Choose the right sunscreen with this beauty-editor approved guide

Megan Douglas takes the guesswork out of choosing the right sunscreen for your skin and for the planet. Here’s how to decipher the ingredients in sunblock.

Summer’s here – and the sun is out at last, a bright exclamation point marking an end to all the turmoil of last year. If you’re anything like me, when you’re out in the sun, you feel better, happier. More alive somehow.

Of course, there are good reasons for this. Partly, it’s because summer is a mood. We associate it with holidays and the chance to relax, celebrate and get a little sand between our toes. But more than that, the summer sun also helps us replenish our stocks of vitamin D, boosting our immune system and helping us ward off stress.

Treated right and enjoyed in small doses at the right time of the day (think before 10am or after 4pm), the sun can be our friend and – in the light of the bad press it so often gets – this is something I’m always keen to stress to friends and family. But, like the coffee lover who goes back for her fourth cup of the day, it is possible to get too much of a good thing. (Not that I have any personal experience of too much coffee, of course. Well, maybe once, or twice, or…) Anyway! Excess is rarely a good thing, and that’s particularly true when it comes to the strong New Zealand sun.

If we want to avoid premature ageing and mitigate our risk of getting cancer, we need to cover up in the heat of the day. There are two ways we can do this. First up, we can wear wide-brimmed hats and lightweight clothing, which is both easy to do and can be fun in a creative sense.

And second? I won’t surprise any of you when I say we can (and should) apply sunscreen. But here’s the rub: When we slip, slop and slap, what do we really know about the sunscreen we’re applying, beyond the fact that it’s SPF50+ and stocked in the local supermarket? For most of us, the answer is not a lot – something that has to change, for our own health and that of our planet.

There are two broad classes of sunscreen:

  • Physical sunscreens, such as zinc and titanium-based SPFs, which work by sitting on the surface of the skin to block and scatter UV rays.
  • Chemical UV filter-based sunscreens, which contain active sun filters that penetrate the skin and absorb UV rays.

Of these, chemically derived UV filter sunscreens are the most widely used. They’re popular because they generally provide a lighter application, are non-sticky, don’t have an obvious whitening effect on the skin and are available in large sizes at highly competitive prices. But (be honest, you knew the “but” was coming, right?), there’s a problem. Actually, there are two problems.

Firstly, chemical sunscreens pose a threat to our environment, especially coral reefs, as they adversely affect coral and can also have a direct impact on oceans, rivers, lakes and streams. Studies show that across the world each year, up to 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen lotions are discharged into reefs. For anyone who has seen the consequences of this for natural wonders such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the impact is heartbreaking.

Secondly, there’s an increasing body of evidence that says chemical sunscreens are no good for us. In 2019 and 2020, the FDA published two studies showing that ingredients commonly found in chemical sunscreens (oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and avobenzone to name a few) are all systemically absorbed into our bodies after a single use, and at much higher levels than previously believed. Not only that, but they can also be detected on the skin and in blood weeks after application ends.

A further report, published in May 2019, also suggests a link between exposure to oxybenzone and a risk to developing foetuses.

Safety first

These findings are troubling, to say the least, even when allowing for the FDA’s rider that it does not have enough information to determine categorically whether these chemicals are causing harm at this time.

The question is – even if you set aside the consequences for our environment – why would you take the risk of using a chemical sunscreen? It’s always better to be safe rather than sorry. That’s why I’m a proponent of using physical sunscreens that block the sun’s rays and which rely on natural ingredients such as titanium oxide and zinc oxide; ingredients which, unlike their chemical counterparts, are labelled by the FDA as GRASE (that’s Generally Regarded as Safe and Effective).

Physical sunscreens are not only capable of guarding against the full spectrum of ultraviolet radiation, but also – and here’s the really good news – they’ve now reached a point in their development where they can compete with chemical sunscreens in terms of ease of application. Ready to slip, slop, slap? Think zinc! Think titanium! When it comes to sunscreen, it’s time to get physical.


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