How Toxic Is Your SPF? We Break It Down

Words, Hannah Scaife.

 

On the subject of youthful skin and a melanoma-free existence, we’ve long been told by the experts (literally, scientists) that the only way to truly slow signs of aging is to reside in the dimmest recesses of a windowless bunker. Let’s imagine that such a person exists. A Benjamin-Button-worshipping anti-ageist who takes their fear of the sun – and its corosive effects – to the nth degree. Every sacrifice comes at a price, does it not? In this person’s case, most likely scurvy and a crippling Vitamin D deficiency.

Now to the juicy stuff: a recent new pilot study, lead by the American Food and Drug Association ( the FDA) and published in JAMA, revealed that there are four main active ingredients within sunscreen that are being absorbed into your bloodstream more rapidly and at a higher concentration than we all initially thought. While the prospect of rubbing chemicals into your skin and having them systemically absorbed is not exactly ground-breaking, the question remains: is this unsafe? Not necessarily. Keep in mind this study is a fresh-y, intended by the FDA to kickstart more extensive research, with more conclusive outcomes…so let’s reign ourselves in before we start porpoise-diving to conclusions.

Still, it’s always wise to look into the long-term effects of these ingredients before we risk it for the biscuit. In this case, the biscuit is potentially coming hot out of the oven at the cost of cancer, birth defects or other adverse effects. Expensive, and not in the way we like.

  • So, what are they?

    Avobenzone: Despite the name making it sound like some kind of avocado-benzodiazepine bedtime cocktail, this oil-soluble ultraviolet filter is actually one of the only agents capable of offering protection from both UVA and UVB rays – both of which can cause skin cancer. It works by soaking up the harmful rays and converting them into energy that is less damaging to the skin. This means it also lends a hand in making sure your face doesn’t end up looking like a baseball mitt. Sounds pretty good, right? Too good, perhaps. This agent is also susceptible to photodegradation, basically meaning it usually stops working after only 30 minutes or so… What a farce.

    Oxybenzone: Or perhaps more formally known as, benzonephenone-3. Definitely the most suspicious (and less delicious) “benzone”. This is one of the most common chemical filters used for UV protection: not to mention, one of the most quickly and effectively absorbed into your blood. It’s a prolific ingredient in the majority of sun protection products due to its ability to absorb UVB and short UVA rays. Don’t be fooled, it’s very effective, kind of like the Sith Lord of chemical compounds.

    Octocrylene: It’s a clear and colourless compound used in tandem with Avobenzone to absorb UV radiation, except with an extra little zest: its natural emollient properties has ensured that it’s a lock for all beauty products because lord knows we all want to maxxx on cellular hydration. Hair spray, BB cream, tanning oil – you want it, she got it. The science buffs refer to her as 2-ethylhexyl-2-cyano-3,3-diphenylacrylate. I like to think of her as the Moist-a-tron-2000.

    Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A Palmitate): God bless Vitamins (usually). Retinyl palmitate is a type of vitamin A found in tropical plants and its primary function in this scenario is essentially to enhance the product’s outcomes in combating the aging effects of UV exposure. So, the real MVP. Unfortunately, there are certain dud versions of vitamin A in sun protection products, which can be broken down to produce free radicals – toxic to cells, a danger to DNA and a potential cancer risk. So NOT rad. Retinyl palmitate is one such type of evil version.

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    Why are they bad for me, again?

    Avobenzone: Do you want the good news or bad news first? On the bright side, as far as the toxins go, this one’s pretty tame. The EWG stating it’s only a 2/10 on the toxicity scale. The real problem here is that the exposure to sunlight compromises its ability to provide effective protection. One study found that it only took 2 hours of sunlight exposure for avobenzone to lose 85% of its ability to absorb UVA rays. Avo + sunlight = ineffective. There has also been speculation as to whether it can break down further into hazardous compounds when exposed to chlorine, in conjunction with sunlight. Maybe avoid the backyard pool until further notice?

    Oxybenzone: The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has rated oxybenzone an 8 on their toxicity scale, which essentially means it’s one of the most toxic ingredients found in cosmetic products (!!!). Not only is it suspected to be behind the increased rates of melanoma, but has also been linked to allergies, cell damage, hormone disruption and infertility. Woof. I mean, being named “Allergen of the Year” has a confusingly prestigious undertone at first glance, until you realise it’s like being titled “Asshole of the Year”. Oh, and just in case you’re not completely suss on this one yet, oxybenzone is also believed to be toxic to coral reefs – to the extent that Hawaii has prohibited all sunscreen containing it. Yeah, you definitely don’t want this one coursing through your veins. Or, our oceans for that matter.

    Octocrylene: Just to recap, this is the two-faced moisture agent. Easily absorbed, secretly hydrating and a helpful side-kick to avobenzone. But we are all about that clincher. Much like avobenzone, octocrylene negates its own value. Despite its role being to reduce free radicals on the surface of the skin, it’s absorbability allows it opportunities to react with other chemicals in deeper layers of the skin and body & instead just produce even more free radicals. Can you keep up? One 2006 study found that if you sunbake for an hour with this menacing agent in your sunscreen, it’ll end up producing more free radicals than your bare skin under UV radiation. Just an FYI: free radicals and youthful skin are not friends. Like… why did we invite this guy to the party again?

    Retinyl Palmitate: AKA the elixir of youth. The fulcrum of all anti-aging products. Seriously though, it’s bad news. Recent FDA studies have revealed that products containing retinyl palmitate may accelerate the development of cancerous skin lesions. What’s more, it’s been linked to causing hair loss, liver damage, and osteoporosis. No. Thank you. The Environmental Working Group says any products harbouring this menacing chemical is a ‘no’ from them, and so do we.