The Ultimate Guide to Safe Sunscreen: How to Choose, What to Look for, What to Avoid

Every year around around this time we’re faced with the same, age-old question; how do we make it through these next few months without coming out ever-so-lightly oven baked?

While getting some sun is actually good for you (vitamin D! natural enzymes! yay!) – you do need to protect yourself, especially if you plan on hanging around outdoors for several hours at a time. Sunburn is never pleasant to have, after all, and the last thing any of us need on our gorgeous largest organ is sun damage – or even worse, skin cancer.

Yup, we really do rely on sunscreens for a lot – they’re our front line of protection against the downside of sun exposure. So, probably more than anything right now, we’ve got to get this right.

Which brings us to: How exactly do you go about choosing an effective, safe sunscreen?

We got you covered.

The ABCs of Suncreens

Let’s start with the basics, since sunscreen comes with a surprising amount of lingo that’s lost on most of us. For instance, can anybody here actually tell me what SPF stands for? I’ll give you a minute. No peeking.

Okay, so SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor – pretty bogstandard, if you were expecting something a little more fancy – and it’s essentially a measurement of how well a sunscreen can block UVB rays.

It’s a little weird that SPF is the main thing we consider when buying a sunscreen, because UVB rays are actually the lesser of the two evils when it comes to sun rays. Sure, UVB rays are what burns you and makes your skin crave aloe vera gel, but UVA rays are what leads to long-term skin damage (we have PPD for that, a system in its infancy that uses pretty much the same protocols as SPF does).

So essentially, SPF is basically the amount of time you can stay out in the sun with the sunscreen on without burning divided by the time it takes to burn without the sunscreen.

Typically, 15 SPF is the bare minimum for lengthy sun exposure. For hot summer days, you’re looking to get something more in the range of 30, just to be safe. Above and beyond that just depends on what kind of skin you have and how easily you burn, along with how long you’re expected to be out in the heat. SPF 30 absorbs around about 96.7% of all UVB rays, which is about what you’ll need for a generous sunbathing session.

But as we mentioned above, you really want protection from both UVB and UVA rays, which is why when considering a sunscreen – you’ll want to find one with that provides broad spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays. Broad-spectrum sunscreens not only have good SPF, but also have the critical PPD which can help to protect from longer term ill effects of getting a tan, like premature aging and skin cancer. This makes them generally recommended for any age, skin type or tone.

We’ll show you which sunscreen ingredients provide what kind of protection in a moment, but before we get into that, let’s get a little more intimate with the contents of our sunscreen…

What’s In My Sunscreen?

We slather this stuff on daily, especially during the sunshiney summer months – and it doesn’t just gain access to our face, but pretty much every part of our bodies.

So what exactly are we rubbing ourselves down with?

Well, it depends on what sort of protection your sunscreen is using.  There are tons and tons of sunscreens out there, but you can sort them all into just 2 categories based on their active ingredients:

  • Chemical: Sunscreens that use chemicals as active ingredients. This is the majority of sunscreens you’ll find on the market. Sunscreen manufacturers are pretty consistent about what they put into sunscreens – so with chemical agents, expect to get a combination of two to six of these active ingredients: octisalate, avobenzone, octocrylene, oxybenzone, homosalate and octinoxate.
  • Physical: Sunscreens that use physical sunscreen filters as active ingredients. When it comes to these sunscreens, it’s much simpler – Zinc Oxide and Titanium Oxide are the mainstays and you’ll find one or both of them listed as the main active ingredient(s) on the bottle. All natural sunscreens use Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Oxide.

So typically, you’ve got two broad categories of ingredients that do the dirty work in sunscreen – chemical and physical protective agents.

Each of these active ingredients work differently – let’s take a closer look at ’em!

A Closer Look at Chemical Sunscreens

The main difference between these two types of active ingredients in sunscreen is that chemical ingredients work by being absorbed into the skin where they deactivate or degrade sunlight upon contact.

This is not good news for us since a few of these chemicals are pretty darn toxic. There’s the obvious dangers of causing allergies, break-outs and rashes on your skin but some ingredients commonly found in sunscreen go far beyond that.

Here’s a few of the worst offenders in chemical sunscreens to watch out for and what they do:

Oxybenzone (EWG Rating: 8)

Commonly used in chemical sunscreen, oxybenzone can get under your skin and travel through your body pretending to be estrogen. Your body automatically recognises it as being exactly like estrogen, so it can seriously throw your hormone production off the rafters. Hormone inbalances are so bad because hormones deal with literally everything in your body- low moods and a lack of energy is only the start of your troubles if you absorb too much of this stuff.

On top of all that, oxybenzone has been shown to alter sperm production in animals, been linked to endometriosis in women, and is quite irritating for the skin.

Octinoxate (EWG Rating: 6)

Octinoxate is another ingredient commonly found in sunscreens that emulates hormones, causing disruptions to the reproductive system and the thyroid gland, which is responsible for metabolism and generally keeping your cells moving at a good pace. Without it, we’d become extremely sluggish and tired, so it’s essential that you keep it in check. This one isn’t quite as dangerous as the others because it doesn’t go very deep into the skin, meaning that it’s a little harder to get absorbed by the pores, but extended exposure is still not recommended.

Homosalate (EWG Rating: 4)

Yet another hormone disruptor – this one likes to mess with estrogen, androgen and progesterone.

