Updated: Jun 9
Let’s talk about non-toxic sunscreen! If there is one thing we all know, it’s that sun exposure can case skin cancer, which is the most common cancer in the United States. Did you know having just 5 sunburns in your lifetime doubles your risk of melanoma? That’s pretty scary. So, it’s super important that we all know how to safely protect ourselves from the sun.
Here is what you need to know:
Chemical vs Mineral Sunscreen
The first thing to know is that there are two main categories of sunscreen: mineral and chemical. In general, mineral sunscreen sits on top of the skin and blocks the suns UV rays from entering the body, whereas chemical sunscreen actually absorbs the UV rays, breaking them down (via a chemical reaction) once they penetrate the skin.
Below are the common ingredients used in chemical sunscreens that you probably want to avoid due to concerns around hormone disruption, allergies/immunotoxicity, and a general lack of data.
Oxybenzone: EWG Toxicity Score is 6-8
Octinoxate: EWG Toxicity Score is 5
Homosalate: EWG Toxicity Score is 2-4
Octocrylene: EWG Toxicity Score is 2-3
Octisalate: EWG Toxicity Score is 1-3
Avobenzone: EWG Toxicity Score is 1-2
If you haven’t heard of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), they are a great resource that combs though ingredients used in personal care products and rates them based on toxicity concerns. Check them out! https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/
When the FDA started evaluating the safety of sunscreen in the 1970s, they only looked at new ingredients, not old. This means that they approved the use of previously used chemicals without evaluating their safety. This is really concerning. As a consumer, we expect the FDA to thoroughly evaluate the safety of products we use on our bodies every day. So for years, companies have been allowed to use these ingredients in tons of personal care products (not just sunscreen) without any testing to ensure they are safe for humans.
Based on recent studies (2019 & 2020), we know these chemicals absorb into the bloodstream after just one application, and can stick around in your body for weeks. They also found these chemicals in breast milk, and evidence of hormone disruption was present.
On the other hand, mineral (or physical) sunscreen is a much safer option. We know this because studies have been done to prove their safety. The active ingredients to look for in a mineral sunscreen are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Here are just a few reasons why mineral sunscreen is a better choice over chemical sunscreen:
Studies have found zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to be safer when humans are exposed to them. There is no evidence of hormone disruption, little to no evidence of skin penetration (0% for titanium dioxide, 0.01% for zinc oxide), and they are generally recognized as safe and effective for humans because they have actually been studied.
If you suffer from skin discoloration (melasma), chemical sunscreen has been known to make it worse. This is because the heat is trapped in the skin (as opposed to reflected away from the skin with mineral sunscreen), causing the dark spots to get darker.
Mineral sunscreen is less harmful for coral reefs, whereas chemical sunscreen causes ‘coral bleaching’. This is where the biodiversity and function of the coral reef system is negatively impacted.
Mineral sunscreen goes to work immediately. You don’t have to wait 15 minutes after application before going into the sun like you would with a chemical sunscreen.
Shopping for Sunscreen
When shopping for a mineral sunscreen, the active ingredients you want to see on the label are zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. Be on the lookout for products that mix chemical and mineral ingredients. It’s best to completely avoid Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Homosalate, and Octinoxate.
In addition, it’s important to find a sunscreen that has ‘Broad Spectrum’ protection, meaning it protects against UVB rays (cause burning) and UVA rays (cause aging), both of which are harmful to our bodies.
And last, if possible, look for products that protect against blue light (High Energy Visible, or HEV), which can also cause damage to the skin. The sun generates HEV light, but so do the electronics we spend all day in front of. That being said, it’s important to wear sunscreen every.single.day. Even if you are just going to be inside working from home.
Here are some mineral sunscreen products that I have used over the years that I recommend:
Face - Tinted: Beautycounter’s Dew Skin Tinted Moisturizer
SPF 20, sheer coverage, not greasy.
Face - Tinted: Andalou Naturals' Beauty Balm
SPF 30, a little greasier, lower price point.
SPF 25, lightweight, no white cast, protects against UVA, UVB, and HEV (blue light), reef friendly.
SPF 40, a little greasier, not water resistant, lower price point.
Body - Water Resistant: Beautycounter’s Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Lotion
SPF 30, no white cast, reef friendly, water resistant up to 40 minutes.
SPF 30, slight white cast, not water resistant, lower price point.
Sun Protective Clothing
All of that talk about toxic chemicals can be intimidating. So another great option is to wear sun protective clothing. Instead of SPF (Sun Protection Factor), you will see an indicator for UPF, which stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor. The UPF indicates how much UV light (UVA and UVB) can go through fabric. Just like with SPF, the higher UPF, the better.
A few tips!
Use a mattifying powder on your face SPF to minimize the shine. This is the one I use. It immediately removes any greasy feeling or shine without adding any color.
Don’t forget about your neck! As we age, it’s often the first to go because we forget to protect it from the sun.
Turn your devices on night mode to turn off the blue light.
Use a good quality vitamin c serum in the morning before applying your moisturizer/spf. It adds an extra layer of antioxidant protection to your skin for the day. This the one I use. This has 2 super stable forms of vitamin c, along with turmeric and camu camu. This is about as good as it gets.
Environmental Working Group, The Trouble With Ingredients in Sunscreens, https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/
US National Library of Medicine, Environmental Health Perspectives, Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching by Promoting Viral Infections, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2291018/
US National Library of Medicine, PubChem, Oxybenzone, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Oxybenzone
EWG’s Skin Deep Database, Oxybenzone, https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredients/704372-oxybenzone/
EWG’s Skin Deep Database, Avobenzone, https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredients/700596-AVOBENZONE/
EWG’s Skin Deep Database, Octisalate, https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredients/704204-octisalate/
EWG’s Skin Deep Database, Octocrylene, https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredients/704206-octocrylene/
EWG’s Skin Deep Database, Homosalate, https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredients/702867-homosalate/
EWG’s Skin Deep Database, Octinoxate, https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredients/704203-OCTINOXATE/
Harvard Health Publishing, Unmasking the causes and treatments of melasms, https://www.health.harvard.edu/womens-health/unmasking-the-causes-and-treatments-of-melasma
Skin Cancer Foundation, Sun-Protective Clothing, https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-prevention/sun-protection/sun-protective-clothing/
Skin Cancer Foundation, Skin Cancer Facts & Statistics, https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts/
Skin Cancer Foundation, UV Radiation and Your Skin, https://www.skincancer.org/risk-factors/uv-radiation/