As Hollywood Hits the Beach, Experts Weigh in on the Dangers of Chemical Sunscreens

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Grace Kelly in 'To Catch A Thief'

As an alternative, Hollywood is turning to chemical-free formulations, swimwear and clothing with built-in UPF, and "hats, hats, hats," says actress Christina Hendricks, whose fair skin is one of her trademarks.

In a town where a smooth, even complexion is a priceless commodity, defending skin from harmful UV rays involves much more than a few quick dabs of SPF cream. Call it conscientious sun protection. Everyone from Halle Berry and Jennifer Aniston to Kerry Washington and Hugh Jackman (who has spoken publicly about his skin cancer treatments), have stressed how vital it is to apply and reapply sunscreen every day, whether the sun is shining or not. But careful skin preservation, an industry virtue, is not only limited to personal sun safety; a larger conversation has started about the potential dangers of the chemicals in these products.

“The chemical ingredients in sunscreens are taking an alarming toll on both the environment and our bodies,” says Dr. Craig Downs, PhD in cell and molecular biology/pathology and executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, a Virginia-based non-profit scientific organization dedicated to environmental forensics, public education and outreach.

Downs and his team at Haereticus have been leading the charge against coral reef poisoning and, through their comprehensive research, assert that typical sunscreen and body care ingredients are contributing. They’ve even created The HEL List, a jarring and ironic company acronym, where several of the most commonly-used chemical sunscreen ingredients are deemed unsafe for personal care use and the oceans: oxybenzone, octinoxate and octocrylene.

While mineral-based, non-nano (meaning unable to penetrate the bloodstream) ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the only two sun protection ingredients the FDA deems as GRASE (Generally Recognized As Safe And Effective), nano-size particles (tiny enough to seep into the skin and bloodstream) of these same ingredients have also been placed on the HEL List.

Meanwhile, skin cancer cases continue to rise. In addition to Jackman, Anderson Cooper, Melanie Griffith and Diane Keaton have been open about their bouts with skin cancer. And, there’s reason for concern. The diagnosis and treatment of non-melanoma skin cancers in the United States increased by 77 percent between 1994 and 2014, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation. They also estimate that the number of new melanoma cases diagnosed in 2019 will increase by 7.7 percent.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Ladies trip with my best girls. An abundance of relaxation and giant hats. PS I Love You.

A post shared by Christina Hendricks (@actuallychristinahendricks) on

Hollywood is on alert. “I always keep a hat in the car,” says Ever Carradine, star of The Handmaid’s Tale and Marvel’s Runaways. “I wear one walking to and from the car, to the grocery store and while waiting at the school bus stop.”

Christina Hendricks, whose flawless, fair skin is one of her trademarks agrees. “Hats, hats, hats,” she says. “That’s my go-to for sun protection.”

The environmental impact is disturbing, and Leonardo DiCaprio and his foundation have been sounding the alarm for years. “We’re dealing with the epidemic of unsustainable tourism here,” says Downs. “Thousands of tourists visit beach communities all over the world, all year long, and the chemicals in the sunscreen they’re wearing are detrimental to the reefs and marine life.”

Downs points to the Florida Keys as an example, “99 percent of their coral reefs have disappeared.” City officials have taken notice: Key West recently passed a law banning the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. The popular vacation spot joins Hawaii, the first state to pass a bill banning the sale of sunscreens containing the aforementioned ingredients, although both destinations will have to wait until January 1, 2021 for the legislation to go into effect. This week, the U.S. Virgin Islands passed a bill banning sunscreens containing oxybenzone, octinoxate, and added octocrylene to the mix that will become effective on December 31, 2019.

Several board-certified dermatologists agree with Downs that these chemicals are toxic to humans. “Many products that are applied on the skin can be absorbed into the bloodstream,” says Dr. Nancy Samolitis, co-founder of Facile dermatology in Beverly Hills whose clients include Busy Phillips and Mandy Moore. “This is why certain skin care products are not recommended during pregnancy and chemical sunscreens are no exception.” Studies are said to be currently underway by the FDA to determine what effect these chemicals have once they are in the body.

