As we move away from the cooler winter months and willingly open the doors to spring, most of us are thinking one thing – sun!
With the highly anticipated warmer months just a few weeks off, Aussies of all ages look forward to days on the beach, picnics at the park, and long, lazy BBQs in the sun. During this time, as every year, we see familiar slogans and ads popping up, warning us against the dangers of sun exposure, and reminding us to “slip, slop, slap”.
But with recent stirs in the media about the apparent dangers of store-bought sunscreen, are we really sun safe at all?
Just a few weeks ago, My Kitchen Rules star and Aussie Chef Pete Evans stirred some serious controversy over his rather shocking opinions on sunscreen. During a Q&A on Facebook, Evans stated, “The silly thing is, people put on normal chemical sunscreen then lay out in the sun for hours on end and think that they are safe because they have covered themselves in poisonous chemicals, which is a recipe for disaster as we are witnessing these days.”
It was this statement that shocked many Aussies, who, summer after summer, have prided themselves on their sun safe rituals, by wearing hats, covering up when possible, spending ample time in the shade, and most importantly – applying sunscreen each day.
If this statement is true, is there such a thing as safe sun exposure? And what does this mean for our much-loved Aussie summers?
To answer this question, we need to understand what causes sun damage, what our sunscreens are really made of, and what happens when the sun hits our sun-screened skin.
What causes sun damage?
The sun gives off three wavelengths of ultra-violet, UVA, UVB and UVC, but only UVA and UVB reach our skin, and both cause skin damage. Under the skin, these UVs are able to alter DNA, prematurely age your skin and, over time, create skin cancers and deadly melanomas.
Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, and despite the sun awareness campaigns and increased usage of sunscreen since the 1980s, melanoma is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in males and females.
In Australia, the age-standardised incidence rates for melanoma have increased from 26.7 per 100,00 in 1982, to 48.8 per 100,000 in 2014.
An SPF 15 sunscreen is said to protect against 93% of UV rays, SPF 30 against 97%, and SPF 50+ 98% of UV rays. SPF is a reference to roughly how long it takes for a person’s skin to burn or turn red. As advertised, an SPF 15 should protect your skin from getting damaged for 15 times longer, than if you didn’t use sunscreen.
However, the way we use sunscreen in real life differs to standard lab-testing conditions, and as you move and sweat, it rubs off.
Additionally, people often use only a quarter or half of the required amount of sunscreen and often forget to reapply.
What is sunscreen really made of?
To make matters worse, some of the chemicals in sunscreen have been accused of possibly being carcinogenic and promoting DNA damage in the presence of sunlight.
According to a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), scientists found that oxybenzone; a chemical UV blocker, penetrates the skin and is present in urine long after sunscreen is applied.
Most store bought sunscreens typically contain synthetic fragrances, parabens and chemical filters. They may include a combination of two to six of these active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate.
What happens to our sun-screened skin when the sun hits it?
Various laboratory studies of several sunscreen chemicals indicate that they may mimic hormones and disrupt the hormonal system.
Almost all chemical sunscreen blockers, perhaps counter-intuitively, break down in the presence of sunlight. In fact, this is how they block UV from penetrating the skin.
The problem with these active ingredients is that, when exposed to sun, they break down and create free radicals on the skin, and free radicals are known to be cancer causing.
So, even if you’re not being visibly burned, your skin can get damaged invisibly from these chemicals.
How does this happen?
Instead of being a sunblock that reflects the sun’s rays, these particles absorb the sun’s energy. The energy has to be released from the particle somehow, so it breaks down and creates free radicals.
So is there such a thing as safe sunscreen?
Mineral sunscreens are made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as active ingredients. They form a film on top of the skin that reflects or scatters UV light. In the past, they haven’t been as popular as mainstream sunscreens, as they can create a white and pasty sheath on your skin. A simple price to pay for a healthy complexion!
The best protection is, of course, to reduce exposure to the sun, especially between 11am and 4pm. Even if using mineral sunscreen, be sure to apply it frequently. Every hour if possible. We are not designed to have prolonged exposure to the sun. The natural reaction of our skin is to burn in the sun after a certain amount of time.
Safe sunscreen we love:
Soleo Organics: Not only is it organic, it contains no nasty preservatives and uses natural zinc as a protective reflector of UV rays. It’s easy to apply, and it doubles as a great moisturiser on your skin. Perfect!
Natural Instinct: This natural sun protection solution is free from all synthetic UV. This hydrating formulation uses natural ingredients and offers an invisible finish
WOT NOT: This SPF 30+ is GMO free and free from sulphates, petrochemicals, parabens, artificial preservatives and fragrances.
Are you doing everything you can to protect your skin in the sun? Share your hints with us in the comments!
About Jo Lam – Founder of Orli:
Jo Lam is the founder of the online natural beauty company, Orli. Growing up with traditional Indian and Chinese cultural influences left Jo with a life long appreciation for the healing properties of food, botanical extracts and essential oils for skin and well-being. Frustrated by the process of squinting at product labels in order to find truly genuine, organic skincare products, Jo begun sourcing her own selection of 100% natural, toxin free, cruelty free products curated under an online boutique umbrella, making it easy for people purchase absolutely ‘clean’ skincare. Jo is passionate about using beauty to create beauty and wanted to create a business with heart. She supports small niche Australian businesses and gives back 10% of full priced sales to ethical causes. For the latest in 100% natural and organic beauty products head to www.orli.com.au and follow Orli on instagram @orli_thenaturalbeautyco.