By Kathryn Nelson
As ocean-going vagabonds we are constantly exposed to a heap of sun, and chances are you are using large volumes of sunscreen on a daily basis to protect your skin. But have you ever stopped to consider what ingredients are in these products, what effects they have on our wellbeing and the wellbeing of the ocean around us?
Well, I have!
Why make your own sunscreen?
The sunscreen we grew up with is damaging to the environment we play in AND damaging to our unsuspecting, slathered-up bods.
Chemical sunscreen's effect on our natural environments?
Whenever you enter the water there will always be some sunscreen runoff from your skin that disperses into the water. Studies show that oxybenzone, a common chemical found particularly in spray-on sunscreens, contributes to coral bleaching and can deform coral growth.
Researchers have found this to harm coral in several ways. It has a similar effect on DNA to gasoline, and disrupts reproduction and growth, leaving young corals fatally deformed and stressed. It causes weird deformities in soft tissue and also causes the coral larvae to encase themselves in their own skeleton, like a coffin. Even small doses of oxybenzone – about a drop in six-and-a-half Olympic swimming pools – damages coral.
What are the impacts of sunscreen on our bodies?
There is much evidence exposing the average chemical-based sunscreen to be full of harmful ingredients; like active chemicals that contain potent endocrine disruptors, which in many cases can actually promote skin cancer growth and free radical production in the body. Typically, manufacturers create SPF in two different ways, by adding chemicals or by adding minerals.
How does a chemical-based sunscreen work?
Chemical-based sunscreens work by adding chemical compounds (such as oxybenzone, oxtinoxate, and octisalate) to the sunscreen base to absorb ultraviolet light (scroll down to see 6 of the scariest sunscreen ingredients). These chemicals must be absorbed into the skin in order to be effective, which is why many sunscreens instruct you to apply them at least 20 minutes before sun exposure. Unfortunately, these chemicals have been found to mimic our hormones and disrupt our endocrine system, cause skin reactions, and produce cancer-causing free radicals.
So, how does mineral-based sunscreen differ?
Mineral-based sunscreens work by adding inorganic material that reflects, scatters, and absorbs UV light, such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide. These types of sunscreens sit on top of the skin, so can be applied at the time of sun exposure. The thing to be aware of with minerals is particle size. If the particles are small enough to fit into your pores, they will be absorbed – and zinc oxide has been linked to organ damage if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed into the bloodstream. This is why it’s important to seek out mineral-based sunscreens that list, “non-nano” particle Zinc Oxides in their ingredients.
Some sunscreens have both chemicals and minerals, so read your labels carefully to know exactly what you're getting. But better yet, make your own! Purchasing your ingredients in bulk will mean you can easily whip together a new batch for each sailing season, for you and everyone else in the anchorage.
DIY Plastic-Free Mineral Sunscreen Recipe
1/2 cup coconut oil
¼ cup beeswax
2 tablespoons high-grade NON-NANO, UNCOATED Zinc Oxide
1 -6 tablespoons cacao powder (add to your desired skin shade)
Up to 1 teaspoon Red Raspberry Seed Oil
Up to 1 teaspoon Carrot Seed Oil
1-2 drops of aroma enhancing vanilla essence OR lavender essential oils (Do not use citrus essential oils as they increase sun sensitivity)
Mix all ingredients except cacao and zinc oxide in a medium metal bowl.
Create a double boiler by putting a medium saucepan with a couple of inches of water onto medium heat and place the metal bowl in the pot. The bottom of the bowl should not reach the water, it should be suspended, the body of the bowl supported by the pot.
Stir the ingredients occasionally in the bowl as they start to melt.
When the mix is completely melted, turn off the heat and stir in the powders. Cover your mouth with a mask as you work with the zinc to avoid inhaling the fine particles.
Mix evenly and then pour into small jars or tins. (Do not use tubes or pump bottles, this is a thick lotion made for finger spreading. Best container is a dark glass jar).
The oils this mix contains are photosensitive, so keep your sunscreen out of the sun and store it in cool places to avoid it melting. If it does melt, give it another stir and pop in the fridge to quickly set.
How to use
Apply liberally to exposed skin and reapply any time water no longer beads on top. Adding more beeswax makes a thicker more water-resistant sunscreen. Less wax makes a smoother sunscreen.
What is Zinc Oxide, and is it safe?
While zinc itself can be found in nature, zinc oxide is not naturally-occurring but rather created when zinc is chemically heated and combined with oxygen molecules. The two elements are vaporized, condensed, and formed into a powder that is fine, white, crystallized and sits on top of the skin providing a protective layer.
Recent breakthroughs in zinc oxide particle size have led to a major increase zinc oxide cream and zinc oxide sunscreen. Beginning in 2008, researchers created nano-sized zinc oxide particles, resulting in a revolution in sunscreen and skincare. An advanced formula of zinc oxide is now capable of being applied to the skin without leaving behind a thick, white film, therefore opening the doors for much wider acceptance of natural sunscreen products.