And it’s not just the active ingredients found in chemical sunscreens – sometimes companies throw some really bizarre and dangerous ingredients for fairly benign purposes like preservation. These “inactive ingredients” typically make up half to nearly all of a sunscreen product and can be just as toxic as some of the active ingredients. Here’s one example…

Methylisothiazolinone (EWG Rating: 7)

This one’s a biggie. Methylisothiazolinone, sometimes called MI for short, is a sneaky inactive ingredient in a lot of sunscreens. It’s used for preservation and it’s probably one of the biggest allergens you’re likely to come into contact with today (it holds the dubious distinction of “allergen of the year”by the American Contact Dermatitis Society).

The kicker is that it manages to sneak its way into hypoallergenic formulas and even baby and kid sunscreens. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

What about Physical Sunscreens?

Unlike chemical ingredients, physical sunscreen filters like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are not absorbed into the skin. They work by sitting on top of the skin to provide a physical barrier against UV rays, deflecting them away from the skin.

By and large, physical sunscreens tend to rank a lot lower than chemical sunscreens on toxicity. And ‘though they’re not exactly “natural,” per se, they are chemical free and pose very little health risks when used topically. They’re not totally harmless – but then again, neither is water – but they are your best option for toxin-free sun protection.

Here’s why…

Titanium Dioxide

Titanium dioxide scores an EWG rating of 2 for topical use, but a whopping 6 when found in a powder or spray. That’s ’cause when used as a topical, there’s very little risk and no findings of skin penetration – but it can irritate the nose and throat and be carcinogenic if inhaled.

Zinc Oxide

Zinc oxide scores an an EWG rating of 2 for topical use, but a more toxic rating of 4 when found in a powder or spray for pretty the same reasons as titanium dioxide. Unlike titanium dioxide, zinc oxide has been shown to penetrate the skin, but the exposure is very minimal – it showed less than 0.01% skin penetration in human volunteers.

There’s a good reason why these are used in all natural, safe sunscreen products – Both of these physical sunblocks have no evidence of hormone disruption. They’re also non-irritating, non-allergenic, and protect against both UVA and UVB rays.

Their remarkable abilities to reflect both UVA and UVB rays are partly owed to nanoparticles, which get some seriously bad press for claims that they attack cells. As far as we know, this is true, but what most people leave out of the equation is that they’re also really hard to absorb through the skin. Very few particles actually get anywhere near the bloodstream.

Whereas with ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate you’re absorbing around about 1-8%, with zinc and titanium oxide you’re getting 0.01% at best (or worst). That’s nowhere near the amount needed to actually cause some real damage, so you’re getting all of the protection you need with none of the side effects.

So What is the Best Natural Sunscreen?

If you – like us – prefer natural skin care products that don’t mess with your hormones or jeopardize your health – you’ll want to skip the chemical sunscreens and opt for a natural (or more accurately, chemical-free) sunscreen that contains zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as well as only natural and non-toxic filler ingredients.

In case you’re wondering whether a natural sunscreen needs to contain both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to be effective – the answer is not necessarily. You see, the main difference between zinc oxide and titanium dioxide is that zinc oxide provides broad spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays while titanium dioxide protects well against UVB rays and shorts UVA rays, but not against longer UVA rays. That being said, titanium dioxide makes the perfect safe sunscreen for blemish-prone skin since on top of being non-irritating and non-allergenic, it’s also non-comedogenic, meaning that it doesn’t produce or aggravate acne.

If you have sensitive, acne-prone skin and don’t plan on spending hours in the sun – titanium dioxide as the only active ingredient will work great for you. If you are planning on some serious sun time, however, you’ll want to opt for a natural sunscreen that combines titanium dioxide with the more effectively UVA-protecting zinc oxide.

And as always – make sure the rest of the ingredients list check out, too! The last thing you need is to be protecting yourself from the sun’s rays while soaking in parabens and methylisothiazolinone.

Of course, we’ve already done most of the work for you and picked through the safest, most effective natural sunscreens we could get our greedy, green-lovin’ hands on. You can check out the full reviews of the best natural sunscreens for the face here and the best natural sunscreens for the body here.

A Few Tips on Choosing the Best Sunscreen

  • How much sunscreen should I be using? Dermatologists recommend putting on around about an ounce of sunscreen if you’re planning to spend the day lazing in the sun. Also, make sure you cover literally everything that isn’t either covered by clothing or hair- your ears, neck and lips count as part of that as well. It’s a good idea to re-apply every two hours just to be safe.
  • When should I apply sunscreen? It takes around 30 minutes after application for sunscreen to be effective – apply well before you hit the beach!
  • Are there other sunscreen ingredients to watch out for? Actually, yes – vitamin A. That’s a bit surprising since vitamin A is, well, a vitamin – but it actually makes your skin more sensitive to UV rays and can actually increase your risk for skin cancer. Sure, it’s an antioxidant but it’s not one that combines well with sun exposure. Many sunscreen manufacturers haven’t taken note of this yet, however, and the EWG states that around 20% of sunscreen products contain vitamin A so you’ll have to be a little more vigilant in perusing the ingredients list.

Lastly, ‘though this whole article is about sun protection – we do want to mention that a little bit of sun is quite good for you so feel free to let yourself bask in the sun’s rays…for short periods of time. If you’re on the paler, fairer side, you just need a few minutes per day. Darker skinned beauties can soak a little longer, though – up to 15 to 20 minutes.

Enjoy and happy basking!

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