HOW SUNSCREENS CAN AFFECT YOUR HORMONES & WHAT ALTERNATIVES YOU CAN USE
Women who care about their periods, hormones and fertility seem to intuitively know that standard sunscreens aren't great for us (I explain this below). And as someone who has not only had hormonal issues, but also battles with allergic reactions to sunscreens, and had two moles removed, I feel that we should be more aware of all our sun protection options.
An intriguing new trend that has caught my eye recently, is the "using coconut oil for sunscreen" or other oils that are more natural. I completely understand why you would want to do this, as coconut oil has been amazing for my skin care regime.
However, I had reservations because I baste things in oil when I want to roast them at high temperatures and I know that the last thing you should put on burns is oil, as it cooks them further (ouch).
Some people are even questioning whether we need sunscreen, due to concerns with low vitamin D levels (which I wrote about in last week's post), and the classic argument, "sunshine is natural and natural things can't harm you".
So this left me with two burning questions: what sunscreens aren't full of endocrine disrupting chemicals and are natural oils safe to use?
After a lot of research, I have now come across sunscreens that I feel work well for me, my unique needs and don't interfere with my hormones.
So I thought it was time for a blog post on why we need to protect our skin, why some sunscreens affect our hormones and fertility and look into natural oils further.
Why Do We Even Need Sunscreen?
Whilst we do need to get sunshine for vitamin D levels, the longer we stay in the sun, the higher our risk of damage to our skin, skin cancer and heat stroke. Our ancestors used to spend more time out doors everyday and so would develop more melatonin in their skin every day to tolerate the sun. But our sedentary, indoors lifestyles and global warming has meant that our skin is less able to tolerate the sun and more radiation is coming through the atmosphere.
Image Credit: Shutterstock
There are two things we need to protect against: UVA and UVB rays. To remember which one is which it is UVA for Ageing and UVB for Burning.
UVA rays cause our skin to age as it penetrates right down to the bottom layer of the skin, the hypodermis. Sunscreens that protect against UVA have a star system on the bottle. The more stars, the greater the protection against UVA.
UVB rays cause our skin to burn (it affects the upper part of our skin, the epidermis) and protection against UVB is measured in SPF. SPF is the one that causes the most confusion, so I thought I would break that down a bit. We all have a set amount of time in the sun we can last before our skin starts to redden and becoming damaged. Let's say that if you are a very pale person like me, that time period is 10 minutes.
The SPF gives you the SPF factor multiplied by that number of minutes. So SPF of 1 will give me my normal 10 minutes in the sun, which means it makes no difference to my skin with no sunscreen. However, an SPF of 20, in theory should give me 20 times 10 minutes in the sun (200 minutes). Although, in my case I burn earlier than that, but there is standardised testing on products that is based on an average skin time as determined in a laboratory.
It is also important to note, that regardless of whatever factor you use, it should be applied regularly, at least every two hours depending on the product's photo-stability (how quickly it gets broken down by light) and whether you are swimming, exercising or doing any other activity that could cause it to break down and wash off.
You can get products that have high SPF and a low star rating or a high star rating and a low SPF in effect only protecting you against one of these rays. When you look at most products in pharmacy shelves, you will find it is hard to find a product with high protection of both. So you may need to look at using two products together (and which ones you can use together as some won't mix well).
Sun Screens & Hormones
There are a lot of body and skin care products that contain chemicals known as xeno-oestrogens. These are chemicals that are similar to the naturally occurring oestrogen in our bodies, that bind with the oestrogen receptors we have. Simply put, these receptors think they are being told to act which can lead to a number of things such as oestrogen dominance (think heavy painful periods, PMS and wonky cycles amongst other things).
A lot of people in the wellness world are reacting to this by recommending using natural oils such as coconut oil and carrot seed oil instead of sunscreens to protect their skin and hormones. So let's take a look at natural oils.
Natural Oils As Sunscreens
Using a natural oil that has seen very minimal processing greatly appeals to me, but having had some interesting moles removed myself, I feel that you really have to be very careful when look at protection claims on sunscreen, as for some of us, it really isn't worth taking risks.
But what is the evidence for natural oils? It is really hard to find evidence where UVA protection is measured, but there are studies that look at UVB protection and measure SPF levels.
One study (1) showed that non-volatile oils (oils that do not vaporise easily) had an SPF range of 2-8 and volatile oils (oils that do vapourise easily and therefore have a stronger scent, such as essential oils) had an SPF of 1-7 which is very low compared to standard sunscreen.
