Most people know that sunscreen is important, especially in the summer months. But with more and more information suggesting that the very product designed to protect your skin could be riddled with chemicals that cause their own problems, a day in the sun can feel like a catch-22.
What to do? If you’ve experimented with natural and nontoxic sunscreens in the past, you might be all too familiar with sticky, white formulas -- terribly enticing.
Avoiding sunscreen altogether certainly isn’t on the list of choices. According to a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer rates have doubled in the past 30 years and continue to rise.
The good news is that there are some great nontoxic sunscreens that provide excellent sun protection without the dreaded “sticky ghost” effect. It does require some patience to find the perfect one for you, but here’s a guide to the top three things to look for and the top three things to avoid in your search.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
1. Broad-spectrum sun protection
Any sunscreen you use should provide broad-spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB rays. A sunscreen’s ability to block UVB rays is indicated by SPF level: An SPF 15 product blocks about 94% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks about 97% of UVB rays, and SPF 45 blocks about 98%.
You might be thinking, “There actually isn’t much of a difference between those!” You’re right, there’s not. UVB rays are the ones that cause sunburn, which you need to prevent, but they’re just one half of the story — and very high SPF levels can provide a false sense of security.
According to Dr. Elizabeth K. Hale, dermatologist and Vice President of the Skin Cancer Foundation, “UVA is harder to quantify but increasingly important: UVA rays cause most sun damage, because they’re penetrating 365 days a year. They don’t burn the skin, but they contribute to premature aging — 90% of premature aging is due to sun exposure — as well as to the development of skin cancer, the most common type of cancer in the US right now.”
So when you buy your sunscreen, look on the label specifically for “broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection” to make sure you’re covered.
2. Sunscreen that physically blocks the sun
I always suggest picking a product that uses a physical sunscreen — zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, or both. Unlike chemical sunscreens, these work right away once you apply them to your skin because they create a physical barrier between you and the sun.
Zinc oxide is the best source of natural and non-toxic broad-spectrum sun protection you can buy. Titanium dioxide is also very good, but it doesn’t provide quite as much UVA protection as zinc does.
3. Antioxidants (except for Vitamin A)
If your sunscreen also contains antioxidants like vitamins C and E or green tea extract, that’s a great bonus. Many antioxidants provide additional protection against sun-related damage: not nearly enough to allow you to rely on them alone, but enough to act as an added layer of insurance.
CoEnzyme Q10 is another good one to look for, as are cranberry and pomegranate extracts, which contain ellagic acid. All of these antioxidants have been shown to help prevent UV-induced photoaging and are excellent additions to any sunscreen formula.
WHAT TO AVOID
1. Chemical sunscreens
Generally speaking, physical sunscreens — zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — are the best choices if you’re looking for healthy, non-toxic skincare. But if you’re going to use a chemical sunscreen, there are a few that are more questionable than others.
Oxybenzone and octinoxate can cause allergic reactions and have been linked to hormone-like activity in the body. Moreover, these two particular ingredients (along with butylparaben, a common preservative, and 4MBC, a sunscreen not approved for use in the US) have been shown to cause serious damage to coral reefs worldwide.
PABA is another chemical sunscreen that should be avoided — and it’s pretty easy to do so now that it’s not used very often anymore — because it’s very likely to trigger allergic reactions.
In an effort to create formulas that aren’t white and sticky, some companies formulate their sunscreens with nano-sized zinc and titanium dioxide.
But I advise you to avoid nanoparticles in beauty products, especially if there’s any chance of inhalation — their long-term effects aren't well understood.
Additionally, a recent study found that nano-sized zinc and titanium dioxide from sunscreens have been accumulating in coral reef systems and reacting with the sun’s rays to create hydrogen peroxide, which then causes damage to phytoplankton, a form of algae that is critical food for marine life ranging from small fish to whales.
Nanoparticles are tricky to avoid, because whether your zinc or titanium dioxide is non-nano may not be readily available information (it’s not required on the label). Buy your sunscreen from a company or retailer that you trust and ask questions.
3. Retinyl palmitate (or any form of retinol)
While retinol is a very effective anti-aging ingredient to look for in a product used at night, there's no reason for retinyl palmitate (or any form of retinol) to be in sun care products.
Retinol rapidly breaks down in the sun, rendering it useless from an anti-aging perspective. Worse, it can actually cause harm: when used in the sunlight, it's been associated with free-radical formation which results in aging and excess skin growth.
Finally, don’t forget the healthy and ultra-effective power of a great hat, shirt and sunglasses. Sunscreen is essential, but don’t rely on it exclusively. So choose a great non-toxic sunscreen, but also consider seeking out the shade from time to time.