Which sunscreen ingredients are safest? What SPF is best? How much unprotected sun exposure is okay, if any? You have questions when it comes to choosing sun protection for you and your family and we have answers. Our two part guide takes the guesswork out of using and buying natural sunscreen.
In this buying guide we offer up information on everything from the different types of sunscreen ingredients to vitamin D concerns. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know before you buy. To make the process of purchasing UV protection even easier, head to our product picks for our favorite natural sunscreen picks.
Why You Need Sunscreen
You can barely scroll your Instagram feed or flip through a beauty mag without spotting sun care info. So you may be surprised to learn that most people are less than optimally informed on the proper usage of sunscreen.
A physician-led study published in January 2018 showed that most dermatology patients seeking care for skin cancer and UV damage have not received a doctor’s counseling on sunscreen guidelines. Since skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States (including squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), basal cell carcinoma (BCC), and melanoma), one form of prevention that is lacking seems to be patient education on the best practices of using sun care.
One reason sunscreen education may be lacking is scientific proof surrounding its effectiveness in preventing skin cancer. A 2016 research review found no significant effect in the development of BCC and SCC, the two most common types of skin cancer, with daily sunscreen use. It is important to point out that this review only scrutinized one study conducted in Australia and the authors concluded that the certainty of their findings was low.
What does this mean for sunscreen and skin cancer? While there may not be definitive proof that daily use sunscreen prevents skin cancer, the main risk factor in developing BCC and SCC is exposure to ultraviolet radiation and mineral sunscreens create a barrier to protect skin from UV rays. Plus, regular use of sunscreen diminishes signs of premature aging and skin discoloration. Not to mention, who likes getting sunburn?
Why Mineral Sunscreens is Best
Mineral sunscreens of the past may have protected us from UV damage, but boy were they a nightmare to use. The greasy, sticky, white mess they left behind was a deal breaker for many. Weighing the benefits of a safer sunscreen with the damage to car seats, bathing suits, and anything else it came in contact with, left most siding in favor of the chemical stuff.
Times have changed though, and it is a new day for natural sunscreens. Mineral sunscreens today are lightweight, easy to use, non-greasy, and invisible on the skin.
We now know that mineral sunscreens, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are better for our health and protecting our skin against UV damage. We also know that many not-so-safe brands are adding mineral sunscreen ingredients to their chemical sunscreen formulas.
Why would a company use both zinc and chemical sunscreen ingredients in the same product?
Zinc is a star player in the sun protection game. As with other greenwashing methods, some brands use the word “mineral” on a sunscreen label to make the product look safer and more appealing. Mineral sunscreen ingredients are also more expensive than chemical sunscreen ingredients and higher SPF formulations often leave a white cast on skin. Adding a bit of zinc to a chemical sunscreen formula costs less than reformulating to a mineral-based sunscreen that is invisible on skin.
It’s not only a safety issue between mineral and chemical sunscreen ingredients. Zinc is better for sensitive skin.
Dr. Rachel Nazarian, a NYC dermatologist who has worked with Promise Organic on the launch of its baby sunscreen says, “mineral, or physical, sunscreen is best for sensitive skin because it doesn't require the absorption that chemical sunscreens do; it works by simply reflecting ultraviolet light. Because of this, mineral sunscreens tend to be less irritating to skin, and better for easily-inflamed or sensitive skin types.”
We Disagree with Consumer Reports
You may have happened across the 2019 Consumer Reports guide on chemical and mineral sunscreens that suggested chemical sunscreens are more effective in protecting the skin. We both agree and disagree. Yes, SPF is not the bottom line in sun protection. You must use broad spectrum sunscreen to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. But we don’t agree that mineral sunscreen offers less effective protection over chemical sunscreen.
For starters, the physical barrier that mineral protection offers means the skin doesn’t have to absorb the ingredients for them to work, as it does with chemical sunscreens. And then there are the safety and health issues that come with chemical sunscreen ingredients.