Then I found another study (2) stating that a number of oils such as canola oil, citronella oil, coconut oil, olive oil and soya bean oil along with juices of acerola, beet, grape, orange carrot and raspberry were all tested in the same laboratory conditions as standard sunscreens and were shown to have an SPF of no greater than 1. This is the same as no protection.
It is worth noting they also tested vitamin E aloe vera gel too and got the same results. So, bear in mind that when you see aloe vera and vitamin E based sun products, that they are usually for after sun repair not sun protection.
Vitamin E was shown to have some protection against the wavelength of 310nm but sunlight has a spectrum of 290-400nm. So whilst it does offer some protection this is very limited.
Interestingly, the only exception to the above study was purple carrot which showed some protection but this has to be tested further to see how it can be added into a topical application and get tested in that form. And there was no mention of UVA protection.
So what about carrot seed oil, often recommended as a "natural sunscreen"? I can't find any research to show that it is protective and the only reference I can find from someone whose evidence based research I respect is this post on Robert Tisserand's (essential oil expert and trainer) Facebook page.
The extract is below:
"I have been asked a few times recently to provide evidence that carrot seed essential oil is not an effective sunscreen. I think the onus is on those who claim that it is a sunscreen to provide some substantiating evidence. The purported 38-40 SPF for carrot seed oil is based on some Indian research where they tested a natural sunscreen product that contained "Daucus carota" AND OTHER INGREDIENTS, and the product had an SPF of 38 in one test, and 40 in another. This does not mean that carrot seed oil of any type has a meaningful SPF. It's more likely that they used carrot seed fatty oil than any other type of carrot extract, but the article does not give us that information. So, carrot seed FATTY oil may be very slightly sun-protective, but it has no known SPF. And, there are no essential oils that meaningfully filter UV rays."
In my research, I did find one product that contains carrot seed essential oil which is labelled as SPF 40+, however, on closer look its ingredients list includes zinc which is the most likely to be the active blocking ingredient.
This is another favourite "natural sunscreen" and I have to admit, I love coconut oil as a cleanser, moisturiser and all round beauty product so I thought I would be perfect for me.
There are a number of rumoured studies that show that coconut oil has an SPF of anywhere up to 7, which is still very low, but I can't find them anywhere (if you can find them please let me know). Then there is the second study I referenced above (Gause & Chauhan) that shows it has an SPF of 1.
Making Your Own
As someone who makes my own cosmetics, this really appealed to me. However, on doing some research I found out that even mixing either zinc oxide or titanium oxide with my favourite botanicals, it is very difficult outside of professional mixing conditions using proper equipment to get an even amount of blocker throughout the mixture, even if you have measured the correct amount.
Additionally, all batches of sunscreen are tested to ensure they are effective and that the blocking ingredient is evenly distributed throughout the product before being sold and that is a risk I wouldn't take with a home made product (random patches of sunburn aren't a good look for me).
Also, as with all home made products, they tend to have a very short shelf life before they become unsafe, especially water based or botanical containing products due to bacterial contamination (usually after a day or two) and I like to make things in batches.
So What Sun Screens Can You Use?
The good news is that there are products that contain more botanicals than xeno-oestrogen chemicals and are friendlier on the skin than the standard products. My personal favourite is the Neals Yard Wild Rose Moisturing SPF 30 sunscreen as I have very sensitive skin.
The main place I go to when looking for hormone friendly sun screens is the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database and find one of the products with a good rating there. They also have a handy little guide telling you to look for products such as creams with an SPF 15-50 that are water resistant and broad spectrum. It should have active ingredients such as Zinc Oxide, Avobenzone or Mexoryl SX.
They also suggest avoiding ingredients that include: added insect repellant, Oxybenzone and Vitamin A (retinol palmitate). They also suggest avoiding products that are sprays, powders or have an SPF over 50.
If you are interested in researching these further but want to get your head around all the protection factors, here is another article explaining sunscreens and protection factors.
Other Sun Protection Considerations
It is important to protect your head and your eyes, but wearing sunglasses and a proper hat to protect your head and eyes. Ensure you have regular breaks from the sun in proper shade and drink plenty of water throughout the day.
There are also clothing companies that provide beach wear and swim wear that have UVB blocking abilities.
I hope that has give you some insight on hormone, period and fertility friendly sun protection. I'd love to hear what brands work for you. You can share in the Facebook Group.
2. Gause & Chauhan 2016, International Journal of Cosmetic Science.
Find out more about oestrogen dominance.
Find out more about Vitamin D.
Find out how sleep affects your cycle.