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When It Comes to Protecting Your Skin, Choose Mineral Sunscreen

As a woman in my 30s who is thinking about getting pregnant again after recently having a miscarriage, I’ve been taking a careful look at everything that goes onto my skin and into my body. To be clear, I do not believe that the miscarriage was caused by anything I did or didn’t do, but it has led to a time of reflection. I started therapy, went to a psychic (who asked if she could “mentally peer inside” my uterus; this was on Zoom, so I agreed), and began seeing a naturopath.

All this to say, I have been doing everything I can to make sure my reproductive system is humming along at its full capacity. My new regimen includes drinking tons of water, eating more greens, skipping that second glass of wine (sometimes), and avoiding endocrine disrupting chemicals (or EDCs) when I can.

It’s easy enough to avoid certain well-known endocrine disruptors like BPAs or parabens by switching to glass packaging and natural cleaning products, but avoidance gets tricky when the EDCs are in something I know I need to be using every day – that skincare essential that we all both love and hate: sunscreen.

Do You Need to Wear Sunscreen? Yes! 

The facts don’t lie. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70, and having just five or more sunburns doubles your risk of melanoma, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Harmful sun exposure is not only a problem for those with fair skin. People with all skin tones need to wear (and reapply) sunscreen regularly. “People of color have a reduced risk of skin cancer compared to white people, but their risk is not zero,” dermatologist Dr. Dina Strachan says. The danger is even greater given that BIPOC patients are often diagnosed with skin cancer in later stages of the disease, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.  

The catch-22 is that while everyone needs to be wearing sunscreen daily, a little bit of time outside sans SPF is also important for our body’s production of a vital hormone: vitamin D. (Yes, despite its name, vitamin D is actually a hormone.) The amount of time you go bare also depends on your skin tone, but the bottom line is, a little bit – around 15 minutes a few times a week – goes a long way.

While skin cancer prevention is the most important use of sunscreen, this easy skincare step has a variety of other benefits. Unprotected sun exposure causes wrinkles, premature aging, and hyperpigmentation, and can lead to sun damaged skin and UV damage on a cellular level.

“The incidence of photosensitive conditions such as lupus and polymorphous light eruption are more common in people of color,” Dr. Strachan adds. “Cosmetically, people of color may not develop wrinkles as easily from sun exposure, but they may develop discolored skin, both dark and light spots.”

The solution is as easy as applying SPF every single day. But when it comes to protecting your whole health, the type of sunscreen you wear also matters.

Ditch the Chemical Sunscreen…

Ever since the first UVA/UVB sunscreens were developed in the late 1970s, the most common sun protection has been what is known as chemical sunscreen, which uses ingredients like avobenzone, octocrylene, and the most popular, oxybenzone (sometimes called benzophenone-3). These chemicals are absorbed into the skin and in turn absorb harmful UV rays, which they convert into heat.

While these sunscreen ingredients have been widespread for decades, emerging research suggests that common UV filters, including oxybenzone, found in chemical sunscreens may disrupt hormones like estrogen and serotonin. This hormonal disruption can lead to reproductive challenges, allergies, the development of certain diseases, and more health problems.

A 2020 report from Reproductive Toxicology found that when oxybenzone was administered to pregnant rats in quantities that correlated to the amount a human would be exposed to through typical use, the rats, who were in the equivalent of their first trimester, had fetuses that were underweight with lower amounts of nutrients and oxygen. They also produced a greater number of female fetuses, indicating that oxybenzone may disrupt the development of male hormones.

This is just one of a handful of studies indicating similar results. While researchers are still determining to what extent these chemicals may be disruptive to human health, emerging research suggests that common ingredients in chemical sunscreen (avobenzone, oxybenzone, and octocrylene) show up in the bloodstream within hours of a single application, and not just in trace amounts, but in as much as 400 times what is considered safe.

Additionally, many chemical sunscreens also contain parabens and phthalates, two known endocrine disruptors that are common in beauty and skincare products, Dr. Alexis Parcells, owner of Parcells Plastic Surgery, says.