What’s important to keep in mind is that Consumer Reports is focused on protecting skin against skin cancer and they also state that the FDA has not found chemical sunscreens to be unsafe and even that “short-term research in people did not show any adverse effect”. Yet recent guidance (Feb 2019) by the FDA indicates that certain chemical ingredients cannot be labeled as GRASE (generally recognized as safe and effective) and need further research as preliminary studies indicate absorption into the blood stream.
Yes, there were mineral sunscreens that made the cut in the guide,but they also didn’t test every mineral product out in the market and their methodology shouldn’t be interpreted as strong evidence against mineral sunscreens.
The takeaway here is this. Whether it be mineral or chemical based sunscreen products, not all companies create good products that provide the amount of protection stated on their labels. If you are searching for a sunscreen that offers broad spectrum protection and is safer for you and the environment, we think mineral sunscreen made with nontoxic ingredients is the best choice. To help you decide which product to try, don’t forget to check out our favorite mineral based sunscreen picks.
Chemical Ingredients to Avoid
There are several chemical sunscreen ingredients to avoid in conventional sunscreens. These active ingredients have been found to accumulate in body fat and breast milk, and have even been linked to such hormonal disruptions as early onset puberty, low sperm count, and breast cancer, as well as allergic reactions.
Chemical sunscreens are also less effective in doing their job of protecting against UV damage. These ingredients work by absorbing UV rays, allowing UVA rays to penetrate into deeper layers of skin. Mineral sunscreens form a barrier on top of skin and reflect UV rays. It has also been shown that some chemical sunscreens oxidize under the sun, causing potential free radical formation which could lead to premature aging and even skin cancer.
To steer clear of chemical sunscreen ingredients in UV protection, look for oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and avobenzone on ingredient listings.
Other Ingredients to Avoid in Sunscreen
Chemical sunscreens aren't the only harmful ingredients showing up in sun protection products. The following toxins make regular appearances in mainstream sunscreen.
Petrochemicals: Used to make a product feel emollient and moisturizing, but we know that ingredients like petrolatum, petroleum jelly, and mineral oil are commonly contaminated with carcinogens, and block pores from releasing toxins and drawing in moisture. They can also lead to skin irritation and acne.
Silicones: This group of ingredients often show up in sunscreens as dimethicone, and are used to create a smooth feel and provide water resistant qualities. Silicones are occlusive, like petrolatum, and clog pores.
Synthetic preservatives: You won’t have trouble finding parabens and methylisothiazolinone (MIT) in conventional sunscreens. These commonly used preservatives have links to neurotoxicity, allergic reaction, fetal impairment, and hormonal disruption.
Synthetic fragrance ingredients: The traditional coconut scent of those decade-old sunscreens may make us nostalgic for childhood summers, but the health risks are no fun. Synthetic fragrance ingredients cause headache, nausea, dizziness, skin irritation, and are associated with asthma and even cancer.
Vitamin A: It’s not a toxic ingredient but retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A) has been shown to be photosensitive, meaning it could increase the chances of developing skin cancer, skin damage, and skin aging when exposed to sunlight. While some skincare experts advise against using sunscreen that contains retinyl palmitate, the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (JAAD) published a study in 2010 that showed no evidence of a link between retinyl palmitate in sunscreens and cancer in humans. Incidental exposure to vitamin A through plant oils that contain it is less an issue than using sunscreens that contain the more concentrated retinyl palmitate.
Nanoparticles: Nanos have also become a source of concern with mineral sunscreens. In an attempt to eliminate the white cast from mineral sunscreen ingredients, manufacturers began using a much smaller form of zinc and titanium dioxide, known as nanoparticles. This tiny particle size was effective in decreasing the ghostly white film, but they may also be more easily absorbed by the body with potential to form an accumulation risk.
Healthy Ingredients to Look for
Safe, natural sunscreens are made with healthy, skin supporting ingredients. Let’s take a look at what you DO want in your UV protection.
