Could you sun scream be damaging your health? New research suggests it’s time to rethink your sun-protection strategy

We’ve long been told to slap on the sun cream to protect against skin cancer. But now worrying new evidence is revealing that rather than protect you, some sun creams could be so laden with chemicals they may harm you instead. In addition, some of us may be covering up so effectively we’re failing to replenish our stores of vitamin D.

Description: The new sun-safety rules

The new sun-safety rules

Sunscreens work in two ways – either as a barrier on the skin or by penetrating the skin and absorbing UV light. But just what ingredients are getting into our skin? One recent study, led by chemistry professor Yinfa Ma from Missouri University in the US, has flagged up the potential danger of nanoparticles used in some barrier sunscreens. His study found that when exposed to sunlight, the nanoparticles (small particles that behave as a whole unit) undergo a chemical reaction that releases free-radical molecules into your body. Emily Kavanaugh, organic skin care producer and director at purenuffstuff.co.uk warns against using sunscreens containing these nanoparticles, found in mass market, high-street products rather than natural or organic items. ‘Nanoparticles are the tiniest form of chemicals that can enter the bloodstream, and they’re best avoided,’ she says.

Get sunscreen smart

‘Natural’ sun-care products are almost always of the barrier type and use the minerals zinc oxide or titanium dioxide – but in larger particles rather than the more worrying nanoparticles.

A new, sophisticated generation of natural sun creams uses ‘micro light’ or finely ground minerals instead. ‘Years ago, natural barrier creams used to leave traces of white mineral on your skin. The new micro light creams sit on the surface of the skin and look much better,’ explains Sharon Cass, skincare specialist at Priori skincare.

The older creams were absorbed by the skin and often used chemicals such as Alcohol Denat to enhance penetration. ‘You don’t need to be a chemist to realize that whatever else is in the bottle is more likely to be taken in your skin along with the alcohol,’ says Kavanaugh. And in high street creams, this can often mean chemical preservatives, artificial colourants and perfumes.

In its 2012 Sunscreen Guide, the Environmental Working Group warns there may be harmful ingredients in some sunscreens, including Retinyl Palmitate and Oxybenzone that may cause allergic reactions and hormone disruption. Other nasties to look out for are petrochemicals, Parabens and phthalates. ‘The danger isn’t down to one or two chemicals. Instead, it’s the cocktail effect of the combination of chemicals,’ says Kavanaugh.

Description: ‘The danger isn’t down to one or two chemicals. Instead, it’s the cocktail effect of the combination of chemicals,’

‘The danger isn’t down to one or two chemicals. Instead, it’s the cocktail effect of the combination of chemicals,’

With no test for the long-term dangers of such a cocktail, the best advice is to keep your exposure to a minimum by using the most natural, organic products available and covering up whenever possible. But make sure you let enough sunlight reach your skin to top up vitamin D levels.

Healthy Sun Care strategies

1.    Change your sunscreen

Read the label and choose a product with as few chemicals as possible. Ideally, choose a physical barrier sunscreen that uses sun-blocking minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, but avoid one that includes them in nanoparticles form. At present, there’s no law that says manufacturers have to state whether a product contains nanoparticles on the label. However, as a rule of thumb, ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ products don’t contain them and are free from nasty preservatives, artificial colourants and perfumes, so these are likely to be safer.

2.    Apply it right

Instead of automatically slapping on sunscreen without thinking about it, only apply it when you really need to. It’s not much use if you’re spending the day indoors, or covering up your body once you’ve applied it. Only apply it when you skin is exposed to the sun.

3.    Cover up instead

Even better than slathering on sun cream is covering up. Wear loose, cool clothing with long sleeves and a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face and neck. Or try Sunsibility UV protective clothing (sensibility.co.uk), with a built-in sun protection factor 50. The company also sells arm bands that change colour when you’ve had too much sun.

4.    Top up your vitamin D

While it’s important to protect your skin, you still need a regular dose of sunlight to top up your vitamin D levels. ‘Vitamin D maintains strong bones and a healthy immune systems,’ says Dr William Marshall, clinical biochemist at The London Clinic. It also regulates normal cellular differentiation, helping prevent cancer. The amount of sun exposure you need is relatively small and won’t put you at risk of skin cancer, about 20 minutes between 10am and 3pm three times a week during the summer,’ he says.

Five healthy sun-care products

1.    Green People Sun Lotion SPF25

Price: $ 28 for 200ml

Website: greenpwople.co.uk

Part of an award-wining natural sun-care and body range, this is zinc oxide-free and gives protection with titanium dioxide.

Description: Green People Sun Lotion SPF25

Green People Sun Lotion SPF25

2.    Suntegrity SPF30

Price: $38 for 118ml

Price: tinarichards.com

Uses nano-free zinc oxide plus anti-ageing ingredients in a non-drying, non-greasy formula. Works well under make-up and has gorgeous packaging as an added bonus.

Description: Suntegrity SPF30

Suntegrity SPF30

3.    Aubrey Natural Sun Green Tea SPF30

Price: $22 for 118ml

Website: aubreyorganics.co.uk

Organic herbal sunscreen with antioxidant green tea for extra protection against free-radical damage, plus jojoba and shea butters to help soften skin

Description: Aubrey Natural Sun Green Tea SPF30

Aubrey Natural Sun Green Tea SPF30

4.    Priori Natural Daily Protection SPF25

Price: $63 for 120ml

Website: cosmestore.co.uk

The smooth finish has a slight tint, and light-reflective particles add a sun-kissed glow.

Description: Priori Natural Daily Protection SPF25

Priori Natural Daily Protection SPF25

5.    Pure Nuff Stuff SPF20 sunscreen

Price: $19 for 250ml

Website: purenuffstuff.co.uk

Chemival – and scent-free, with moisturizing almond oil.

Pure Nuff Stuff SPF20 sunscreen

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