Dark Side of the Sun

Despite every supermarket, pharmacy, and corner store proffering shelves lined with sun care products, as many as two million people develop skin cancer every year in the U.S. alone. Even accounting for hereditary predispositions, something is very wrong with that number.

After all, don’t most of us have memories of whining while our parents dipped us in sticky sunblock? Don’t most of us, now with kids of our own, repeat the process with similarly frustrating perseverance because we “know” it’s the right thing to do?

Basic facts are clear: The Skin Cancer Foundation suggests as few as five sunburns can effectively double one’s chance of developing melanoma – a treacherous tumor-addled demise that kills nearly 9,000 people in the country annually. What’s less self-evident is whether the customary approach to preventing sunburns, e.g. slathering on the sunscreen, isn’t a dangerous prospect in and of itself.

That’s because many traditional sun protectants are loaded with carcinogenic compounds, including known hormone-wrecking endocrine disrupters like oxybenzone, methoxy cinnimate, and a potentially harmful form of Vitamin A called retinyl palminate. Additionally, cheaper sun care products are often not broad-spectrum, meaning they block UVB rays – the part of the sun that reddens the skin – but do little against UVAs, which invisibly penetrate the dermis, stress the immune system, and turn you into a prune long before you qualify for AARP benefits.

Making the situation cloudier still is whether the negative effects of these components is enough to warrant tossing your Coppertone in the can. The latest studies of oxybenzone and retinyl p, for example, have clearly shown direct cancer causation in lab mice, but none (as yet) have tied similar results to humans. Nor will any dermatologist ever suggest going out in the sun unprotected is a good idea.

“Scientific evidence supports the benefits of sunscreen usage to minimize damage to the skin from UV radiation and outweighs any unproven claims of toxicity or human health hazard,” stresses Ronald L. Moy, president of The American Academy of Dermatology.

Moy calling those claims “unproven” is a bit of a stretch (just ask the mice), but the bigger question, really, is are these chemical components necessary? After all, if you could clean up your sunscreen without sacrificing on strength, why wouldn’t you?

Sunscreen Safe Enough To Eat

Guerry Grune of 3rd Rock Sunblock may have the answer. Grune first became interested in the sun care industry back in 1992 after a good friend (at the ripe old age of 22) developed melanoma. A life-long surfer with a PhD in Chemical Engineering, Grune was shocked to discover the amount of toxic ingredients he’d been coating his body with every time he hit the beach. And since shelving his surfboard certainly wasn’t an option, this PhD decided there had to be a better way to get his SPF.

“It was around this time that I read a 2001 article by Margaret Schlumpf (of the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology in Zurich),” says Grune. “She published research results flatly stating that agents commonly found in commercial sunscreens can interfere with the function of the hormones in our bodies, especially in children and pregnant women.”

At the time, Schlumpf’s paper lit a firestorm across Europe, with newspaper headlines throughout the continent caterwauling over “cancer creams,” and even a few cities enacting outright bans on any product containing oxybenzone-like ingredients. Big pharma was quick to respond, however, and it wasn’t long before those bans were largely overturned and Schlumpf’s research disappeared into the mainstream ether.

But Grune was not so quick to forget, experimenting in his garage (the birthplace of so many great ideas) with ways to protect the skin from the sun’s harmful rays without the use of compounds only a scientist can pronounce. This apparent hobby ended up stretching into a seven-year development process, including obtaining a patent in 2005 for a UV resistance formula and the eventual launch of 3rd Rock.

Central to Grune’s product line is Zinc Oxide (ZnO), which has been used in sunscreen for over a century because it’s an incredibly effective UVA and UVB blocker. This is partially due to the fact that ZnO doesn’t absorb into the dermis like traditional chemical creams, thereby creating an exterior barrier that’s naturally non-allergenic and non-comedogenic (meaning it won’t clog up your pores). The barrier to adaption with ZnO, however, has often been in its application, as it traditionally leaves users squirming in thick white paste and looking more like the abominable snowman than a sexy beach body.

