Best sun and sunscreen choices for you and the planet

Protection from sunbathing by shading yourself with sunscreen and a sun hat

Sunbathing can have many health and wellbeing benefits, but protecting yourself from sun exposure reduces the risk of sunburn, skin damage and long-term health concerns like skin cancer. Sunscreen may be one answer, but what is the most effective sun protection? Prevention!

Sunbathing can have health benefits and improve mood, but it is possible to get too much of a good thing! The most effective protection is to avoid too much sun.

Sunscreen can also reduce the risk of sunburn, skin damage and long-term health concerns like skin cancer. But many personal-care products intended for protecting skin from UV rays contain ingredients that can harm human and ecosystem health.

The good news? You can protect your skin and the planet while reaping the benefits of responsible sun exposure.

Sunbathe responsibly

Experts generally agree that five to 15 minutes per day is the optimal amount of sun exposure to reap benefits.

Benefits of moderate sun exposure:

Sun protection tips

Balance potential sunbathing benefits with the risks associated with excessive sun exposure. Overexposure to the sun’s UV rays can lead to sunburn, premature skin aging and an increased risk of skin cancer. It is important to practise safe sun habits and protect yourself from excessive exposure.

The most effective sun protection is prevention:

  • Seek shade. Look for opportunities to duck out of the sun. But don’t rely on shade alone. Harmful UV rays bounce off concrete, grass, pavement, sand, snow and water.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat. Keeping hats on kids’ heads can be tricky. Model the behaviour you want to see!
  • Bring back the parasol. Carry your shade wherever you go.
  • Wear loose-fitting, tightly knit clothing that covers. Cover up as much of your skin as possible. Darker colours and denser fabrics generally provide better sun protection. (Breathable fabrics help reduce heat.) Some retailers specialize in apparel specially designed for UV protection.
  • Don broad-spectrum sunglasses. More than a fashion accessory, sunglasses help protect eyes.
  • Note the UV index. You can burn even on a cloudy day.
  • Avoid sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. (peak UV hours). Play outside in the morning and evening.
  • Get enough Vitamin D. Researchers think lower Vitamin D levels increase the risks of sunburn and developing skin cancer.
  • Be sun smart year-round. Sun protection is necessary all the time, not just during summer months. UV rays still penetrate the skin even on cloudy and cool days.
  • Wear safe sunscreen.
Child sitting in a sun-filled room

Be safe on hot days

Remember: Avoiding direct sunlight during extreme heat can help reduce the risks of heat stress.

Learn how to stay cool

The problem with sunscreen

Research on the harmful effects of exposure to UV rays has gained considerable attention over the past few decades. Doctors and personal-care product companies promote daily sunscreen application to reduce your overall UV exposure and lower your risk of skin cancer and sun damage. But your daily skin-protection routine may have unintended consequences for you and the planet.

Decoding sunscreen labels

Store shelves are jammed with sunscreen options promising to safeguard your skin from the sun’s harmful effects. What makes them different or more effective? Their ingredients.

Most sunscreens fall into two categories: chemical and physical (mineral). Chemical sunscreens sink into your skin and act like a sponge, absorbing UV rays. Mineral sunscreens sit on the surface of your skin and act like a shield.

Chemical sunscreens are formulated with chemical UV filters such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene and homosalate. They absorb the sun’s UV rays, convert them to heat and release them before your skin can soak them up. These types of sunscreens are generally more popular as they are designed for fast absorption and tend to go on smoothly without leaving a sticky, greasy feeling or a white cast like some mineral sunscreens.

However, studies have shown that many of these chemicals have negative impacts on human and environmental health. This has led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European Commission to update their sunscreen regulations to reduce the legal limit for concentrations of many of these chemicals in sunscreens.

