Eco-Friendly Summer Essentials
What You Need to Know
by Dr. Amanda Ng, ND
As summer is finally here, I always encourage my patients, friends, and family to spend time outdoors and enjoy the weather while it lasts. Spending time outdoors and in nature has so many positive impacts on our health… It uplifts our mood and gives us time away from our busy lives so we can relax and reflect. Being outdoors encourages you to get moving and be active. Spending time outdoors will help rekindle your relationship with nature, and you will find that you will greater appreciate the plants, animals, and other forms of wildlife that surrounds you.
There are a multitude of benefits to appreciating and spending time outdoors, but of course there are some drawbacks like sunburns, insect bites, and sweat. These drawbacks shouldn’t prevent you from getting outside, so I’ve put together a small list of summer essentials that can help you stay safe and are also safe (or safer) for you and the environment.
The first thing to know about sunscreen is that although it is a summer essential, it does not provide 100% protection from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. It only reduces the amount of radiation that will reach your skin, thereby reducing the risk of skin damage.
We all shop for sunscreen with various SPF ratings, but what does it mean? SPF stands for “sun protection factor.” The SPF rating is a measure of the fraction of sunburn-producing UV rays that reach the skin. For example, “SPF 15” means that 1⁄15th of UV radiation will reach the skin. To determine the effectiveness of sunscreen, multiply the SPF factor by the length of time it takes for you to suffer a burn without sunscreen. For example, if you develop a sunburn within 10 minutes when not wearing sunscreen, applying a sunscreen with a SPF of 15 will allow you to avoid sunburn for 150 minutes. Although sunscreens with higher SPF ratings block slightly more of the sun’s rays, it is important to note that they do not necessarily allow you to spend longer lengths of time outdoors without reapplication. All sunscreens last the same amount of time on the skin, regardless of their SPF rating, so regular reapplication is essential.
Ingredients: Read the Labels
When it comes to ingredients, opt for mineral-only sunscreens. Sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are stable in sunlight, offer a good balance of protection between UVA and UVB radiation, and often don’t contain harmful additives. Harmful additives such as oxybenzone, parabens, and retinyl palmitate are still found in various sunscreen products. Oxybenzone is a hormone disruptor and allergen, and it does not provide broad-spectrum UV protection. Similarly, parabens are suspected hormone disruptors and are commonly found in cosmetics and other body-care products as preservatives. Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, is positively known as an antioxidant that protects the skin against aging, but government tests have revealed an increased incidence of skin tumours and lesions on animals treated with retinyl palmitate when exposed to sunlight.
Cream or Spray?
Choose a cream or lotion over a spray or powder. Research shows that the nanoparticles of zinc dioxide and titanium dioxide can enter the bloodstream when inhaled and can potentially cause lung damage. Further research is needed on the impact of these nanoparticles on the environment and our bodies. In the meantime, choose mineral-based creams to ensure optimal coverage and protection and to avoid inadvertent inhalation.
With Lyme disease and Zika virus on the rise and the continual risk of West Nile virus, insect repellant is a summer essential just as important as sunscreen. The most common ingredient in insect repellants is N,N diethyl-meta toluamide (DEET), which has been registered for public use since 1957. Until today, DEET is rated to be very effective in repelling a wide range of mosquitoes, ticks, and other bugs. Over the years, there has been concern about the potential health risks of using DEET and other chemical repellants. Chemical and synthetic ingredients in bug sprays often don’t readily break down in the environment; they tend to linger and can cause harm to surrounding plants and animals. DEET is a registered pesticide and therefore comes with warnings to avoid eyes, mouth, ears, cuts, and irritated skin for a reason. It is also a suspected neurotoxin and respiratory toxin in large doses. Symptoms of toxicity may include seizures, wheezing, rashes, dizziness, and headaches. Continual research has found the rate of these adverse reactions to be quite low, and product manufacturers advise consumers to handle DEET with caution to reduce the risk of overexposure. After reviewing all the evidence, the Environmental Working Group has concluded that DEET is generally safe and effective when used correctly, especially for people in areas with a high prevalence of bug-borne diseases.
How Much DEET Is Safe?
By compiling all up-to-date research, Health Canada has developed recommendations for DEET usage according to age to help reduce the risk of overexposure without compromising protection.
||Never use insect repellents containing DEET. Consider alternative methods of protection (e.g. protective clothing, mosquito netting).
||Use only in situations where a high risk of complications from insect bites exist. Use products with 10% DEET or less. Limit to 1 application per day. Avoid prolonged use.
||Use products with 10% DEET or less. Limit to 3 applications per day. Avoid prolonged use.
||Use products with 30% DEET or less.
At the end of the day, it is up to the consumer to decide which insect repellant is the right choice for them. If you are in a place that presents few risks for bug-borne diseases, then your choice of repellant may not be that critical. You may have more freedom to experiment with more natural and botanically based formulas which are effective in their own right. However, if you are in a place where you need to protect yourself from Lyme disease, West Nile virus, Zika virus, or other bug-borne diseases, you may choose to purchase a repellant with DEET. It is important to research the risk and prevalence of bug-borne disease in your area or the area where you will be travelling to; this way, you will be able to determine which choice of repellant is best for you. Remember: The repellant you might choose for camping in a national park may be different from the repellant that may suffice for a walk along the beach.
If you would like to try an alternative to DEET, there are numerous all-natural bug spray options on the market. Many of them contain a combination of essential oils and botanical extracts such as citronella, lemongrass, tea tree, lavender, and rosemary. These products may be worth trying if bug-borne diseases are not known to be a problem where you are going.
Spending time outside in the warm weather will inevitably lead to sweating. Sweating is the body’s natural way to cool itself off, and it is also a way for the body to detoxify. Of course, it isn’t always optimal to be sticky and sweaty, so we naturally turn to deodorants and antiperspirants to keep the sweat and odour at bay. Unfortunately, most deodorants and antiperspirants on the market are made with toxic ingredients that are hazardous to our health. A common ingredient used in most products is aluminium, which has been linked to breast cancer and to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Our underarm skin is very porous in comparison to the skin found on the rest of our bodies, which makes this area sensitive and more absorbent. Recent research has found that the chemicals we apply to our underarms (aluminum and parabens, for example) are readily absorbed and accumulate in the mammary glands. These chemicals interfere with the biological processes that occur in the mammary tissue cells, thereby promoting cancerous cell transformation.
Safer Ingredients to Look Out For
Several companies today produce more natural forms of deodorants. They may cost you a pinch more than the chemical-laden brands, but your health is what makes it worth it in the end. Products that contain ingredients like coconut oil, baking soda, arrowroot powder, and essential oils are great natural alternatives to keep sweating and odour at bay. It is important to keep in mind that these ingredients do not plug up the sweat glands to prevent sweating like aluminum does, so you will notice that you may still sweat while using these products. Remember: We don’t necessarily want to stop the process of sweating, but we can turn to these safer ingredients to make sweating more manageable.
When it comes to choosing healthier and eco-friendly sunscreens, insect repellants, and deodorants, the available research and options can be overwhelming. However, it is important to stay up-to-date and in the loop, especially in this day and age where consumer products are filled with synthetic and toxic chemicals. It is quite unfortunate, but rest assured that there are safer, less toxic, and eco-friendly options out there, which all starts with knowing which ingredients to look out for.