Part of Grune’s proprietary fix to make Zinc Oxide more palatable was to mix it with a large dose of L-arginine, a naturally occurring amino acid that has shown promising clinical results for its ability to boost the immune system and promote wound healing. Because it works as a natural vasodilator (improving blood flow), there’s even growing speculation that L-arginine can treat erectile dysfunction. This remain largely unverified, however, so avoid sun-proofing that particular extremity for the time-being.

Added to this are antioxidant powerhouses like Vitamin C, aroma therapeutic oils, and free radical-absorbing substances like beta-carotene, all of which make the final product highly transparent, highly protective, and (if the happy beta-testers here at HC are any indication) far more comfortable to wear.

Finally, 3rd Rock has a glycerin-base. Like L-arginine, glycerin is being used in a growing cavalcade of topical products these days due in part to its similarly restorative properties, but also because it has shown a profound ability to naturally hydrate the skin.

“Once it penetrates the skin, glycerin works as a humectant (meaning it keeps things moist),” explains Grune, who adds that the substance not only helps moisturize, but also helps stabilize it with respect to water.

“Our formulation, even after several hours in the water, leaves a film of specially prepared ZnO that’s still providing UV protection.”

3rd Rock does all this without the use of toxic emulsifiers commonly found in other chemical (and largely water-based) brands of sunscreen. The company’s products, in fact, are made entirely with food-grade, edible ingredients, begging the classic question (and company’s unofficial slogan): “If you wouldn’t put it in your mouth, why would you put it on your skin?”

It’s a tantalizing question, especially when even popular figureheads like Dr. Oz admit the additives in traditional sun care products are downright scary. In 2012, Oz and his guest, Dr. Arthur Perry, talked extensively about the endocrine disruptors and other toxic elements in so many sunscreens, and their conclusion could ostensibly be seen as a ringing endorsement for a product like 3rd Rock Sunblock.

“People should still wear sunscreen. But let’s stop and let’s choose the right chemicals that go on our skin and go into our body,” said Perry. “There are safe alternatives to chemical sunscreens.”

Based on initial clinical trials, 3rd Rock indeed is safer than your standard store-bought variety. Number junkies can geek out at the plethora of data on the company’s website, but the cliff notes version goes like this: Scientists test a sunblock’s strength via a measure of its UV absorbency value, typically by lathering up an artificial substrate (meant to simulate the skin’s surface) and bombarding it with UVA and UVB rays.

UVB, remember, is a shorter wavelength than UVA, which is why it burns the surface of the skin, while longer UVA waves penetrate deeper and cause much greater DNA/long-term damage. In laboratory spectrophotometer testing (a device that measures wavelength intensity), 3rd Rock Sunblock started off with roughly the same UVB protection as two leading commercial counterparts. In the UVA range, however, the two commercial brands’ effectiveness rapidly plummeted, while 3rd Rock’s remained virtually unchanged.

“That’s something no other sunscreen has ever come close to,” attests Grune, “and the test culminated in Joe Stanfield (director of testing lab Suncare Research) describing 3rd Rock as the ‘holy grail’ of UVA protection when he first viewed our results.”

UVA absorbency isn’t the only place where 3rd Rock comes through, as it were. Conventional sunscreens contain organic active ingredients that quickly break down on the skin with UV exposure, which is why you typically have to reapply them multiple times throughout the day. 3rd Rock has no such components, nor such a requirement.

“In fact,” promises Grune, “light-skinned users can count on effective UVA and UVB protection for up to nine hours (from a single application).”

Going forward, the next steps for Grune and 3rd Rock are to continue to grow the business and expand on its cavalcade of lab trials – the FDA requires every batch of a company’s sunscreen to be tested at roughly $3,000 a pop – all while ecstatic user testimonials continue to flood into the company’s website.

In the meantime, those of us already in the know, and who happen to make our home on this third rock from the sun, have a new protective option that’s well worth looking into.

…And going outside with.

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