When it comes to sun care items—be it sunscreen, self-tanner, or after-sun lotion—the number one culprit going against the green grain is the concoction of chemicals used in conventional products. Greening your sun care regimen is easily done by finding ways to minimize or altogether avoid exposing your skin and the earth to such chemicals.
Sunscreen and SPF lip balms
While the American Academy of Dermatology has the AAD Seal of Recognition and the Skin Cancer Foundation has their Seal of Recommendation for sun care products they deem effective and safe, there is a lack of formal testing and regulation for the environmental and health safety of sun screen ingredients. In fact, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the government agency that reviews and monitors sunscreens (which are classified as over-the-counter drugs), hasn’t updated its regulations for sunscreen in almost 30 years.
There is a growing current of dissatisfaction regarding the effectiveness of sunscreen and the potential health effects from some of the ingredients. A review of more than 1,000 sunscreen products by the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that 86 percent offer inadequate sun protection, or contain ingredients with substantial safety concerns.
Chemical vs. mineral active ingredients
When you look at the active ingredients on a bottle of sunscreen, you’ll find two basic types: chemical ingredients (which absorb the sun’s UV radiation and change it into thermal energy); and mineral or physical compounds, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide (which block the UV rays by reflecting and scattering them.) Mineral compound-based sun screens, while not without problems, are preferable from an environmental and health standpoint.
Concerns over one common chemical sunscreen ingredient, benzophenone-3, also known as oxybenzone, peaked recently when a study by the CDC that analyzed urine samples from more than 2,500 people ages 6 and older, found the chemical in 96.8 percent of the samples. EWG calculated that nearly 600 sunscreens sold in the US contain oxybenzone, which has been linked to skin irritation and allergies. Studies on cells and laboratory animals also show that it may cause hormone disruption. A review done by the European Union in 2006 found there wasn’t sufficient data available to access oxybenzone’s safety in sunscreens.
Two other common ingredients in sunscreens, octinoxate (also called octyl-methoxycinnamate) and homosalate, also have shown estrogenic effects in test tube experiments. EWG contends that similar effects were demonstrated with laboratory animals at concentrations of octyl-methoxycinnamate close to those experienced by sunscreen users.
A derivative of the once very popular PABA, Padimate-O (also called octyl dimethyl PABA), has the potential to damage DNA, may have estrogenic activity, and can cause allergic reactions in some people. Luckily, it’s no longer used in many sun care products. Aside from the active ingredients, sunscreens can contain DEA, parabens, artificial fragrances and other potentially harmful chemicals.
On the other hand, the mineral or physical sunscreens (with zinc oxide (ZO) or titanium dioxide (TiO2)) offer broad-spectrum effectiveness, don’t break down easily in the sun, are well tolerated by skin, and cause few allergic reactions. They’re often contained in sunscreens formulated for babies and are found in most of the Environmental Working Group’s top sunscreen picks.
Nanoparticles in mineral sunscreens
Mineral sunscreens have a tendency to leave a white sheen on the skin. To avoid this, many manufacturers are making their sunscreens rub on more transparently by downsizing the sunscreen particles through nanotechnology. Nano size is anything measuring less than 100 nanometers (nm). (A human hair is about 80,000 nm thick and a pinhead measures around 1 million nm across.) You’ll often see the term “micronized” used on sunscreen bottles. Because the FDA hasn’t defined micronized, it may mean nanoparticles and it may not. Nanometers equal one billionth of a meter while microns are one millionth of a meter so 1,000 nm equals 1 micron.
The health and environmental effects of nanoparticles remain unknown. Some say that nanomaterials produce free radicals and can cause DNA damage to human skin cells, while others assert there is little or no penetration of unbroken skin by these compounds. Even reports by two eco-advocacy groups, Friends of the Earth and Environmental Working Group, arrived at different recommendations about nanoparticles in sunscreens.
The environmental toll of mineral sunscreens
Titanium dioxide is extracted from open mines, some in Georgia and Florida, and a chlorine-based process that releases carcinogenic dioxins into the atmosphere is used to process the titanium dioxide. Waste from this process produces large amounts of dioxin and related compounds. Dioxins are very toxic and posses longevity in the environment. They can accumulate in animals and people and have been found in shellfish in St. Louis Bay, Mississippi, close to a titanium dioxide refinery.
Zinc mining has its eco-impacts too, as evidenced in northwest Alaska at Red Dog Mine, the world’s largest zinc mine. The National Park Service released a study in 2001 showing high levels of lead, zinc, and cadmium in moss and soil along trucking roads. A brand new study done by scientists hired by the mine confirms that mosses, lichens, and perhaps ptarmigan birds have been harmed from the mining dust. A debate is on now as to whether there are health effects to people who eat caribou and other animals who move through the mining area.