Regulations governing sunscreen products in Canada are outlined in the Food and Drugs Act and Cosmetic Regulations. These require sunscreen manufacturers to comply with labelling requirements; however, Health Canada maintains the list of permitted and prohibited substances in cosmetics, including sunscreens. Chemicals such as oxybenzone and octinoxate have not been banned or prohibited in Canada despite their health and environmental impacts. The allowed concentrations are comparable to the U.S. but much higher than the European Commission’s recent recommendations.

Even at lower concentrations there are still risks. Mineral sunscreens are a better option.

Mineral sunscreens (often called “natural” sunscreens) are formulated with zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide, both of which are considered safe and effective. In fact, these two sunscreen ingredients are the only two categorized as such by the U.S. FDA in proposed sunscreen regulations. Mineral sunscreens deliver broad-spectrum protection by reflecting UV radiation away from your skin.

Person applying cream on legs

Tip! Avoid spray sunscreens

Aerosol sunscreens, chemical and mineral, are toxic to inhale. Although generally safe when applied topically as lotions or gels, they can trigger allergies and asthma when they enter the lungs as sprays and may pose carcinogenic and developmental risks.

Spray sunscreens can also spread the harmful product onto sand and into the ocean.

Impact of chemical sunscreen on the environment

According to several research studies, up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the ocean every year. Even if you don’t swim after applying sunscreen, it can enter waterways through the drain when you shower.

Chemical sunscreen ingredients can cause adverse environmental impacts.

  • Coral reef damage. Chemical sunscreen ingredients, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, disrupt growth and development of corals, leading to bleaching, degradation, and death of reef ecosystems.
  • Water pollution and impact on marine life. Sunscreen chemicals can wash off and enter the water, where they may accumulate in the environment, potentially harming marine life and aquatic ecosystems.
  • Persistence. Many chemical sunscreen ingredients are not easily biodegradable and can stay in the environment for undetermined periods of time, leading to accumulation and long-term effects on ecosystems.

Dangers posed by the chemicals in many sunscreens have prompted tourist destinations such as Hawaii and Palau to ban use and sales of harmful sunscreens.

Impact of chemical sunscreen on human health

Although sunscreen is intended to protect you, chemical formulations can have adverse effects on human health. Studies have reported finding sunscreen ingredients in breast milk, urine and blood plasma samples. The ingredients oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and avobenzone are all systemically absorbed into the body after one use, according to studies published by the U.S. FDA. Constant exposure to sunscreen chemicals raises legitimate concerns, and safety data is lacking for most ingredients.

That doesn’t mean you should stop using sunscreen. Instead, choose a product that safeguards you and the planet.

A good sunscreen for you and the planet

1. Is well-rated by the Environmental Working Group.

Use their handy tool to find out if your sunscreen is EWG-verified and to learn about the most eco-friendly and effective options.

2. Provides broad-spectrum protection

Even though exposure to both UVA and UVB contributes to development of melanoma — the most dangerous skin cancer — SPF measures only UVB. Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against both.

3. Should not contain dangerous ingredients

Read labels. Avoid:

  • Oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor that can also trigger allergic reactions. Studies show that it may cause more harm in children.
  • Octinoxate, an endocrine disruptor that can also harm reproductive organ development in utero.
  • Retinyl palminate, a form of vitamin A linked to skin tumours and lesions on sun-exposed skin.
  • The “Dirty Dozen” ingredients, including parabens, phthalate, PEG, parfum (a.k.a. fragrance) and sodium lauryl/laureth sulphate.

4. Is a cream (not spray or powder)

Skip the spray. Choose mineral-based creams. (While you might like transparent options, larger white particles provide better UVA protection!) Research shows titanium dioxide and zinc oxide do not migrate through skin, but inhaled nanoparticles can enter the bloodstream through the lungs.

5. Offers SPF 30

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher do an excellent job of protecting against UVB when applied properly. Choosing a broad-spectrum sunscreen will also ensure adequate UVA coverage, but a higher SPF doesn’t mean significantly better UVB protection. SPF 15 blocks about 94 per cent of UVB rays, while SPF 30 blocks 97 per cent.