Natural plant oils: Light, nourishing plant oils hydrate and condition the skin. Some natural oils even have a bit of SPF. Red raspberry, olive, and coconut oils all help to bolster UV protection.
Anti-inflammatories: Sun damage causes inflammation. Calming ingredients soothe skin and prevent signs of premature aging. Dr. Nazarian suggests using sunscreens that contain coconut oil, jojoba oil, and shea butter for all skin types. “They are inherently anti-inflammatory and have a very low rate of contact dermatitis or irritation.”
Antioxidants: As Tricia Timble, Founder of Suntegrity Skincare, said, “the more antioxidants in the product, the better. Antioxidants could boost the body’s natural defense against the formation of UVA-induced free radicals; therefore serving as a second layer of protection against UV radiation that passes through the first layer of UV protection.”
Understanding “Organic” Labels
Organically produced ingredients are free from pesticides and other harmful chemicals, making them a healthier and safer choice over conventionally produced ingredients. But it is important to keep in mind that not all products containing organic ingredients are completely organic.
There are three levels of organic labeling:
- “100% Organic” means a product is made entirely of certified organic ingredients.
- A product labeled as “Organic” must contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients.
- “Made with organic ingredients” means a product contains at least 70% organic ingredients.
Both “100% Organic” and “Organic” products may display the USDA Organic seal. “Made with organic…” products may not carry the seal but are allowed to list up to three certified organic ingredients on the front label. Products made with less than 70% organic ingredients may list organic ingredients on the back label only.
For easy identification, we have noted which sunscreens in our guide are Certified Organic or made with organic ingredients. Mineral sunscreens zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are exempt from the National Organic Program, so none of the following products will be 100% Certified Organic.
Beyond SPF – Why Numbers Don’t Tell the Whole Story
You’ve probably seen the term “broad spectrum” on sunscreen labels. What does it mean? Broad spectrum refers to a product’s ability to protect against both UVA (rays that cause more serious damage, like skin cancer) and UVB (rays responsible for sunburn) rays. Products that provide protection against both types of rays and have an SPF value of 15 or higher may be labeled “broad spectrum”. Products that carry an SPF value of 2 to 14 may not be labeled “broad spectrum”.
Sun Protection Tips
If all you are looking for is the most effective form of sun protection, you may think any old mineral sunscreen will do. But there is more to a safe sunscreen than minerals and the SPF number.
There are four reasons even mineral sunscreens can fail to protect against sun damage.
- Not buying “broad spectrum” protection. The American Dermatology Association recommends everyone use broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher every day that you plan to spend time outdoors, including cloudy days. Water resistance is a plus, especially if you’ll be spending time in the water or in the heat where you’ll sweat it off.
- User error. It is important to apply an adequate amount of sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying one ounce (about a palm-full) to all exposed skin.
- Forgetting to reapply every two hours, and after swimming or sweating it off.
- Not applying to all areas of the body that will see sun exposure. Don’t forget lips and backs of hands too.
Tip: To estimate how long your application will last, multiply the SPF by the number of minutes you can stay in the sun before burning. For example: (SPF) 20 x 10 (Fair skin) = 200 minutes (amount of time you can stay in the sun before burning if you have Fair skin and use an SPF of 20).
Vitamin D and Unprotected Sun Exposure
While the-more-the-better stance used to be the norm where sunscreen usage was concerned, times have changed. Many experts (and lots of beauty lovers) agree that moderate unprotected exposure is not only safe but good for you.
When exposed to the sun, cholesterol molecules in the skin produce vitamin D, an important nutrient that assists in maintaining bone health and other bodily functions.
When exposed to the sun, cholesterol molecules in the skin produce vitamin D, an important nutrient that assists in maintaining bone health and other bodily functions. Our primary source of vitamin D is sunlight and nutrition, and an estimated 42% of Americans are vitamin D deficient.
You are probably wondering … how much is too much? Beverly Hills Dermatologist Boris Zaks, M.D. suggests 20 minutes of unprotected sun exposure three times a week for skin to manufacture healthy levels of vitamin D.
