Slip, slop, slap ... safe?

Slip, slop, slap ... safe?

For the next couple of months we'll be slathering on the sunscreen and enjoying another great Kiwi summer. But are some creams doing us more harm than good? And is it really worth paying extra for a more natural product?

For the next couple of months we'll be slathering on the sunscreen and enjoying another great Kiwi summer. While there's no doubt sunscreen's essential, are some creams doing us more harm than good? And is it really worth paying the extra for an organic or more natural product?

When it comes to sheer surface area, sunblock has its work cut out. It gets greased into every nook and cranny on our bodies, several times a day. Those of you with kids will know the painful half-hour ritual that begins a summer’s day as you wrangle them into standing still so you can cover them in white cream. But while we might agonise over the sugars, the fats, the E-numbers we put in our mouths, do we stop to think about what we’re covering our bodies with?

A study published earlier this year by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that the bodies of 97 percent of Americans contained a chemical called oxybenzone, which is most commonly used in sunscreen. This chemical has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption and cell damage.

Oxybenzone is an active ingredient found in nearly 600 sunscreens sold in the US—many of which are also sold here. No safety tests have been carried out on it for 30 years and recent studies have raised questions about its safety. Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group (a US non-profit research organisation) earlier this year published an analysis of 952 brands of sunscreens and found that four out of five offer inadequate protection from the sun, or contain ingredients with significant safety concerns.

With our ever-rising rate of skin cancer, using sunscreen in New Zealand is a must. However, it’s worth taking a minute or two to consider the ingredients of the creams you’re covering yourself with. It’s not just our health at stake: sunscreen has also been linked with the death of coral reefs, contamination of waterways and even turning male fish into females.

Whatever cream you choose, remember that no sunscreen offers total protection against the sun. The best (and cheapest) way to avoid UV rays is to stay out of the sun, at least between 11am and 4pm. And if you do venture outside, wear clothing that will protect you. Any sunblock can irritate your skin, and irritated skin is more prone to sun damage.

Good took eight sunscreens available on the New Zealand market, analysed their ingredients and sought expert opinion to help us work out which creams were going to keep us safe—not just from the sun, but from harmful active ingredients as well. This is our guide to getting you through a summer of sunscreen confusion.

Dr Hauschka

The holistic brand from Germany was voted the winning sunscreen by UK magazine Ethical Consumer in 2006. It uses titanium dioxide as a UV filter, although it doesn’t say whether this is the nano version (see box, page 111). The big white smears it leaves on my arms suggests not. Recommended.

Natural Instinct

A cheaper ‘natural’ sunscreen from Australia. It uses zinc oxide as its UV filter, although it contains a chemically derived preservative that can cause allergies. Okay if you’re looking to economise.

Ecostore

Uses zinc oxide to block UV rays. It contains no preservatives and has been tested in conditions particular to the New Zealand and Australian climate. It does leave the skin looking pasty—not such a good thing perhaps if you’re trying to brandish a golden tan, but a good indicator of its safety. Highly recommended.

Sunsense Ultra

Uses titanium dioxide as a UV filter but also contains oxybenzone and octyl methoxycinnamate. More alarming, however, this Australian-made sunscreen failed to meet its SPF factor when it was tested by Consumer NZ. Watch for new formulations this summer.

Nivea Sun

Appears to cover all bases by using a cocktail of both mineral and chemical blockers, and several preservatives as well. All these ingredients can irritate the skin, cause allergies and some—para-hydroxybenzoates, a chemical preservative—can cause endocrine disruption. Best avoided.

Weleda Edelweiss Sun Lotion

Also rated highly by Ethical Consumer. This Swiss brand is a cheaper option than Dr Hauschka’s. It uses titanium dioxide as its active ingredient, so it reflects the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. It is also easier to apply than Dr Hauschka’s and therefore goes further. Recommended.

Daffodil Day Cancer Society Sunscreen

The biggest selling sunscreen at Farmers in New Zealand, it is also one of the cheapest. However, it lists both butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane and octyl methoxycinnamate as active ingredients. Possibly more important is that it failed to live up to its SPF claims in a test carried out by Consumer NZ earlier this year. Our advice: look for something else.

Soléo Organics

Came in the top ten sunscreens recommended by the Environmental Working Group in their analysis of over 600 different brands. Its active ingredient is micronised zinc oxide, which is nano free. It’s formulated in Australia, so has been tested for weather conditions in this part of the world. It's a 100% organic, plant based product. Highly recommended.

Nanotechnology

One of the issues with sunscreens that use alternative barriers like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide is that they can leave you looking ghostly. To get around this problem, manufacturers sometimes use nano-sized (extremely small) particles of the active ingredients, which are much easier to rub into the skin.

Concerns have been raised about the ability of these tiny particles to penetrate the body’s blood-brain barrier and damage brain cells. However, the latest findings from the Environmental Working Group concluded that consumers were far better with a sunscreen containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide—nano or not—than a brand with a cocktail of chemical ingredients. If you’re still concerned, ask manufacturers whether they use nanotechnology or simply apply the cream to your skin—if it looks transparent then they probably do.

What you don’t want

Parabens

These are preservatives that enable creams to stay on the shelf longer. However, in your body they can act as a hormone disrupter, increasing your oestrogen levels. Parabens have been found in the tissues of women with breast cancer, although no direct link with the disease has been established.

Many sunscreens contain parabens but their presence is often disguised by long, Harry Potter-esque names.

Watch out for methylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, propylparaben and other preservatives like butylated hydroxytoulene, tetrasodium EDTA and phenoxyethanol.

Butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane

This acts as a UVA filter but is absorbed by the skin and can lead to rashes, allergic reactions and inflammation. Some research also suggests that it breaks down in the sun, inhibiting the skin’s natural defences against sunlight and leaving it more vulnerable to skin cancer and premature ageing.

Octyl methoxycinnamate

Bizarrely, a Norwegian study from 2000 showed this UVB filter became more toxic after exposure to the sun. OMC can be found in 90 percent of sunscreen lotions, although the jury is still out on whether it penetrates the skin in high enough doses to cause any damage.

Perfume or fragrance

Another hormone disrupter. Can also cause liver damage, asthmatic reactions and affect the nervous system. Known side effects include headaches, mood swings, depression and forgetfulness.

What you do want

An effective sunblock

Look for creams with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 25 or more.

Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide

These are mineral rather than chemical blockers and act as barriers, reflecting and scattering ultraviolet (UV) rays rather than absorbing them. Mineral blockers provide protection against both UVB rays (causing sunburn) and UVA rays (causing ageing and cancer).

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