Updated: Apr 1, 2020
By Gerard DiLeo, MD
As an MD practitioner in obstetrics and gynecology and primary care for over 35 years, and as an experienced medical writer and lecturer, I have to navigate the same world everyone else does, but with the insight that a medical vocation has given me. In looking at everyday things like sunscreen, my attention naturally will go beyond such a product’s ability to block the sun.
The sun’s rays present a mixed message: necessary for all life, but too much can damage the skin. Besides the cosmetic concerns, the risk of damage to the genetics in skin can increase the risk of skin cancer. Avoiding the premature aging of skin as well as decreasing the risk of cancer became the perfect recipe for a product that eliminates harm from the sun. Thus, sunscreen became a popular product and remains so.
Steering away from ingredients like oxybenzone is important. The reason is that it is a chemical sunscreen, as opposed to a mineral sunscreen. Chemical sunscreens act to filter out ultraviolet radiation within the skin, meaning the chemical itself gets into the skin. On the other hand, a mineral sunscreen—like an umbrella—is a mechanical barrier to light. It literally protects you by putting a shadow over your skin. As such, mineral barriers, inert, do not get absorbed into your skin; whereas, in chemical sunscreens, chemicals like oxybenzone have to “partner” within your skin to filter out the harmful rays, thus entering your body and remaining there for an undetermined amount of time.
Avobenzone is often in sunscreens so that the product can be offered, technically, as “oxybenzone-free.” This is marketing and simply is swapping one chemical UV filter for another, when the only way to be assured chemicals aren’t being absorbed into your body is to go with a mineral sunscreen, which is FDA approved.
Beware of the sell game
Marketing is done for only one reason—to sell you something. However, the savvy, informed shopper can often spot the tricks typically used. Even though avobenzone is not oxybenzone, it is related to it chemically. And it gets worse, because chemical screens need other ingredients to stabilize them and participate in their properties, exposing you to even more substances. Just because something hasn’t been evaluated as harmful by the FDA does not make it FDA-approved. There still can be harm later when more people become exposed to substances.
Not all “mineral” sunscreens are the same: titanium oxide
Avoiding a chemical sunscreen may not prevent exposure to ingredients in some mineral sunscreens that have been questioned as a possible concern. Titanium dioxide, for instance, is an effective mineral barrier, but when it is in the form of nano particles, it has been classified as a possible carcinogen by the Risk Assessment Committee of the European Chemicals Agency (ACHA). While the liquid form in sunscreens may or may not relate to this carcinogenicity, the cancer risk identified from inhaling titanium oxide should give you pause before using it, because sunscreen is—everywhere—used on and around the face.
We live in a world where the free market pushes things our way before it is known whether they pose any threat. History is filled with lessons learned the hard way—cigarettes, for example, or the side effects of medications or popular ingredients once thought completely safe. We live in a chemical world, too, so when searching for a safe consumer item, I recommend being attentive to purchasing safe ingredients. For a sunscreen, this means one which has a mineral barrier without the associated concerns of regulatory agencies like the ACHA. Zinc oxide as a sole active ingredient in the mineral sunscreen, AstiVita, makes it a chemical-free sunscreen that has the barrier properties that make for an effective sunscreen, but without the EU carcinogen titanium oxide.