Slip, slop, slap. This was practically my primary school’s motto. Now it’s been upgraded to slip (on a shirt), slop (on 25+ sunscreen), slap (on a hat), seek (shade) and slide (on sunglasses). I think it’s all a little too much for a 4th grader to remember. Then there’s the new-found danger of the slop. Slopping on any old sunscreen may actually be harmful when it’s meant to be protective.

The problem lies in the assumption of safety. We assume that because an official government funded body is telling us to do something (1), then it must be not only good, but essential. We assume that because a product is on our supermarket and pharmacy shelves, it’s safe to use. We assume that sunscreens can help to prevent cancers, that they would never actually be a cause of cancer. We also forget that sunscreens and lotions are chemicals. They are made up of chemicals, some originally found in nature, now mass-produced and rarely ‘re-tested’. We forget the mistakes of the past, where we used compounds and chemicals for generations before we realised the harm we were doing to ourselves.

In this article we’ll look at the three dangers of most sunscreen lotions currently being scientifically explored. Firstly, the chemical composition. Depending on the sunscreen, chemicals your sunscreen may include are benzophenones, PABA and PABA esters, cinnamates, salicylates, digalloyl trioleate, menthyl anthranilate and avobenzone. These are not good for us, some in particular give off free radicals and remain in the body for long periods of time. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) found 84% of sunscreens are harmful to consumers due to chemical components as a factor.

Secondly, the compounding of chemicals is dangerous. This may be less harmful when tested individually but as any 6th grade science student will understand, mixing chemicals creates a reaction and changes those chemicals. Sunscreens use an array of different and contradicting chemicals to fortify products, stabilise them, and break down one component with a chemical so it mixes with the rest. Only active ingredients are ever listed, they would not all fit on the bottle.

The EWG (2) found only 17% of major brands with SPF 15+ and over actually worked to the standard which they had advertised. This is due to the breakdown of complex chemicals. Who of us thinks to check the use-by-date of sunscreen? Who keeps it in the fridge like an expensive moisturiser? Who would think sunscreen breaks down before the expiration date?

Further analysis by the EWG found that “84 percent of 785 sunscreen products with an SPF rating of 15 or higher offer inadequate protection from the sun’s harmful rays, or contain ingredients with safety concerns(3)”.

Thirdly, new research into nanoparticles is raising even more safety questions. Not only about sunscreen, but all make-up products applied to the skin. Nanoparticles are pieces of material measured in nanometers or billionths of a meter (less than 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of human hair). They have the ability to penetrate not only our skin, but our internal organs, going to places where they do not belong, causing havoc with internal bodily systems. Even non-toxic particles can be a danger.

Ironically, their use is an attempt to pacify consumers over the recent fear of chemicals. So they take more ‘old school’ compounds such as zinc oxide and pulverise it to nanoparticles so that the label lists it as the ‘active’ ingredient. Vain consumers then have a transparent (when applied and absorbed) product unlike real ‘old school’ Zinc products, which do not get absorbed. Micronized, nano-scale zinc oxide and titanium dioxide provide strong UVA protection and repeated studies have found they do not penetrate ‘healthy skin’ to a ‘dangerous level’. However, other studies on various other nanoparticles have raised concerns.

I am not calling sunscreen the next asbestos – but we had better be wary that we do not look back and wish someone had.

To protect your skin, which is of course still vital: slip and slap. Don’t forget your “sunnies”, because your eye balls are damaged just as much by UV as your skin. There is a list of safe sunscreens listed at the online Cosmetics Database:

Also avoid the 10am to 3pm sun and take note of reflected sun rays when on the ocean or playing in the snow. A hat won’t protect your face at these times, even if your face is in the shade. Even the foods you consume can help boost the sun-protective properties of your skin: antioxidant and vitamin-C-rich, raw foods are best.

(1) and

(2) EWG is the Environmental Working Group, “The mission of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is to use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment. EWG is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, founded in 1993 by Ken Cook and Richard Wiles.”

(3) Which Sunscreens are Safest?