By Sarah Nichols, Contributing Writer
It is summertime, and if you are like most people, you are very cautious to protect your skin from the sun. Ideally we would gain our sun protection through eating a nourishing diet high in antioxidants and healthy fats and using clothes/hats/shade as protective coverings. However, for most of us there will be days when we know we are going to need something more.
The sunscreen industry brings in over $800 million annually with over 1,800 different products available for purchase. (source) However, many of these products contain questionable and/or toxic ingredients. As consumers, it can often be confusing to wade through the list of ingredients and misleading terminology to decide what is safe for your family. But you don’t have to worry, because we have you covered! (See what I did there?)
Here at Modern Alternative Mama, we want to empower you with information so that you can make your own decisions on what is best for your family. Therefore, we compiled a list of things you need to know when shopping for a safe, non-toxic sunscreen for your family.
Sunscreen Vs. Sunblock
The difference between sunscreen and sunblock is in how they protect the skin. Sunscreen uses chemicals that penetrate the skin and absorb the UV rays. These will often go on clear and leave a thin layer on the skin. Sunblock uses minerals (either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) to block the UV rays from the skin. Sunblock often goes on pasty and is more difficult to wash off. Many people use the terms interchangeably, but it’s important to note that the term sunblock is no longer allowed by the FDA. (source)
If a sunscreen is labeled broad spectrum or full-spectrum, that means that it protects from both UVA and UVB light. UVA light is what is responsible for aging your skin, and UVB light is what your skin uses to make vitamin D and is also capable of burning your skin. (1, 2)
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and only refers to protection from UVB rays. The SPF label can be misleading. A consumer may see a high SPF and think that it provides a substantially greater amount of protection than a lower SPF. However, an SPF 15 provides protection from 94% of UVB rays, an SPF of 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays, and an SPF of 45 blocks about 98% of UVB rays. (source)
Photo Credit: Joe Shlabotnik via Compfight cc
Ingredients to Avoid
There are several ingredients you will definitely want to avoid when shopping for a non-toxic sunscreen.
Oxybenzone is found in many popular sunscreens, but people are starting to question the safety of this chemical. In a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, oxybenzone was found in 97% of urine samples. There are also studies suggesting that it is an endocrine disruptor and can cause cellular level changes. (source)
“Another study, published two years ago in Free Radical Biology and Medicine, raised troubling concerns about what happens when sunscreen is absorbed into the skin and reacts with the sun. The report suggested that under certain conditions, sunscreens with oxybenzone and other ultraviolet filters could lead to free-radical damage to the skin, a process that in theory could lead to skin cancer. The study used laboratory models of skin, so some researchers say it is not a reliable indicator of what happens in people. But the authors noted that the damage occurred only when ultraviolet light reached sunscreen that had penetrated the skin. The solution, they say, is to keep applying sunscreen to block out the UV rays.” (source, emphasis mine)
The take away from this information is that if you are using a chemical sunscreen containing oxybenzone, but not reapplying it frequently as the directions imply, you could be increasing your risk of cancer and free-radical damage in your skin.
Vitamin A / Retinyl Palmitate
Retinyl palmitate is known for slowing aging, but there is some science that suggests that it may speed the development of tumors when applied on the skin in the presence of sunlight. (source)
Propylparaben (or any ingredient containing the word paraben)
“Propylparaben is in the paraben family of preservatives used by the food, pharmaceutical, and personal care product industries. Parabens mimic estrogen and can act as potential hormone (endocrine) system disruptors.” (source)
Ingredients to Look For
Non-Nano Zinc Oxide
Zinc oxide is a mineral often used in sunblocks because it can provide a great block from UVA and UVB rays. When looking for a non-toxic sunblock, however, you will want to make sure the zinc oxide is not nano sized and has not been micronized. If the sunblock rubs into the skin clear, you will know it contains nano-sized particles because the particles are small enough to absorb into the skin which is what we do not want.
(There is a lot of conflicting research about the toxicity of nano-sized particles, but for now it’s better to stay on the safe side and stick with non-nano zinc oxide. If you are interested in doing your own research, this report is a good place to start with reference to a lot of research that shows harm: Nanomaterials Sunscreens and Cosmetics: Small Ingredients Big Risks. And this critical review is a good place to start with reference to some research that shows no evidence of harm: Current Sunscreen Controversies: A Critical Review.)
Antioxidants can offer another form of protection from sun damage by eliminating free radicals. Vitamin E is an antioxidant you may find in sunscreen. Ideally, vitamin E would be paired with Vitamin C to stabilize it. You may also find green tea as an antioxidant ingredient, but research varies on how long it is actually effective at capturing free radicals once applied to the skin and exposed to the sun. (source) Your best bet would be to make sure you are getting a plentiful amount of antioxidants through diet so your body has the proper tools to fight of free radicals and prevent damage.
Ingredients You Can Eat
When reading the ingredients used in making the sunblock, you will want to make sure they are ingredients you are OK with your body absorbing. Generally, if you recognize the ingredients and they are OK to eat, it’s probably a good sign that the ingredients are non-toxic.
DIY or Buy
Some people prefer to make their own sunblock so they can be confident in the ingredients and save money. If this is you, there are a lot of great recipes online that you can follow.
- How to Make Non-Toxic Homemade Sunscreen by Mommypotamus
- DIY Natural Sunscreen by The Humbled Homemaker
- How to Make Your Own Sunscreen Lotion by Keeper of the Home
If you choose to buy a non-toxic sunscreen, Katie at Kitchen Stewardship has done extensive research into a large variety of brands. You can read her recommendations here.