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Summertime is in full swing and with high heat, summer activities (camping or bonfire, anyone?), and more time spent outdoors, you’re probably breaking out some products that you don’t use year-round. We’re talking bug repellant, sunscreen, self-tanner - the works.
Now, you can probably smell (and even feel) these products at the mere mention of them - they have some pretty one-of-a-kind smells and textures. But are they toxic smells and textures? Well, at the very least they’re not great.
Here’s what you’re really slathering on, and how to spot some healthier alternatives that actually work.
Probably one of the most toxic - and most necessary - products on the list is bug repellant. On one hand, if you’ve ever been to a mosquito-ridden part of the world, you can’t really live without it (nobody wants to be covered in itchy, disease-carrying bug bites, after all). On the other hand, though, there’s probably always that nagging thought in the back in your mind that, if this stuff actually kills bugs on contact, it’s probably not too great for humans.
And you’re right. The active ingredient in most insect repellants is DEET - or N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide - a pesticide that’s famously known as the most effective ingredient for repelling bugs and ticks.
But this magical repellant comes with some major drawbacks. For one, large doses of DEET have actually been linked to some major symptoms, including seizures, blisters, memory loss, skin irritation, headaches, and stiffness in the joints (yikes!). It’s even linked to neurotoxicity that can cause both physical and behavioral problems, like motor skill issues and memory dysfunction (double yikes). The worst part here is that it’s incredibly well-absorbed: one study found that 48% of an applied dose is totally absorbed within six hours, while another concluded that DEET can even cross the placenta and affect fetuses.
And the fine print doesn’t end there, since DEET can majorly affect the environment too.
In short, it’s not great for your body or for the world around you, and other top repellant ingredients - like cyfluthrin, permethrin, and pyrethroids - are no better. But are there any good alternatives? After all, the reason that people keep reaching for the stuff is that it really works (while many alternative repellants really don’t).
Unfortunately, there is no straightforward yeshere, since many more natural alternatives simply don’t work as well. Not the best answer, but it’s true. The major problem with bug bites isn’t the bites themselves, it’s the mosquito-born diseases like Zika that they can carry. If you’re in an area where these diseases are prevalent, then, there’s really no way out of using the major repellant, and the pros certainly outweigh the cons.
That said, if you’re in a place where disease is not a major concern, you can find some relief using more natural ingredients.
The top of our list? Oil of lemon eucalyptus, otherwise known as PMD. This is an oil extracted from the gum eucalyptus tree in Australia, and it’s the only “alternative” repellant that’s actually registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - meaning that it’s actually proven to work.
You can also try botanical oils. Some recommend a mixture of thyme, lemongrass, citronella, lavender, geranium, grapefruit, and cedarwood to combat mosquitos - but keep in mind that this kind of solution doesn’t have the research to back it up (and essential oils can cause their own problems like skin irritation or allergies).
Toxic ingredients versus environment and skin safe
Sunscreen is another one with some toxic ingredients - but, unlike insect repellant, there are some stellar skin-safe and environmentally safe alternatives.
Many chemicals in sunscreen are either bad for the body or for the environment (or both). These include:
Oxybenzone was banned in Hawaiibecause it’s shown to harm coral reefs and sea life. Plus, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), it’s a form of synthetic estrogen that can disrupt your hormones.
In its 2018 review of sunscreen ingredients, the EWG actually found oxybenzone to be the most troubling ingredient available.
Like oxybenzone, octinoxate is also banned in Hawaii. It’s also been shown to cause skin allergies - and, in many animal studies, it was found to have negative effects on the reproductive system and the thyroid.
This ingredient doesn’tcause hormone disruption, but it has been found to cause significant skin irritation. On top of that, it’s not sun-stable, which means that it has to be mixed with possibly toxic stabilizers to be used in sunscreen formulas. Not ideal either.
This is a form of Vitamin A - which, when ingested, is a good thing. Vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant, and eating vitamin A-rich foods has been shown to protect the skin and combat free radical damage.
When applied topically and exposed to the sun, though, retinyl palmitate can actually cause free radicals to form,aka encourage damage to the skin. Definitely not a great quality to find in a sunscreen.
Luckily, there are tons of awesome alternative ingredients widely available on the market. These include:
So what about aftersun care like that bright green aloe vera that everyone used to slather on? Is that good or bad?
Well - the verdict is out. Aloe vera on its own is a well-known skincare ingredient that’s packed with nutrients that make it:
But when it comes to aftersun care, things are a little unclear. For starters, aloe vera products that contain too much alcohol - or added synthetic fragrance - can irritate the skin and actually exacerbate burns and sun damage. Plus, a huge problem with many aftersun products is that they’re really thick, emollient formulas. This creates a barrier on top of the skin and actually traps in heat and inflammation - not great.
Aloe vera as an ingredient shouldn’t be ruled out here - it’s soothing and moisturizing properties canhelp with sunburn. But you’ll want to look for a gel formula with no alcohol, no fragrance, high water content, and a high aloe vera content. To this end, be wary of oils! While they can add nutrients and hydration, oils can also seal in heat (yikes) and actually make your burn worse.
You can also turn to other repairing, soothing ingredients like:
Here's to healthier, happier summer skin!