Posted by Jesper Danielsson on 4 December 2018 | Comments

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Tanned skin, at least in Western cultures, has long been considered a sign of beauty and wealth. On the other hand, Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with two out of three Australians diagnosed with skin cancer at some point throughout their life. Many people use sunscreen in their everyday life, and it has been proven that long-term use of sun protection will help to prevent skin cancer.

Sunscreen is what protects us from harmful ultraviolet light. It is usually a spray, lotion or a cream. Since the late 1920s, sunscreen has been commercially available, and with the increased research on the connection between ultraviolet light and damage to skin, the market for sunscreen products has grown rapidly.

Ocean Rafting 11

Photo: Ocean Rafting

There are two general types of sunscreen, which are either made from chemicals or minerals. Chemical sunscreen (ironically also called organic sunscreen), works in such a way that it absorbs ultraviolet light. It is composed of various chemical ingredients, where oxybenzone and octinoxate are two of the most commonly used chemicals. Although it is a popular sunscreen among customers, researchers have found oxybenzone to be damaging to both humans and ecosystems. There are multiple features of the chemical which makes it dangerous.

One harmful aspect is that the chemical penetrates the human skin and has been found in blood tests, urine samples and breast milk. Evidence suggests that oxybenzone has a negative impact on hormone production, causing skin allergies, and that it can also lower testosterone levels in boys.

Sunscreen ends up in the environment in two ways: either directly from when we go for a swim or engage in other water activities, or indirectly through wastewater treatment plans.

One destructive aspect of the chemicals used in sunscreen is their ability to dissolve in water. This makes it difficult for wastewater treatment plans to pick them up, consequently allowing them to re-enter waterways, and be absorbed by coral reefs. Oxybenzone has been named as one of the major threats to coral reef bleaching, which will have a very negative impact on marine animals.

There is an evident correlation with human activity and where the chemical is found, although the chemical has been found in water sources across the world, the highest concentration is found in popular coastal areas. Recent research has also found that oxybenzone moves with water current and has been found in the Arctic.  

Tourism whitsundays 2

 Photo: Tourism Whitsundays

Mineral sunscreen, on the other hand, reflects and blocks out ultraviolet light. It is composed of natural minerals such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Mineral sunscreen provides good sun protection, and some of these sunscreens leave a white chalky layer, which is often associated with surfers and lifeguards. The white layer is a reason why many people have often chosen to use chemical sunscreen rather than mineral sunscreens, however today, mineral sunscreen often includes zinc oxide nanoparticles, which assist in leaving a less white layer.

Researchers have no consistent answer regarding the extent to which mineral based sunscreen impacts on the environment and humans, however, there is an agreement among researchers that mineral sunscreen has less impact on the environment compared to chemical-based products. Although mineral sunscreen is less harmful to humans, it could be damaging if inhaled from spray sunscreen, leading to lung damage (learn more here and here). However, with all the natural ingredients, it is recommended for people with sensitive skin and eczema to use mineral sunscreen.

In this sunburnt country, and with the current high rate of skin cancer, there is a need to increase public understanding of sun protection and to make it fashionable again. Most Australians are aware of the phrase ‘slip, slop, slap’, where applying sunscreen on its own is not enough sun protection. With that in mind and applications to help us understand what times of the day sunlight may be most harmful, we are off to a good start. Importantly, whilst this article talks about sunscreen the Cancer Council suggests wearing suitable clothing such as shirts, hats and sunglasses should be our primary choices for sun protection.

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So which sunscreen is best?

One of our favourite mineral sunscreen brands is UV natural sunscreen sport. This is a water-resistant vegan sunscreen. The natural ingredients include antioxidants and it’s made with a non-greasy formula. Another favourite is Votnot palm oil free natural sunscreen, which is Australian made and owned. It is free from palm oil and enriched with certified organic aloe vera and Vitamin E. Its gentle texture makes it easy to apply and is suitable to all ages. Although it is not water resistant, it can be worn under makeup. A third favourite is Ecological baby sunscreen, which is specifically made to protect babies. It is water-resistant and has a moisturising and nourishing effect, which will assist in protecting the skin of the little ones.

With coastal tourism ever popular, especially during our hot summer months and the current high rate of skin cancer in Australia, it is of great importance for consumers to make mindful decisions. The detrimental impact of chemical sunscreen to both humans and reefs can be managed by more conscious consumer decisions. By choosing a natural sunscreen over chemical-based sunscreen, you can take a small and easy step which will be beneficial for not only yourself and the planet but also for future generations.

[Header image: Tourism Whitsundays]

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