While it doesn’t feel like it in Seattle, I hear spring and summer are just around the corner. Which means it’s sunscreen season! Sunscreen is important for blocking both UVB rays (associated with non-melanoma skin cancer and sunburns) and UVA rays, which penetrate deeper and can cause DNA damage (and have a high association with melanoma) when we are overexposed to them.
But, as with nearly everything in the personal care world, there are safer and less safe options. Here are the tips I follow for choosing safer sun protection options.
4 Tips for Choosing Safer Sunscreen
1. Use mineral based (zinc) products. There are two types of sunscreen to choose from, those that are mineral based “physical blockers” and chemical “absorbers”.
Mineral based sunscreens work by creating a physical barrier between sun rays and our skin using zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.
Chemical based sunscreens work by using a combination of chemicals (oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate) that absorb UV radiation and release it from the skin as heat.
Reasons to avoid chemical sunscreens:
- Several of the active ingredients approved by the FDA for use as sunscreens have known issues. Oxybenzone, cctinoxate, homosalate, octocrylene may cause hormone disruption and/or skin irritation. Retinyl palmitate can break down when exposed to heat and can actually trigger skin tumors and lesions when used on skin and exposed to sunlight. Seriously, when exposed to sunlight. Sometimes I just can’t. And avobenzone can break down and result in skin allergy issues. If you’d like to learn more about the safety of each approved ingredient, this chart is a quick read.
- They often include “penetration enhancers” (meant to make the products last longer), which helps the potentially harmful ingredients be absorbed into the skin (and bloodstream) more easily.
- Given current FDA approvals for which chemicals are allowed in sunscreens, they are much more balanced to block UVB rays than UVA (yet another area in which Europe is way ahead of us). Because they block burning rays well, we have a false sense of security that these sunscreens are working, when DNA damage from the UVA rays may be occurring.
Benefits of mineral based sunscreen:
- They offer a balanced protection between both UVA and UVB rays as they bounce off (thus blocking) the full spectrum.
- Active ingredients are stable and don’t break down easily in sunlight (which is, you know, where sunscreen is intended to be used).
- These products (typically) don’t include potentially toxic active ingredients – read your labels!
And to be fair, the cons of mineral based sunscreen are that they are less cosmetically pleasing (many go on white), they can be more expensive, and some include chemical absorbers along with the minerals (which is why reading labels is so important!).
2. Choose sticks over lotions. Last summer, I learned that zinc can separate from it’s suspension ingredients over time. This occurs most often in lotions because in stick form it is much more solid and stable. Unfortunately, shaking vigorously does not always redistribute the zinc, so as your bottle ages over time you may be getting a good does of moisturizer and other ingredients, but not sun protective zinc, when you lather up. If you prefer lotion, I suggest throwing away your leftover tubes of lotion at the the end of the season and starting over each year to ensure you’re getting adequate protection.
Since switching to sticks I’ve become a huge fan – so much easier to apply and get even coverage, especially on wiggly toddlers.
3. Always skip the sprays. Sprays also come with an additional inhalation risk – one more way that the potential toxins are getting directly into your body. Even the FDA is concerned about the safety of spray sunscreens and recommends against them until companies can provide more safety data.
There are some mineral based spray sunscreens and at this point I don’t know enough to recommend using them (or avoiding). I’m avoiding them for now but will be doing more research to determine if this is a good alternative.
4. Reapply often. So this isn’t about choosing, but more maximizing what you do choose. Sunscreen is typically meant to last about 80 minutes to two hours (this varies, but is the most common time period I see). Zinc oxide particles actually break down more slowly than those in chemical sunscreens, another bonus for mineral based sunscreens. Make sure to follow the instructions on your particular product to make sure you are adequately covered.
Sunscreen is a complicated topic and I’ve only touched the surface here. I find that the annual guide from the EWG is a great starting point. The 2017 guide is not available quite yet, but the 2016 guide is a great resource for those who want to learn more.
With all this sunscreen talk, it’s important to point out that getting *some* sun exposure is important for Vitamin D synthesis. Vitamin D is crucial to so many bodily functions and many of us are deficient. To read more about the importance of Vitamin D and obtaining it from the sun, read here.
My Favorite Safer Sunscreen Products
There are many safer options for sunscreen out there (the EWG guide referenced above has a ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ list that is very helpful). Here are the three brands we use in our home:
1. Beautycounter. I use Dew Skin Tinted Moisturizer with SPF daily as part of my morning routine and I keep Protect Sunscreen Face Sticks in all my bags and the car. When we are going to be in the sun for a significant portion of the day, I’ll also bring the Protect Sunscreen Body Stick with us – it’s a little larger and quicker to apply on arms and legs. There is also a lotion option if that’s your jam.
Pros of the Beautycounter sticks is that they are BY FAR the least white/chalky mineral sunscreens I’ve used. I switched to mineral back in 2011 and I’ve tried many brands and have many pictures of me looking like a ghost. The face sticks are light enough that you can easily wear under makeup, or without makeup and still look normal. I also like that they are much larger than most sticks, which makes for quicker and more even coverage. The Dew Skin is rated a 2 and the Sun Sticks and lotion are rated a 1 by EWG.
2. Babo Botanicals. This was my go-to brand before I switched to mostly using Beautycounter for sun protection. We still have several and they are great for the face, but the stick size is about the diameter of a nickel, possibly a quarter, so it takes a bit of time to apply on the body and can be easy to miss areas.
Pros of Babo Botanicals is that you can grab the sport stick on Amazon, and for under $10, which is pretty inexpensive for mineral sunscreens. It goes on pretty white, so be prepared for that. The sport stick is rated a 1 by EWG.
3. Honest Company. This is a bit controversial as I know there were some issues a few years back with coverage and burns, but the product has been reformulated since. We used it a few times last summer when I forgot to pack sunscreen for a trip and had no problems with burning, but I have friends who have previously had issues. The reason I mention it is because if you prefer lotion and need something you can find at a store like Target, this is probably going to be the safest option.
Pros are that the Honest Mineral Sunscreen is easy to find, including on Amazon and in most retail stores. I’d say the ‘white factor’ is about average for mineral. It rubs in pretty well, but is still somewhat noticeable. The lotion is rated a 1 by EWG.
What sunscreen are you planning to use this summer?
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I'm a believer that we shouldn't have to compromise our health in the name of beauty. Or performance in the name of safety.