How long can you stay in the sun?
Fair skin — can stay in the sun 10 minutes before burning
Olive skin — can stay in the sun 15 minutes before burning
Dark skin — can stay in the sun 20 minutes before burning
Since unprotected sun exposure has links to skin cancer and premature aging, there are a few other factors to consider. “To minimize these risks, it is generally recommended to avoid sun exposure at noon,” said Dr. Hardik Soni, MD, Founder and Director of Ethos Spa.
It’s also essential to take your skin tone into account. If you tend to burn more easily, time spent outdoors when not wearing sunscreen or protective clothing should be cut down. Use your best judgment and get in on the benefits of vitamin D and healthy skin.
What About Reef Safe?
The hazards of chemical sunscreen ingredients isn’t limited to humans. Research shows these chemicals are in coastal waters in large quantities, wreaking havoc on coral and marine life. This is most widespread in areas of high human ocean activity and tourism, thus the use of lots of sunscreen.
Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of oxybenzone and octinoxate in over the counter sunscreens in 2018 and the city of Key West is following suit. We note which of our sunscreen recommendations are deemed reef safe in our annual product round up.
FDA Guidance & Advancements in Formulation
On February 21, 2019 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed an update to regulatory requirements on most sunscreen products sold in the U.S.
Included in the proposal is an increase in the maximum SPF limit from 50+ to 60+ and sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher would be required to provide broad spectrum protection, with that protection increasing with the SPF value.
Zinc oxide and titamium dioxide are both deemed GRASE (generally recognized as safe and effective), while PABA and trolamine salicylateare not. That still leaves 12 active sunscreen ingredients currently used that require more safety data and testing, including oxybenzone.
The study also showed that oxybenzone appears to absorb much more rapidly, showing up at 50 to 100 times higher concentration than the other ingredients.
Four of the 12 -- avobenzone, oxybenzone, ecamsule and octocrylene -- were part of a recent study conducted by the FDA and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). All four ingredients were found in the blood of participants in “statistically significant” amounts by the end of one day of use. The study also showed that oxybenzone appears to absorb much more rapidly, showing up at 50 to 100 times higher concentration than the other ingredients.
Sunscreen formulas currently deemed as safe by the FDA are sprays, oils, lotions, creams, gels, butters, pastes, ointments, and sticks, while additional data is still needed to determine whether powder sunscreens are safe for use. Wipes, towelettes, body washes, and shampoos are not included in the GRASE identification.
Consumers should know that no sunscreen can carry claims of “waterproof” and combination sunscreen and insect repellent products are not GRASE.
New labelling standards are another aspect of the proposal, with active ingredients and a skin cancer/skin aging alert for products not shown to help prevent skin cancer both appearing on product front labels, and revised formats for SPF, broad spectrum, and water resistance statements. Consumers should know that no sunscreen can carry claims of “waterproof” and combination sunscreen and insect repellent products are not GRASE.
This proposal is geared toward making it easier to shop for sunscreens and to identify exactly what is in the product and how it will perform.
Understanding the EWG’s Annual Sunscreen Guide
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a sunscreen guide annually. While it includes several of the products we have listed below, it’s important to us that you know EWG’s guide also lists products we do not deem safe.
EWG reviews a much larger number of sunscreens (1,000+) and gives each sunscreen on its list a hazard ranking. It is important to remember that not all sunscreens on the EWG list are nontoxic. For example, Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen, Active, SPF 30+ received a low hazard rank of "2" but it contains chemical sunscreen ingredients and synthetics Organic Authority doesn't consider safe. Remember to check each ingredient when choosing a sunscreen from the EWG list.
Now that you are armed with all the juicy details of buying natural sunscreen, it’s time to get shopping. Hop on over to our 41 favorite product picks, all vetted by Organic Authority editors!
You can trust that all of the products in our natural sunscreen guide are free from harmful ingredients including chemical sunscreen agents. We fill you in on details and price for each product to help get you prepared for a safe and fun summer.