Plant based sun protection

Originally Published: October 1, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: October 7, 2011
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Dear Alice,

Recently I bought a sun protection cream from a health food store. The cream claims to provide sun protection (it's labeled SPF 15) by a plant complex made of PABA, willow bark extract, myrtle and myrtus leaf extract. It says that myrtle and myrtus leaf help protect from both UVA and UVB.

My questions are as follows:

1) Can this PABA complex provide the sun protection it claims (SPF 15 for both UVA and UVB rays)? The reason I am asking this is because until now I had only heard of sun protection by Titanium Dioxide or chemicals like octyl mexaoxycinnamate (did I get it right?). So I am curious to find out.

2) I notice a slight burning sensation in my eyes after I apply the product on my face. Is it true that PABA is a common irritant? (Since I notice many products proudly claiming PABA-free I wonder if it's really not good for you.)

Please help. I hope this question falls within your realm of expertise. After all, you are the 'know it all' around here, aren't you?

Thank you, 'Burning' to find out

Dear 'Burning' to find out,

Plenty of creams and lotions exist to keep your skin from sizzling. Sun protection products do this in a variety of ways. Sunscreen absorbs and releases ultraviolet radiation as heat energy, decreasing the damage it causes the skin. Sun block reflects or scatters ultraviolet radiation and prevents it from being absorbed by the skin entirely. The following are more specific answers to your inquiry:

  1. PABA (or para-aminobenzoic acid) was one of the first chemical sunscreens to hit the market and continues to be one of the best shields against ultraviolet-B (UV-B) rays (one of the most damaging forms of radiation), but not UV-A rays. Cinnamates (such as Octyl methoxycinnamate) have pretty much replaced PABA as the leading component of sunscreens because they cause fewer adverse reactions while still providing strong UV-B protection. Titanium dioxide is a physical barrier cream that blocks the full spectrum of UV rays (UV-A and –B) thus providing the best possible sun protection. Since its thick white cream (which people most often wear on their nose) doesn't absorb into the skin, titanium dioxide is not often the number one choice for those concerned with aesthetics. The exact strength of protection provided by a sunscreen or sun block (also known as sun protection factor or SPF) varies between products To learn more about it, check out the Related Q&As below.
  2. As mentioned earlier, cinnamates are more frequently used in sunscreens nowadays than PABA. PABA has a tendency to stain clothes and cause skin reactions for people who are sensitive to it. Cinnamates pose much fewer risks, which is why many products tout themselves as being "PABA free." The stinging you notice may very well be an adverse reaction to the PABA in your sunscreen, so try using a PABA-free product to see if that helps. With most chemical-based sunscreens like yours, the chemical contents may be irritating to the eyes, so consider using a product specifically formulated for use on sensitive parts of your body like your face. Also make sure to wash your hands after applying sunscreen and before touching your eyes.

Despite the natural contents of your sunscreen, there is little to no evidence that willow bark and myrtle and myrtus leaf extract provide protection from the sun, though they may have other beneficial properties. When shopping around for sunscreen products, keep in mind that:

  • Only products with SPF higher than 15 reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging, if used as directed with other sun protection measures.
  • SPF 30+ provides the best protection, especially for people with fairer skin.
  • It is important to be thorough with application and reapply every few hours (or more frequently if you are sweating or going in the water).
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandates that all sunscreens must include standard "Drug Facts" information on the back and/or side of the container.

For more information about sunscreens, their safety and efficacy, visit the Environmental Working Group's Sunscreen Guide. Sunburns and tans, though they may be mainstays of summer and sunny weather, are artifacts of sun damage that may lead to skin cancer and premature aging. The best way to prevent them is to turn on your shade radar —shadar if you will — and stay out of the sun as much as possible. But sun is just fun with an S, so if you have to or want to soak up some rays, do so safely with a high SPF sunscreen. With your recent purchase, you're well on your way to preventing the skin-damaging crisp many people face during the warmer months! Just make sure that the sunscreen meant to protect your skin isn't negating its own benefits by irritating your skin or eyes.     

Alice