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We Need To Talk About Chemical Sunscreens

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quick fact

90% of visible signs of aging are caused by sun exposure.

As with just about everything in skincare, it’s part art, part science. And in between, there’s a whole lot of hair-splitting that we think is a good thing.

Which is why when we saw splashy, clickbaity headlines this month like “Hawaii Officially Bans The Sale of Chemical Sunscreens,” we collectively made the palm-to-face-emoji.


Because what gets clicks, stokes fear, and spreads false snippets of information shouldn’t prevent actual education on an important topic.

Let’s run through the facts.

First, a very-fast roundup chemical vs. physical sunscreens.

Chemical sunscreens work by using sun-blocking compounds that absorb UV rays and release the conversion as heat from your skin. They tend to be relatively weightless and let pores breath. ’Chemical’ refers to the process of converting what’s harmful (the rays) into something that’s less harmful (heat). Chemical, as a word, makes a lot of people squirm, but remember, water is a chemical (great for your skin!), wine is a chemical (love that one), and lead and mercury are ‘naturals’ (makeup of the Middle Ages, anyone?).

Physical sunscreens, most notably zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, are chemicals that use a physical action to provide sunblock. Rather than absorbing, they sit atop your skin and reflect the harmful UVA rays, like a mirror. Think of the notorious white-nosed dad on the beach. Physical blockers have gotten far smoother and absorbent since the ‘80s, thankfully.

Are all chemical sunscreens created equally?

Absolutely not. Over time, we as a science-loving society (Right? We still are?) have researched and found that some chemical sunscreens are potentially more harmful to us humans or the environment around us. Both are very valid concerns.

So what’s the Hawaii story all about?

Hawaii is the first state to ban oxybenzone and octinoxate, two very common chemical blockers, which are believed to cause harm to marine life and coral reefs. If the governor signs the bill, it’ll take effect on January 1, 2021.

Thus, the debate ensues.

Save the coral and lobsters? Or save the tourists from looking like lobsters (or worse, later)? Proponents on the environmental side point to the absolutely grave condition many of the world’s reef structures and their huge importance in ocean health. They’re a big Jenga block of ocean health and human activity is yanking at it like a five-year-old.

The debate on the human side is just as valid. One in five Americans will develop some form of skin cancer in their lifetime. And just like how the majority of, say, fruit-on-the-bottom yogurts in mass grocers have added sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup, the vast majority of inexpensive drugstore sunscreens have those two less-than-ideal chemical blockers in them.

Perhaps the law will pressure big formulators, which we think is ultimately the better outcome here.  

Chemical or physical, what should I use?

Great question. We think the answer is both – they both have a time and place. As Holly Thaggard, founder of Supergoop!, one of our favorite sunscreens, said, “I’m all about a sunscreen wardrobe. You need different kinds for different days or activities.”

We absolutely concur. Thanks to innovation, “sunscreen” is as big a category as “moisturizer” and you know how choosy we are about finding the right fit there. If you’re swatting like Serena on a tennis court, a pure physical blocker can wipe off with your sweat and towel and might block your pores from easy perspiration. If easy absorption is your main concern, a high-quality chemical screen is fantastic. If you have reservations about chemical sunscreens, by all means, reach for a well-made physical blocker. Even some of the ingredient purists our team will gently lay down the sword when it comes to sunscreen. Point is, wear something of quality, every day.

For everyday use, two of our client favorites include the matte finish chemical/physical combo Image Skincare Prevention+ SPF 32 or the Supergoop! SPF 30 City Sunscreen Serum with its super thin finish which acts as a gorgeous makeup primer. And for mid-day SPF refreshers (yes, do it!), the Supergoop! Refresh Setting Mist

mattes midday summer shine and delivers SPF 50 in a spray.

So what’s the bottom line?

The bottom line we want to get across is – understand the merits of both chemical and physical sunscreen and don’t let fear-mongering headlines scare you from protecting yourself from what causes 90% of visible signs of aging — the sun. No matter your persuasion in the debate, we’re happy to talk shop and find you a solution that makes both you and your skin happy.

And as for those SPF pills being bandied about, we’ll save that for another time.

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