Non-recyclable sunscreen bottles also use up fossil fuel resources and take up landfill space. Additionally, plastic bottles can take hundreds of years to decompose, while ingredients in leftover product —including phenoxyethanol and parabens—can contaminate soil and water.
Self-tanners contain their own chemical components, including parabens. Parabens (which includes methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, and butyl-parabens) are a family of preservatives which can affect the endocrine system that produces the body's hormones. Studies have shown that some parabens can mimic estrogen in the body, though the FDA asserts that parabens are safe because their estrogenic activity is much lower than the body’s own estrogen. Another chemical to avoid is 1,4 Dioxane. Since 1,4-dioxane is used in a chemical conversion in the manufacture of products, it's not listed as an ingredient. To avoid it, watch out for ingredients such as sodium laureth sulfate and those that have "PEG", "xynol", "ceteareth," and "oleth" in their name. In scientific studies, 1,4-Dioxane has caused cancer in animals; scientists have not yet confirmed the long-term effects on humans. The FDA says current levels do not pose a hazard to consumers but they have advised manufacturers to lower amounts in cosmetics as much as possible.
Conventional sun care products, from self-tanners to lip balms to sunscreen to post-sun lotion, contain petroleum-derived ingredients, such as petrolatum and mineral oil. Petroleum is a nonrenewable resource whose extraction and production cause air and water pollution, and can trigger allergic skin reactions. The European Union (EU) has petrolatum listed as a probable human carcinogen in its Dangerous Substances Directive. To avoid petrol-based products, look for lotions, creams, and balms that list plant and vegetable oils as their main ingredients.
Making sense of green claims on product labels
Ingredient lists and product labels for sunscreens, lotions, and other personal care items can be confusing and overwhelming, but understaning them is key to making an informed, green purchasing decision. While reading labels, consider:
While the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains clearcut standards for organic food, the same can’t be said for body care products. The personal care industry is in turmoil trying to agree upon a set of standards. Some companies use the USDA certified organic food standard, which requires 95 percent of the ingredients to be organic. Others use the less stringent California state standard for organic cosmetic products, which requires at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients. And still others label their products organic without meeting any external criterion.
In the meantime, a nonprofit standard-setting group called NSF International has released a draft set of rules for organic personal care products and a group of 30 cosmetic companies recently devised their own set of specifications called Organic and Sustainable Industry Standards (OASIS). How it all washes out remains to be seen.
On May 1, 2008, the Natural Products Association announced the Natural Seal for Personal Care Products, a new certification program that defines "natural" and includes an easily-identified seal. Advisers to the association include Aubrey Organics, Burt’s Bees, Badger Balm, California Baby, Farmaesthetics, Trilogy Fragrances, and Weleda.
While you're contemplating green attributes, you may also wish to join the cruelty-free movement. Just keep in mind: a company may claim that they don’t employ animal testing for their products, but without third-party verification, it’s hard to know whether these statements are in fact completely true. So stick to those products certified as cruelty-free by looking for products with the Leaping Bunny Logo or the Certified Vegan Logo. You can rest assured that no bunnies (or monkeys or cats for that matter) were harmed in the making of these non-animal-tested products.
- DEA: Diethanolamine, (also related to the additives TEA and MEA) is a suspected carcinogen, used as an emulsifier or foaming agent.
- parabens: The paraben family of preservatives (which includes methyl-, ethyl-, propyl- and butyl-parabens) can affect the endocrine system which produces the body's hormones.
- Newsweek - Sizing Up Sunscreen
- The Green Guide - Screen Test: Reading the Micro-Fine Print
- The Green Guide - Product Report: Sunscreens and Sunblocks
- US Food and Drug Administration - Safer Sunning in Seven Steps
- Philadelphia Inquirer - Nanotechnology: Getting small is getting big
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Sunscreen: The Burning Facts
- The New York Times - Nanoparticles in Your Sunscreen: Too Hot to Handle?
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Sunwise Program: Health Effects of Overexposure to the Sun
- Environmental Working Group - Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database Before you bask, check out where your favorite sunscreen ranks on the hazard scale.
- New York Times - Do Sunscreens Have You Covered?
- Environmental Working Group - Sunscreen Summary: What Works and What’s Safe
- Environmental Health Perspectives - Concentrations of the Sunscreen Agent, Benzophenone-3, in Residents of the United States: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003-2004
- Environmental Working Group - CDC: Americans Carry Body Burden of Toxic Sunscreen Chemical
- Friends of the Earth - Nanotechnology & Sunscreens: a consumer guide for avoiding nano-sunscreens
- The Green Guide - Safer Mineral Sunscreens
- Citizens League for Environmental Action Now - Decomposition Rates
- Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep - FAQs
- Consumer Reports GreenerChoices - Personal care products Buying guide 2/06