Ask the Pharmacist

Q) I have been hearing all about these new sunscreens that are supposed to be reef friendly. Is there really any difference?

A) Sunscreens have evolved over the years, in particular the last decade. Many sunscreen products are comprised of the most challenging ingredients such as the parabens and the phthalates, both of which can disrupt our endocrine system. Our endocrine system is our feedback system that regulates our body and our glands such as our pancreas and thyroid that release hormones in response to changing conditions within our body. Thus, it should come as no surprise to learn that these ingredients have been removed from most of the best products.

Still, there are more options than ever so sorting through the myriad of choices can be very challenging, especially for those who are environmentally inclined. Fortunately, there are some general rules one can follow that make the decision making process a little bit easier.

1) SPF LEVEL- (i.e. the sun protection factor) is the measure of how much radiation you can be subjected to from the sun before you burn. The higher the SPF, the lower the chance of a sunburn. Most experts suggest using an SPF of at least 30 which blocks 97% of the sun’s UVB rays. Note this does not mean it will protect you all day. Sunscreens need to be reapplied at least every two hours and after you have been swimming in water.

Note:  The SPF has no measure of a sunscreens protection versus UVA rays which make up 95% of all the UV rays that make it to the Earth’s surface. UVA damages the collagen and elastin in our skin resulting in the effects known as “ageing” such as wrinkles and other unwanted signs of skin deterioration. A “broad spectrum” type of sunscreen will also protect against UVA as well as the burning and skin cancer producing UVB rays.

2) INGREDIENTS- The general rule here is less is better. Try to avoid products with unnecessary ingredients such as fragrances and oils that are added for scent or cosmetic appeal. These, particularly fragrances, are the most common cause of allergic type reactions to sun-care products.

The other big question is whether to use ingredients that provide physical protection (e.g. titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) versus chemical protection (virtually all other ingredients). Physical sunscreens are preferred if you have sensitive skin, are susceptible to heat sensitivity or if being applied to young infants because their mineral formulations sit on top of the skin (kind of like a shirt) to literally block the sun’s rays. They also have the advantage of working instantly rather than the 15 minutes or so it takes for a chemical sunscreen to start working. Chemical sunscreens need to sink into the skin where they trigger a chemical reaction that absorbs the sun’s rays and turns it into heat before it is released from the body.

For some, specific added ingredients can be of benefit. For instance, ingredients such as niacinamide can help reduce pigmentation, redness and “brown” spots that some of us experience to a greater degree after sun exposure. Tinted sunscreens that contain iron oxide can protect your skin against conditions that are worsened from exposure to visible light (note this is different than ultraviolet light) such as melasma (a skin characterized by brown or bluish-grey patches ) and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

CONSISTENCY- buying a product that just feels right can be the difference between using a product whenever you’re going to be outside for more than just a few minutes to only applying one when you expect to be out for an extended period of time. Thicker sunscreens can be great for the neck down but problematic for the face since our face is both more sensitive and many of these more viscous products can be greasier which can cause problems with our complexion.

For the face, gel type formulations or ones that use a lightweight serum-like option are rapidly gaining popularity. As much as dermatologists love mineral formulations, they do tend to be chunkier and pastier making them less desirable especially for those with darker skin tones. To minimize this, look for physical sunscreens that advertise nano-size particles as they will rub in and blend far more easily.

ENVIRONMENTAL FRIENDLINESS- It turns out that sunscreens are much like food, ignore the nice marketing words such as dietetic (in food labeling) or clean (when it comes to sunscreens) that the manufacture is free to use on their shiny labels. Product label regulation is still a distant fantasy.

Instead, once again, look at your ingredients. When we swim, 25% of our sunscreen’s ingredients are left behind in the water so using ingredients that are biodegradable is important. That’s important if swimming in our beautiful great lakes and even more critical should you be lucky enough to be swimming in an area where coral reefs are still around. Common ingredients such as oxybenzone & octinoxate can deform baby corals and increase coral susceptibility to bleaching & viruses. Other environmentally hazardous ingredients include homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene and avobenzone.

What ingredient is both biodegradable and not linked to any health concerns.? Well, it’s the physical sunblock zinc oxide once again, although if you’re swimming near a reef, experts suggest using a pastier type formulation that is not nano-sized.

All of this can confusing since there is a lot of information, and misinformation, out there. If you’re not sure, please ask your pharmacist or skin care specialist and they would be happy to help point the way. Just have an idea of what’s most important to you (i.e. eco-friendly, child friendly, sensitive skin, appealing to wear….) and we can go from there! For more information about this or any other health related topics, contact your pharmacist.