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The Truth About Sunscreen

Updated: May 31

After eight years in the skin care industry, SPF is-without a doubt-the trickiest step for people! I get it: the scents aren't pleasant, the textures can be icky, and the end result is often an uncomfortable waste of money. But before we can even have the displeasure of that experience we have to defeat decision paralysis in the sunscreen isle and y'all, that makes even me want to just opt out. Sunscreen is a rabbit hole in and of itself; various types, endless brands and options, and then there's the science behind it all. It's no wonder so many people don't consistently wear sunscreen. I hope the information that I share today helps to wane some of that confusion and overwhelm so that your next SPF purchase is a confident and well-informed one.

To start, you should know that sunscreen IS and will ALWAYS be your most important step! Aside from the fact that approximately 9,500 people are diagnosed with a form of skin cancer every single day in the US, the lack of sun protection exacerbates ALL of our skin issues! While I preach to my clients the importance of understanding the role that genetics play in skin care, it is absolutely imperative to also understand that upwards of 90% of "advanced aging", aka photo-aging, happens as a cumulative result of UV damage done throughout our lives. We simply cannot make progress with reversing damage done to our skin when we aren't properly protecting it on a day-to-day basis.

Next is my sunscreen motto: the best SPF is the one you wear. Something is better than nothing, and nothing shouldn't be an option. There are many factors that play into finding your perfect sunscreen, and finding one you like well enough to put on daily can be quite a task. Find what works for you and stick with it!


CHEMICAL vs. MINERAL

There is a lot of research these days that shows us both efficacy and issues with either type. Reef safe? Hormone disrupting? One reflects and one absorbs? It's confusing so let's dive in. Chemical and mineral sunscreens work mostly the same; by absorbing UV rays into the skin, then dissipating the heat. The difference in the two processes is in the 5% of UV rays that mineral SPF reflects off of the surface of skin. This is where the "physical blocker" and the "chemical absorber" came from. The graphic below gives a fairly accurate representation of what happens with each; the chemical sunscreen penetrates deeper into the skin, absorbing UV and then dissipating that heat from the surface. Mineral sunscreen, on the other hand, does not penetrate the epidermis in the same way, laying mostly on top of the surface of the skin, absorbing most of the rays but reflecting a some.


graphic showing layers of skin and how sunscreen works
Graphic showing how chemical sunscreen works versus mineral sunscreen

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are inorganic chemicals and the only two mineral sunscreen ingredients approved by the FDA and in use. You'll see zinc, titanium dioxide or blends of both as the primary active ingredients in physical sunscreen products. While these are naturally occuring minerals, they are lab produced for sunscreen to ensure quality, safety and efficacy. So yes, in essence natural but still not entirely different from chemicals in chemical sunscreens in that they are both man-made.

Non-nano zinc has become a hot topic but one I haven't got the time to cover in this post so I have linked a very helpful article from Frankie Apothecary here to check out when you have the time!

Chemical sunscreens are made up of combinations of various organic chemicals that serve as active ingredients. Compound Interest, a website dedicated to "explorations of everyday chemical compounds", says in their blog on sunscreen: "Due to their chemical structures, chemical bonds in certain organic chemicals are able to absorb photons of UV light – this energy is then dissipated harmlessly in the form of heat. Variations in structure can lead to absorption at different wavelengths, meaning a mix of these organic chemicals is often used to ensure protection against the full range of UVA and UVB wavelengths."

Chemical sunscreens get a bad rep for a few reasons, the biggest being chemical fearmongering. If we can pause for a moment to clarify that ALL things are chemicals, we can proceed with the understanding that just because it is a chemical does not mean it is bad. Water is a chemical. Essential oils are many chemicals. You get it. In fact, once these newfound sunscreens were released in the 1930's they drastically changed the sunscreen market! It wasn't until 2008 when Danovaro and colleagues published study regarding coral reef bleaching, and another decade to 2018 when Hawaii put a ban on oxybenzone and octinoxate, the active ingredients in most major sunscreen brands. 2019 brought to light the Matta and co study which detailed that active chemical ingredients used in sunscreens were being found in human blood streams at much higher concentrations than the FDA allows. Avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsul are the four components that triggered alarm, and, as of today, the Environmental Working Group amongst others recommend avoiding chemical sun protectants that contain avobenzone and/or oxybenzone due to proven toxicity and damage. While both ingredients are FDA approved at certain percentages, it certainly begets questions as to how those compounds could have been so concentrated if they are safely and accurately managed.

Despite the known negative ingredients, there are many chemical sunscreens on the market without them that offer flexibility, efficacy and safety. Now that you know what ingredients to avoid, you can feel more secure giving a chemical sunscreen a try.


HOW TO DECIDE

Mineral sunscreens are usually the best option for those with acne or any other inflammatory issue, as zinc is an ingredient used to calm inflammation. Generally speaking, mineral sunscreens will be thicker and have a much higher chance of leaving a "white cast", which is an issue for most people, but especially for BIPOC folks. Brands like Black Girl Sunscreen are addressing this by creating hybrid products, containing both zinc and chemical protectants. Lines like Advanced Rejuvenating Concepts have incorporated ingredients like sunflower oleosomes to aid in the delivery of ingredients, allowing for better product absorption and, in turn, minimizing or eliminating the "cast." Their viscosity is also why they can be a pain to layer with makeup which is something to consider for those who wear makeup.

You will find that chemical sunscreens make up the largest portion of the market and are therefore more accessible and often cheaper. They typically have a much lighter texture, with more of an oily residue than a chalky one. This makes them the more obvious choice for those who are more affected by the "cast" of a mineral blocker, as well as easier for those who layer SPF under makeup.


