How To Choose The Best Non-Toxic Sunscreen

Trying to find non-toxic sunscreen for you and your family? In this article, Health & Wellness Journalist, Erica Watson, looks at the different types of sunscreens available, ingredients to avoid as well as other sun-safety tips & product picks!

safe sunscreen

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.

In this article, we’ll go over:

  • The different types of sunscreen
  • Chemicals to avoid (and why) when choosing sunscreen
  • How to choose safer sunscreen
  • Sunscreen-free ways to stay sun-safe
  • The best non-toxic sunscreen for kids

Scroll down to learn more!


The different types of sunscreen

Sunscreen falls into two main categories: mineral & 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.
  • contain active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
  • are generally much thicker than its chemical counterparts and can also leave behind a white residue.
  • get to work immediately, meaning you won’t need to apply it prior to heading out and about in the water or sun.


Chemical Sunscreens

  • use synthetic ingredients to absorb or scatter UV radiation.
  • contain ingredients like:
    • Octocrylene, Avobenzone, Octinoxate, Octisalate, Oxybenzone and Homosalate, and often they’ll be used in some form of combination with one another.
  • are 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.


Are all chemical sunscreens 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.


Chemicals to avoid (and why) when choosing sunscreen

When choosing sunscreen, it’s important to avoid the following chemicals:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Retinyl Palmitate
  • Homosalate
  • Methylisothiazolinone
  • Avobenzone

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.



Octinoxate 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.


Retinyl palmitate

Retinyl palmitate, a type of 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 that can adversely affect the hormones estrogen, androgen and progesterone.  


Methylisothiazolinone (MI)

This common inactive ingredient (that can comprise 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,” yet it is still allowed in the U.S.  



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 this chemical is not harmful, it requires being paired up with other potentially harmful hormone disrupting chemicals in order to extend its shelf life. Zinc oxide is a far safer alternative.


How to choose safer sunscreen

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 don’t necessarily equal greater protection. Typically, once a rating reaches above 50 it doesn’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 may not provide the best protection.


Sunscreen for sensitive skin

If you or your child are prone to breakouts, eczema or contact dermatitis, we recommend opting for a zinc-based sunscreen. Look for those formulated for sensitive skin as they’ll contain less irritants including synthetic fragrance.




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!


Sunscreen-free ways to stay sun-safe

The most efficient way to keep your family safe from the sun is by following these practical steps:

  • Wear a hat
  • Wear protective clothing
  • Opt for rash guards and wide-coverage swimsuits
  • 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
  • Set up an umbrella or beach tent


The best non-toxic sunscreen & sun-safe swimsuits

At The Tot, we never use or recommend anything that hasn’t passed The Tot Safety Test.

This means we’ve reviewed third-party testing, examined ingredients lists and investigated at length a product’s composition.

Below are all Tot-Tested and approved sunscreen and swimwear products:



Solara Suncare Clean Freak Daily Sunscreen – Unscented






erbaviva organic baby sunscreen


Erbaviva Organic Baby Sunscreen (SPF 30)






The Bella Bean Shop Personalized Seersucker Hat – Blue


The Bella Bean Shop Personalized Seersucker Hat – Blue






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