Another good thing about being an open water swimmer is that we pay more attention to the environment we play in. We notice not only how the wild water affects our pleasure and safety, we notice how the humans affect that environment, unfortunately, often in negative ways. 

I have written previously about sun protection for swimmers with concerns that some forms of sunscreen may actually be harming the body while it is trying to protect it from the sun’s rays. A couple of the common ingredients in chemical block sunscreen are oxybenzone and octinoxate and if you google those two with the phrase ‘health concerns’ you will see that those active ingredients are prime suspects. 

Now we need to consider how these chemicals which harm us are also harming the living environment we swim in. The news has broken recently that Hawaii is the first state (of the USA) to ban certain types of chemical sunscreen and other places with sensitive coral and marine life are considering it also. To put it simply, certain chemicals humans have been putting on their skin to protect themselves from the sun has been spreading out in the water killing coral and thereby killing the ecosystem centered around it.

Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash

Use Particle Block

Protecting ourselves from the sun is a high priority for safety, and so one of the objections raised against this ban was that such a ban would discourage people from using sunscreen altogether. That might be a genuine concern if they were banning all sunscreen, which they are not. They are just banning certain kinds of chemical block sunscreen that have these known harmful ingredients. In fact, there are even more effective alternatives already on the shelf next to those that will be banned; they are called particle block sunscreen. There is no reason to be worried of a sunscreen shortage or forgo sunscreen altogether. 

It is my understanding and my experience that these particle block sunscreens are more effective and protecting you anyway. These kind use zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide to create a microscopic particle barrier on the surface of the skin, blocking much of the rays from penetrating. The common ingredient of particle block is zinc oxide which is that white stuff in a tube that we spread over a baby’s bottom  to help with diaper rash. It is that colorful stuff you see some lifeguards and beach volleyball players wear on their noses. Fortunately, the sunscreen version can be spread around well enough so that there is virtually no visible white film on the body, if you are concerned about appearance. 

Zinc and titanium oxide is the primary substance often used in baby sunscreen and not the stuff that is now being banned. Do you wonder why? We (and I hope, pharmaceutical companies) tend to be much more cautious with babies, knowing their systems can’t tolerate toxic byproducts like adults seem to be able to. There is a reason they don’t put those chemicals on the skin of a baby, and that is the same reason we don’t want it on adult skin either.


Say No To Spray

In addition to the concern of using chemical block, you may also be wary of using spray-on sunscreen. If those common chemicals are toxic in the blood stream, spraying it into the air where you and those around you breathe it in is also not a good idea. When I see someone nearby starting to spray on their sunscreen I try to move away. Not only is it potentially harmful to the lungs, spray-on is not likely going to be even close to as thick and as consistently applied as having it spread over the body by hand. Particle block is too thick to be put into a spray so you have to spread it by hand. 

What if you can’t reach all the area on your back if you have to spread by hand? That’s a good opportunity to ask a friend for help or to practice shoulder mobility. Helping each other, hands on, is a good social bonding action. Healthy shoulder mobility should allow you to bend the arms behind the head and behind the back to reach those spots – a good goal for you to work towards, to counter the shoulder-immobilizing effects of modern life.


Stock Up For Summer

In the USA this particle block sunscreen is easy to find, and cheap. When I lived in Turkey I did have a hard time finding it there. Stores in the resort areas carried popular brands of chemical block sunscreens, but rarely did I find the zinc oxide based sunscreen, or if I did, it was a very small tube and quite expensive and I use far too much with in my occupation. Instead, I buy in the USA and take an ample stock with me when I travel to be in the sun.  If you can find a way to get some from a region that has it , make a stockpile for the summer. 

Since this news from Hawaii broke and summer is upon us, I am taking this opportunity to restate the case for wearing a swim shirt or using particle block which will protect your skin far more and do less damage to you and your aquatic environment in the process.

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