Dr. Macrene Alexiades, a New York-based cosmetic dermatological surgeon and Yale clinical professor who counts Chris McQuarrie (writer-director of the two upcoming Mission Impossible films) as a client and Sienna Miller as a fan of her 37 Actives skin care line, called out the toxicity of these chemical ingredients many years ago, and notes that we are at a crossroads when it comes to safe sunscreen. “We need much more research and development,” she says. “At the same time, I stress to all of my patients that’s it’s about protecting your investment [i.e. flawless skin] while striking the proper balance, and this can involve my recommendation of using a chemical sunscreen on the face, especially for those who have a history of skin cancer in the family.”

Many chemical-free sunscreen options are being introduced with non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Companies have even begun touting “reef safe” on the packaging, alongside “vegan,” “plant based” and “cruelty free.” Hollywood skin care expert, Cynthia Franco (who helps Lucy Boynton, Maude Apatow and Amber Heard achieve their coveted glows) is loyal to Epicuren Discovery's Zinc Oxide Perfecting Sunscreen. “This is one of my absolute favorites,” she says. “It sinks right in, it hydrates and evens skin tone.”

Jennifer Hollander, the board-certified nurse practitioner who oversees Beverly Hills anti-aging mecca Aura Spa Holistic Healing Center alongside cosmetic surgeon Dr. Ben Talei is partial to EltaMD UV Physical Broad-Spectrum SPF 41 and Tizo Sheer Botanicals SPF 45 Mineral Sunscreen. “They’re both effective, glide on beautifully and contain skin-soothing antioxidants,” she says.

Both Owen Wilson and Molly Shannon use Hawaii-based, Raw Love sunscreen. Sold at food and wellness epicenter Erewhon Market, the ultra-pure formulation is made with less than ten “100 percent all natural, plant based ingredients” such as cold pressed unrefined coconut oil, raw shea butter and carrot seed oil.

Other “safe” industry sunscreen favorites include the handy Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On SPF 50 by Colorescience, which can be dusted over makeup throughout the day, used by Big Little Lies star Laura Dern and Drew Barrymore. Carradine likes Baby Bum’s SPF 50 Mineral Sunscreen Face Stick for her kids. “I put the stick in their lunch boxes for camp days,” she says. Tropic Sport, reportedly used by pro athletes all over the world, consulted with Downs to ensure that their formulations are not harmful to the oceans. 

As far as the current state of sunscreen formulation, innovation is essential. Downs (who never endorses any brands) will share one, non-compensated hour of discussion with interested parties to explore the environmental and human safety of their formulations. He has his eye on the use of natural extracts with an inherent SPF value including bee propolis, raspberry oil and algae. “These ingredients may absorb UV radiation and boost SPF performance,” he says. And, Alexiades is looking at melanin as a non-toxic sunscreen alternative. “Melanin is the pigment in darker skin tones, and it’s one of the best sunscreens,” she says.

Industry executives are also incorporating protective textiles into their sunscreen arsenals. Producer-writer Christy Stratton (Modern Family, Everyone’s Crazy But Us and King Of The Hill) is a fan of long-sleeved crewneck swimwear by Flagpole and Quiksilver rash guards for her son. Mandeville Television president Laurie Zaks swears by wide-brimmed hats and clothing from Coolibar, “Everything in their line has built in sunscreen, it’s the best,” she says.

UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) swimwear and clothing by brands such as Coolibar and Mott 50 (worn by Chrissy Teigen and her daughter Luna) are said to block up to 98 percent of UVA and UVB rays, and are the number one recommendation of Alexiades and Samolitis. Downs is also a big proponent: “From an eco-conservation perspective, UPF clothing and swimwear is a real victory. Sunscreen usage is reduced by almost 50 percent simply by wearing a long-sleeve rash guard or bathing suit.”

Of course, there’s always the extreme sun safety alternative: “You can walk around smothered in thick, white, toothpaste-like zinc,” says Alexiades. Not out of the question, given the insatiable pursuit for flawless skin in Hollywood.