Everything you need to know about sunscreen

Mineral or chemical, does SPF matter and what about sensitive skin? All your sunscreen questions answered

safe sunscreen

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 to avoid when choosing sunscreen?

Right now, Oxybenzone is one ingredient that’s getting a pretty bad rap and rightly so. It, along with Octinoxate (also known as Methoxycinnamate), has been linked to disrupting our delicate endocrine system due to its ability to mimic hormone production.  What’s more, it also causes havoc on marine life and ocean ecosystems including a contribution to bleaching coral reefs. It’s such an issue that Hawaii passed a bill in July 2018 to ban the sale of sunscreen containing these two chemical ingredients from 2021. Similarly, the Pacific Island nation of Palau also announced last year that they’d be banning “reef-toxic” sunscreen by 2020 too.  It’s a drastic move but one that both countries hope will protect their precious marine environments.

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 – Avobenzone, 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 rashguardshats, staying under shade and avoiding the hottest part of the day are also great ways to protect yourself.

Don’t be fooled by marketing

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.

What about 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!