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Sunscreen has far-reaching impact warns professor

UV protective clothing suggested as alternative
While it is important to protect yourself from UV rays, some sunscreen ingredients have been found to be harmful. (Black Press file photo)

The importance of protecting skin from the sun’s ultraviolet rays has been proven, but what about the biological impact?

Vancouver Island is a wildlife sanctuary and preserving it while protecting the skin is a topic that has come to the forefront.

The environmental impact is already being addressed in Hawaii as it is the first state to pass a bill banning the sale of sunscreen containing chemicals believed to be harmful to coral reefs.

As of January 2021 sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate will not be sold or distributed in the state, unless medically prescribed.

Caren Helbing, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Victoria, said some sunscreens, including organic varieties, have the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are responsible for coral bleaching.

Those two components, in addition to benzophenone-3, are in used in some sunscreens to block and filter the UV rays.

Some sunscreens also contain perfumes that have been shown to affect hormones, called endocrine disruptors, and can also affect nerve function and brain development.

Helbing said the caveat to the biological results of sunscreen tests is that the testing is done on high amounts and increased use – more than what one person might use if they put on sunscreen to lay by the pool. “A lot of the issues around sunscreens in particular is that the sheer amount that’s used, and it’s going up as people want to protect themselves from sunburn,” she said.

But in regards to hormones, sometimes using lower concentrations of sunscreen can have more of an impact, Helbing said.

Removing sunscreen from the water is the biggest challenge, she said, noting that waste water treatment facilities can’t remove it and it tends to accumulate.

These results are only recently being identified of the lasting effects of sunscreen particles that wash off in the water and aren’t able to be broken down.

“This is a wake up call, that we need to look at it more,” she said.

Mineral sunscreens that include zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, do not have oxybenzone or octinoxate. The nano particle based versions that go on clear, and have the same SPF factor, Helbing said are generally regarded as “safer,” but there is the possibility that even mineral sunscreens can affect sea life, especially if it’s ingested.

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have not shown that they affect thyroid hormone levels when compared to other metals.

The “non-nano” particle form of mineral sunscreen, that is thicker and looks like a plaster, is currently considered safe for the environment, but testing hasn’t been extensive enough to give a definitive answer, Helbing explained.

For safety in the sun, Helbing suggested using organic sunscreen sparingly, or choose a mineral sunscreen that has zinc oxide or titanium dioxide rather than other types of active ingredients.

“Right now, those are the best ones that we know of that have the least amount of overall effects,” she said.

Helbing recommneds wearing UV protective clothing whenever possible.

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