The absorption of potentially harmful chemicals isn’t the only concern with these types of sunscreens. If you’ve noticed your skin feels itchy or off after applying them, it could be because of the conversion of UV rays into heat, which can cause heat-based chemical reactions on the skin and lead to irritation, especially in people who experience rosacea or psoriasis.

These concerns may be enough to make you want to stay inside all summer, but no one wants to miss their coveted beach days. The good news is that some brands are starting to make EDC-free chemical sunscreens. But until they become more widely available, there’s an easy and increasingly popular alternative to chemical sunscreen.

Switch to Mineral Sunscreen, Instead

We know we need to wear sunscreen all the time, every day. As Dr. Michele Koo says, even when you can’t see the sun, the sun can see you. So, what can you do? Fortunately, the answer is not choosing between skipping the sunblock or the pool. Instead, slather on the mineral (also called “physical”) sunscreen and enjoy your day in the sun.

Physical sunscreens work by sitting on top of your skin and blocking UV rays at the surface. Dr. Koo says she personally prefers these sunscreens because they actually deflect the harmful UVA & UVB rays. “They are more complete sunscreens [though they can be] more opaque and difficult to apply. Mineral sunscreens provide sun protection with the minerals titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. [These are] the two ingredients the FDA feels are completely safe for sunscreen and, as an added plus, they are not considered harmful to coral reefs and marine life.”

Dr. Strachan recommends mineral sunscreen to her patients precisely because it's a physical blocker that may be more effective for patients with conditions such as melasma or hyperpigmentation. They are also the best pregnancy-safe sunscreen option.

This is all great news until the image of an old-school lifeguard with a thick sludge of white cream on their nose comes to mind. Or that now infamous photo of Mark Zuckerberg surfing in Hawaii. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide can sometimes leave a white cast, an annoyance that is especially noticeable in people with melanated skin tones.

The good news is that “these days, there are a variety of tinted sunscreens that do not leave a cast,” Dr. Parcells says. To avoid that chalky look, opt for a mineral sunscreen that includes micronized zinc and titanium dioxide that will more fully absorb into the skin. There are also tinted sunscreens available, though the current options are not as shade inclusive as they should be.

Still, mineral sunscreen may take a little more effort to apply evenly and blend than chemical sunscreen. It should also be reapplied at least every 80 minutes and immediately after swimming if the formula is not water-resistant. But the time and effort are well worth the peace of mind knowing that your sunscreen is not allowing unwanted chemicals to swim around in your bloodstream.

Whether or not you choose a mineral sunscreen, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind when it comes to protecting your skin: 

  • Proper application is key: Physical sunscreen can be slathered on immediately before heading out the door. If you opt for EDC-free chemical sunscreen, make sure to apply it 30 minutes before sun exposure. Dr. Parcells says you can also use a combination of both physical and EDC-free chemical sunscreens, as each has unique benefits. If you decide to double up, apply the chemical sunscreen first, followed a few minutes later by the mineral.

  • Choose the right number: Try to keep your SPF between 30 and 50. Over 50 can give you a false sense of security that you are getting more sun protection than you actually are.

  • Use caution with sprays: The most important thing is wearing whatever sunscreen you have on hand. But if you choose a spray, pay close attention when applying as it can go on unevenly and leave certain hard-to-reach body parts vulnerable to sunburn.

  • Don’t forget your extremities: The tops and palms of hands, tops of feet, your ears, and exposed scalp are often overlooked when applying sunscreen, but they are all prone to sunburn.

  • Reapply Regularly: Your sun protection job isn’t finished after you apply your lotion for the day. Don’t forget to slather on another layer every 80 minutes.

  • Dress for sun success: If you’re going to be spending a long day outside, consider also wearing a rash guard or choosing a bathing suit with SPF protection, two options that are also great ideas for your kids.

With so many new products popping up, it’s easier than ever to make the switch to mineral or EDC-free sunscreen. Not only is it better for your health and the environment, but unlike chemical sunscreen, it’s more photostable, meaning the formula won’t change when exposed to sunlight. So, as long as it’s stored properly, it’ll last you a long time, even with all that re-application you’ll be doing this summer.

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