How to Choose Non-Toxic Sunscreen
Mineral or chemical, does SPF matter and what about sensitive skin? All your sunscreen questions answered
Summer is just around the corner which, to us, means days at the beach, family camping trips and spending as much time as possible outside enjoying nature. It’s also the perfect time to start thinking about our – and our family’s – sun safety.
While shopping for sunscreen might sound simple enough, one glance at the ingredient list is enough to bring on an immediate headache. It feels like the more research you do, the more confusing it becomes. Given the benefits of using sunscreen far outweigh the very real risks of skin cancer, melanoma, premature ageing and cellular skin damage, it’s also worth noting that some ingredients found in our favorite sun protectants are much better than others. Here, we explain.
Sunscreen types: Mineral vs. Chemical
Sunscreen falls into two main categories; mineral – or physical blockers like zinc oxide – and chemical.
Mineral sunscreens work by physically blocking – or reflecting – UV radiation. In a nutshell, it acts much like a little blanket to protect your precious skin.
Your sunscreen will be mineral-based if you see active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. They’re generally much thicker than their chemical counterparts and can also leave behind a white residue. Mineral sunscreens also get to work immediately, meaning you won’t need to apply them prior to heading out and about in the water or sun.
Chemical sunscreen on the other hand uses synthetic ingredients to absorb or scatter UV radiation. With these, you’ll see ingredients like Octocrylene, Avobenzone, Octinoxate, Octisalate, Oxybenzone and Homosalate, and often they’ll be used in some form of combination with one another. They’re typically much thinner than physical blockers and are absorbed into skin quickly. However, it’s worth noting that they also generally need to be applied around 15 to 20 minutes before any sun exposure.
What chemicals to avoid when choosing sunscreen?
When choosing sunscreen, it’s important to avoid the following chemicals.
- Retinyl Palmitate
Scroll down to find out more about these chemicals.
This chemical has been in the news recently after Hawaii approved a bill banning the sale of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone. The reason? This chemical was been found to be responsible for severely damaging and bleaching coral DNA.
Oxybenzone is also quite harmful to people. The main function of oxybenzone is to absorb UV light, the problem is that it is absorbed by the skin and stays in our bodies for an unknown amount of time (and the portion that doesn’t get absorbed damages the ocean’s ecosystem). The reason you don’t want it on or in our bodies is that it’s an endocrine disrupting chemical that may potentially be stronger than BPA. It has been linked to endometriosis, early puberty in girls, low sperm count and male infertility, and an increase in hormone-related cancers in men and women.
Unfortunately, Oxybenzone is a very popular ingredient and is found in more than 60% of chemical sunscreens currently on the market. When tested, it was also found that over 96% of the American population was contaminated with the chemical.
This chemical was also banned in Hawaii due to its significant environmental impact. It has also been shown to mimic hormone like activity – specifically in the thyroid.
A type of Vitamin A. Vitamin A is an antioxidant added to skin products because it is believed to help slow the skin’s aging process. It is safe to use for night creams, which we use while indoors. However, a federal study recently found that Vitamin A might speed the growth of cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight.
This popular chemical used to filter UV rays is found in about 45% of all sunscreens in the US. Unfortunately it is a known hormone disruptor witch disrupt the hormones estrogen, androgen and progesterone.
This common inactive ingredient (that still can make up 40-50% of a sunscreen) – is a widespread allergen. In Europe it has been determined that “ no concentration of MI could be considered safe in leave-on cosmetic products (EU SCCS 2014),” but it is still allowed in the US.
Avobenzone works well at blocking the sun’s dangerous UVA and UVB rays, but only for a short period of time. While on its own avobenzone is not harmful, to extend its ‘work life’ it requires being paired up with other potentially harmful hormone disrupting chemicals. Safer alternatives exist, like zinc oxide.
Are all sunscreen chemicals bad?
Not necessarily. If you’ve been caught short and natural sunscreen isn’t readily available or you’d prefer to avoid the downside of ‘ghosting’ often left by mineral-based creams, chemical trade-offs are better than risking the very real dangers of damage from UV radiation. Just choose the best ingredients. According to The Environmental Working Group (EWG) – a non-partisan consumer advocate group – Octocrylene, Octisalate and are considered to be some of the better choices in chemical blockers. The jury is still out with Homosalate, and while it is approved by the FDA in concentrates under 15% some organisations – such as Safe Cosmetics – refute its safety. Covering up with long-sleeve rashguards, hats, staying under shade and avoiding the hottest part of the day are also great ways to protect yourself.
Always check labels
Just because your chemical sunscreen is marketed toward kids, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s the best choice for them. Many still contain parabens (methylparaben, butylparaben), as a preservative, as well as Oxybenzone and Octinoxate, so again, double check the ingredients before making a purchase.
SPF values are also another factor to consider as higher ratings often don’t necessarily equate to greater protection. It’s generally considered once a rating reached above 50 it won’t offer any greater sun protection. In fact, higher values (70-100) can often lull sun worshippers into a false sense of security by thinking they can expose themselves to the sun for longer periods of time.
Lastly, another type we generally avoid is spray sunscreens. While they might seem like good option to reach those tricky places – especially for solo beach goers – these ingredients can be inhaled, and they may not provide the best protection by not adequately covering skin.
Sunscreen for sensitive skin
It’s a struggle we know all too well, so when it comes spending time in the sun we will generally opt for zinc-based, which can be a better choice if you’re prone to breakouts, eczema or contact dermatitis. Look for those formulated for sensitive skin as they’ll contain less irritants including synthetic fragrance.
One last thing before hitting the beach…
Regardless of whether you choose a natural or chemical sunscreen it’s important to always opt for “Broad Spectrum” to ensure you’re covered for both UVA and UVB rays. And don’t forget to re-apply every two to four hours – or more – if you’re in water or getting extra sweaty!
The most efficient way to keep your family safe from the sun is by following these practical steps.
- Wear a hat
- Wear protective clothing
- Plan activities around the sun and avoiding peak hours
- Seek out the shade as much as possible
- Wear 100% UV protection sunglasses – even for babies and kids
- Apply (and reapply) the right sunscreen
- The skin is your body’s largest organ. Therefore it’s really important that you take a moment to stop and consider what you’re putting on it. Here is our guide to safer pregnancy skincare.
- Shop more natural personal care for Mamas and Tots!