ingredients are photosensitizing and can even be phototoxic (can cause chemically induced skin irritation triggered by a reaction with light). I have seen multiple lists of “safe” citrus ingredients that supposedly aren’t photosensitive, but as an esthetician, I sincerely caution against following that advice. I’ve seen the damage it can do, both firsthand and from observing friends and clients. Don’t be concerned about your favorite grapefruit cleanser, though. The general rule is if it gets washed off like a cleanser, scrub, or mask, or it’s used at night, then it’s safe to have these citrus ingredients. If you’re still concerned and don’t want to give up your daytime moisturizer that contains orange oil, call the manufacturer. They’re usually more than happy to discuss ingredient sourcing. Some companies are now trying to remove the components that can cause this sensitivity, so it never hurts to check. When in doubt, though? Go without.

2) Isopropyl and SD Alcohols: Rubbing alcohol? In sunscreen?? You betcha. This is actually a common cosmetic ingredient that’s meant to be a preservative and antiseptic. While it has its place in lipglosses and liquid lipsticks, it has no reason to be in your lotions, and especially in your sunscreens. Isopropyl and SD alcohol both majorly dehydrate the skin, causing sensitivities, rashes, contact dermatitis, and stripping the crucial lipid barrier to the skin. This is ESPECIALLY crucial in sunscreen for anyone with sensitive skin (babies, scarred skin, acneic skin, skin post-chemical treatment) and in after-sun products. The last thing skin that sensitized needs is something that’ll make it even more sensitive.

3) Nanoparticles: See, minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are fantastic sunscreens (and my personal favorite sunscreen ingredients). No, they don’t go on pure white like they used to! By shrinking the particles to micro or nano-sized particles, the sunscreen blends into the skin much easier. Some doctors have shown concern that these particles can irritate skin as well as be absorbed into the bloodstream. Since we don’t know what the effects are in the bloodstream long term, some doctors are cautioning their patients to avoid mineral sunscreens altogether. My opinion? Just look for “non-nano” in the active ingredients with these mineral sunscreens. As long as that’s there, your skin and your blood are safe.

4) Oxybenzone: This chemical sunscreen is a dual-purpose ingredient that penetrates active ingredients and filters UV, which makes sense in theory – better sunscreen absorption makes for happier skin. So, why stay away from this guy? Studies have shown that in large amounts ingested internally, oxybenzone can disrupt hormones. Well, you don’t eat your sunscreen, so no worries…right? Sadly, no. Sunscreen goes everywhere, and since it’s meant to be applied every day, it can both be ingested (think of grabbing a snack after rubbing your kid’s down with sunscreen) and by its chemical nature, absorbed deep into the skin. For super sensitive folks, oxybenzone can also cause an eczema-like reaction. Fun fact: according to the CDC, about 97% of the population has this currently circulating in their bodies. Yummy. While oxybenzone isn’t the most dangerous ingredient on this list, it’s still one I would avoid as much as humanly possible.

5) PABA: As long as I can remember begrudgingly having my mom put sunscreen on me, I remember the bottles saying PABA-free. I had no idea what that meant, and I didn’t really care since I just wanted to get away from the nasty smell and texture of that white gloopy mess. Para-aminobenzoic acid, I found out later, can actually increase the risk of UV damage. It also causes some nasty allergies and can change the color of clothing. PABA is actually used in several anesthetics, so if you react poorly to anesthesia, it’s likely you’re reacting to PABA and need a PABA-free sunscreen.

6) Parabens: Butter Every Morning’s Poptart. That’s how I remember the parabens to stay away from – butylparaben, ethylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben. These guys are a hot topic of conversation, and there are strong arguments on both sides. Professionally and personally, I stay away from parabens as much as I can. Too many studies have shown it to be a potential carcinogen for me to feel comfortable using products with parabens. Now, I get that I can’t be scared of the world around me and that I need to pick and choose my battles. Frankly, I’d rather die from eating too much bacon, taking too many baths, or sleeping too much than from sunscreen. There’s also the increased possibility of allergic reactions that come from using parabens, so my super sensitive friends out there might want to check their products at home.

7) Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A Palmitate): Ever heard of retinol? Retinol is derived from vitamin A. It’s an exfoliating, stimulating ingredient that can help many skin conditions, but can also be very, very sensitizing. I always suggest a higher SPF for my retinol-loving clients to ensure their exfoliated skin stays safe. Some manufacturers have decided to use this exfoliating, sensitizing ingredient in a sunscreen since it’s been used to treat low-grade skin cancer. The only reason it’s been used in treatment is that it basically exfoliates cancer off the skin. Using an ingredient with that much exfoliating power in a sunscreen seems a bit unwise, in my opinion. Leave the vitamin A to your nighttime serums and eye creams.

8) SPF Above 50 (Really More Like 30): More is not always better, and in this case, is often a lie. SPF 15 blocks about 93% of the sun’s UVB rays, and is what I personally use and recommend for most of my clients. For those who are a little more sensitive, use more aggressive ingredients, or find they still burn with 15, I push them to SPF 30 which blocks out 97% of those rays. If 30 still isn’t enough, I move up to SPF 50 which blocks out 98%. The numbers plateau after that, pretty understandably. SPF 100+ blocks out 99.1% of the UVB rays, which means that for a much higher price tag you’re blocking out a an extra whopping 1.1%. That’s not enough to justify using that high an SPF and can actually cause excess buildup in the skin (in layman’s terms: blackheads and acne). Just remember to have a timer handy to reapply every hour or two instead of going with a higher SPF.

Comrades, consider yourself armed in the battle against nasty sunscreen ingredients! Venture forth and slather on. (Oh, and remember: sunscreen over a year old is expired. Throw that bad boy out! I don’t care if you only used it once, it’s a fancy brand, or it still smells fine. It’s expired. Throw it out.)

Charlotte Smith is an esthetician licensed in Tennessee and Georgia. She’s married to a lumberjack version of Deadpool, is obsessed with huskies, is straight up in quarter-life crisis mode, and loves pretty much anything that could be considered creepy.

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