Using Zinc Oxide together with a combination of natural butters, oils and essential oils can create a delicious potion of sun protection. With many of these ingredients naturally containing SPF ratings. The sun protection will of course depends on the amount of each ingredient used. Feel free to experiment with what works best for your skin.
Zinc Oxide - SPF 2-20 (6-11 SPF: use 10% zinc, 12-19 SPF: 15% zinc, >20 SPF: 20% zinc)
Olive Oil - SPF 2-8
Almond Oil - SPF around 5
Avocado Oil - SPF 4-8
Coconut Oil – SPF 4-10
Red Raspberry Seed Oil - SPF 25-50
Carrot Seed Oil – SPF 28-40 (contains antioxidants to protect skin cells) Must be diluted or it will burn your skin)
Shea Butter – SPF 4-6
Myrrh Essential Oil – SPF around 15 (ultra healing oil for skin)
The zinc oxide creates a physical barrier. Be sure to buy zinc in bulk and only the non-nano particle, so that it cannot be absorbed into the skin. Be careful not to inhale the powder.
The shelf life of this natural homemade sunscreen is about 6 months if you refrigerate when not using it.
If you have natural lotions at home you can turn them into sunscreen by adding 2 tbsp of non-nano particle zinc oxide. Be sure the lotion doesn't contain citrus oils, as the citrus increases sun sensitivity.
Check with your doctor or dermatologist before using any new products, especially if you have had skin issues in the past.
6 of the Scariest Chemical Sunscreen Ingredients
1. Oxybenzone is a penetration enhancer (i.e., a chemical that helps other chemicals penetrate the skin) that undergoes a chemical reaction when exposed to UV rays. Can cause wide-spread skin allergies, most notably eczema-like allergic reactions spreading beyond the exposed area, lasting long after out of the sun. Experts say Oxybenzone disrupts hormones (i.e., mimics, blocks, and alters hormone levels) which can throw off your endocrine system, most disturbingly mimics estrogen. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 97% of Americans have this chemical circulating in their bodies, as it can accumulate more quickly than our bodies can get rid of it.
2. Octinoxate One of the most common ingredients found in sunscreens with SPF, octinoxate is readily absorbed by our skin and helps other ingredients to be absorbed more readily. This chemical disrupts our hormones, mostly altering our estrogen levels and can be harmful for wildlife, too, should they come into contact with the chemical once it gets into the water. Though SPF products are designed to protect skin from sun-induced ageing, octinoxate may actually be a culprit for premature ageing, as it produces menacing free radicals that can damage skin and cells.
3. Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A Palmitate) Just like the vitamin A we eat, retinyl palmitate is an antioxidant. As an ingredient in sunscreen, its function is to improve the product's performance against the ageing effects of UV exposure. However, certain forms of vitamin A found in sun protection products—namely retinyl palmitate, a combination of retinol (vitamin A) and palmitic acid, an ingredient found in tropical plants such as palm and coconut—can be cause for concern. When exposed to the sun's UV rays, retinol compounds break down and produce destructive free radicals that are toxic to cells, damage DNA, and may lead to cancer. In fact, FDA studies have shown that retinyl palmitate may speed the development of malignant cells and skin tumours when applied to the skin before sun exposure. So steer clear of skin sun products that harbour the stuff.
4. Homosalate This UV-absorbing sunscreen ingredient helps sunscreen to penetrate your skin. Once the ingredient has been absorbed, homosalate accumulates in our bodies faster than we can get rid of it, becomes toxic and disrupts our hormones.
5. Octocrylene When this chemical is exposed to UV light, it absorbs the rays and produces oxygen radicals that can damage cells and cause mutations. It is readily absorbed by your skin and may accumulate within your body in measurable amounts. Plus, it can be toxic to the environment.
6. Paraben Preservatives Associated with both acute and chronic side effects, parabens (butyl-, ethyl-, methyl-, and propyl-) can induce allergic reactions, hormone disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity. While butylparaben was reported to be non-carcinogenic in rats and mice, but it has been previously suspected that parabens and other chemicals in underarm cosmetics may contribute to the rising incidence of breast cancer.
* Disclaimer: As with any changes to your daily health habits, we encourage you to seek advice from your medical practitioner and do your own research before making the switch.
Water woman, magical mermaid, yogi goddess, and disposable plastic-free for over ten years. Kate radiates her positive message about conserving and protecting our oceans through her strong social media presence, recent book release, and her lobbying campaigns against governments and large corporate companies.
She has always been drawn to the sea and one day hopes to live aboard her own sailing vessel sharing her sustainable message.
Visit the links below to find out more about Kate