ESTHETICIAN RECOMMENDED

mineral sun protectants on a counter

Updated 5/31/24**

For the past year I have, personally and professionally, been using Broad Spectrum SPF from Hale & Hush and let me tell you, it's incredible! No icky smell, no weird texture or pilling, and NO white cast-even on the darkest complexions! This Zinc Oxide formula provides UVA/UVB protection while also nourishing and brightening with key ingredients:


"Zinc Oxide (13.5%): Zinc Oxide is an ingredient that is generally used to address skin damage, like burns or scars, irritation, SPF, wound healing and may even function as a protective layer on the skin to lock moisture in while keeping pathogens out. Zinc Oxide is also used as a natural sun-protecting agent that reflects UV rays from the skin and provides a barrier between the skin and the sun. This protective barrier also helps to prevent moisture loss or trans epidermal water loss (TEWL). Zinc oxide may help to reduce redness, swelling, pain, and inflammation caused by bacterial build-up and is calming and soothing to irritated skin. Zinc Oxide also helps to minimize the appearance of large pores and prevents shininess of the skin by regulating oil production.

Ergothioneine (L): Ergothioneine (L), chirally correct, is an antioxidant found in various liver, kidney, black and red beans, oat bran and fungi (mushrooms) and is known as a skin calming agent that helps with discoloration and UV damage. It protects the mitochondrial membrane from oxidation by transferring fatty acids to help skin use oxygen more efficiently and produce more regenerative energy. Due to its antioxidant properties, it helps the harmful effects of free radicals and alleviates signs of aging, prevents oxidative damage, and helps in DNA repair. In turn, it is used to prevent wrinkles, reduce signs of aging skin, and reduce photodamage.

Porphyra Umbilicalis (Red Algae) Extract: Porphyra Umbilicalis (Red Algae) Extract is a type of seaweed that has been used in skincare products for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It is rich in sulfated polysaccharides (carrageenan), peptides, carotenoids, and fatty acids. It has potential anti-inflammatory, skin whitening, and pain relief activities. The extract is known to help protect the skin against oxidative stress caused by environmental factors such as pollution and UV radiation. It is a unique organism that produces the most powerful UV-absorbing substances in nature, and the extract itself absorbs UVA/UVB light.

Tocopherol (D-alpha), (Vitamin E): Tocopherol (D-alpha), (Vitamin E), chirally correct, is a powerful antioxidant that helps to improve the visible signs of aging, support the skin’s natural barrier, and provide the skin with a source of antioxidants. Tocopherol works by delivering a hydrogen atom to free radicals, which minimizes their damaging effects. Since tocopherols are fat-soluble, they are incorporated into cell membranes to protect from oxidative damage, reducing the appearance of aging, such as fine lines, wrinkles, sagging skin, and age spots. Vitamin E has anti-inflammatory properties that support the immune system, cell function and overall skin health.

Malic Acid (L): Malic Acid (L), chirally correct, is an alpha-hydroxy acid derived from apples that exfoliates the top layer of the skin, which in turn does everything from smooth texture to fade discoloration to help unclog pores. Malic Acid promotes cellular renewal, speeds up cell turnover and balances the pH of the skin. In higher concentrations it can also penetrate lower levels of the skin to bring about new collagen formation, it also is hydrating, improves tone, reduces fine lines and wrinkles. Malic Acid also brightens the skin, helps to treat acne, and improves skin smoothness."

As always, this is a professional product, sold exclusively by licensed skin care professionals.


sunscreen primer
HSS Mineral SPF Primer





For all the makeup wearing folks, I highly suggest the Mineral Primer SPF from Herbal Skin Solutions! This spf is a dream to wear, leaving your skin silky without any of the normal layering issues associated with sunscreen.

You can snag this at herbalskinsolutions.com





WHATS WITH SPF/BROAD SPECTRUM

okay im getting to this lol check back


HOW MUCH TO USE

The two finger rule, or two teaspoons, is a good base line for adequate application! This gets tricky once we start getting into all the other forms of sunscreen; sprays, sticks, and powders are becoming very popular! When in doubt, refer to the product label in question for manufacturers recommendations.


NOTEWORTHY MYTHS

While we are here, let me take a moment to dispel a couple of myths surrounding sunscreens.


1. Folks of darker complexions don't need sunscreen because they don't get sunburns/sun damage/skin cancer.

It is 100% true that a higher concentration of melanocytes equals more natural protection, but this does not equal immunity. UV induced skin cancers happen at lesser rate to people of color, but those affected are often diagnosed at a much later stage and with a worse prognosis. Studies show that a five year melanoma survival rate for Black and Hispanic Americans sits at 67% versus 92% for white Americans. There are many factors at play here, from socioeconomic status and available resources to myths so deeply imbedded in various cultures that they are seen as truths. You can help change these statistics simply by educating yourself and your loved ones so that harmful myths like these don't continue to ravage our communities!


2. The higher the SPF the more protected I am!

According to MD Anderson Cancer Center, SPF 15 has a UVB protection rate of 93% and SPF 30 touts a 97% protection rate! While SPF 100 protects 99%, it's up to you to decide if the negligible difference in protection is worth the increased cost of higher SPF products. Also keep in mind that the SPF rating only refers to UVB rays.

There are so many factors that play into efficacy, including amount of product applied, intensity of the sun, as well as the recommended 80 minute reapplication time most brands include in their usage directions.


I hope this quick overview provides some clarity that you can confidently lean on in your decision making process! Remember, the best SPF is the one you wear!


Written by: Alyssa Lofton, Licensed Esthetician, Co-Owner of Oodelah

Edited by: Sarah Foster, Licensed Massage Therapist, Editor Extraordinaire


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