Summer Sun Protection - Part 2: Sunscreen

Summer is our favorite season at Alder New York. We love drinking margaritas, laying on the beach, and the occasional Summer Friday. But with all the fun that longer days and warmer weather have to offer, there's also a new factor that we typically don't have to think about in the cooler months: sun exposure. That's why we've started our new series, SUMMER SUN PROTECTION, a multi-part essay diving into why and how to protect yourself while enjoying the summer sun. 

Sunscreen has been getting a lot of attention in recent years for its effectiveness and safety. Understanding how much of the attention is hyped up hysteria is important for making the right decision about which sunscreen to use.


There are two different types of ingredients that make sunscreen work: physical mineral and chemical non-mineral ingredients. Mineral-based formulas are made from either Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Dioxide. These formulas sit on top of the skin and reflect, scatter, or absorb UVA and UVB rays (learn more about UV rays in our previous post). The physical ingredients do not absorb into the skin or cause skin irritation. “[Zinc Oxide] is also a mild antimicrobial and wound healing substance and is considered to be non-comedogenic,” says Dr. Doris J. Day, Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology at New York University Medical Center. 

Mineral-based formulas are the best for people with sensitive and acne-prone skin because they are oil free and don't clog pours. The down side to using physical mineral-based formulas is that they can appear white and chalky on the skin, much like the classic image of the lifeguard with the white Zinc Oxide coated nose.


Because most people don’t want their skin to look whiter and pastier than it already is, manufactures use nano-sized particles of these minerals to decrease the visible whiteness and make it easier to apply. This is where some consumers get a little nervous, thinking that these tiny little particles can be absorbed and affect one's wellbeing. However, a study published in Toxicology in Virto concluded that there’s little to no absorption of Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide nanoparticles through test subjects' skin, thus eliminating the worry that skin absorption of these nano-sized inorganic compounds can be harmful. The American environmental agency, Environmental Working Group, also agrees with these findings.


Manufactures have also turned to chemical, non-mineral, blockers that absorb into the skin. Oxybenzone aka Benzophenone-3 is a common ingredient that has received a lot of criticism and straight-up panic from public health advocates. The EWG has given the chemical an above moderate hazard warning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that 97% of Americans are contaminated with Oxybenzone. This UV absorbing compound acts like estrogen in the body, effects sperm production in animals, and has connections to Endometriosis, a painful disorder where tissue from the inside of the uterus grows on the outside of the uterus.

Another ingredient used to absorb UV light is Avobenzone. This ingredient doesn’t penetrate the skin and can absorb the full spectrum of UV rays. Its effectiveness degrades with exposure to sunlight resulting in manufacturers combining it with other photostabilizers, like Octocrylene which is absorbed through the skin and has been found in breast milk. Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, and Octocrylene all have a higher rate of causing skin allergies and should be avoided by people with sensitive skin.

Of the sunscreens on the market, mineral-based Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide formulas are conclusively the safest of the options. The research on newer chemical formulas is relatively young and our understanding of how they effect the body is limited, but not looking good. To help figure out which sunscreen to use, the EWG has created a comprehensive list of sunscreens that meet their health and safety standards.

Check the ANY blog in the coming weeks for a detailed look at what is SPF in the next installment in our Summer Sun Protection series and see our previous post on UV Radiation.