It’s one of life’s unfortunate ironies that in slapping on sunscreen to protect our skin against cancer-causing rays, we may actually increase our exposure to carcinogenic chemicals. Thankfully, this is one situation where safe and effective alternatives via natural sunscreen are available.
Generic sunscreens can contain all manner of nasties, including oxybenzone and octocrylene. Avoiding these need not mean forgoing sunscreen entirely, however, nor does it mean that the smart move is to rely on coconut oil or olive oil as a natural sunscreen (they afford very little protection, as I explain below).
In this post, we will give you the rundown on how to find a safe, effective, and natural sunscreen suitable for use by the whole family.
Why choose natural? Toxins in Sunscreens
For sunscreen to be useful, we’re supposed to apply a thick coating over large areas of skin, and to reapply regularly. Shouldn’t these products be free, then, of chemicals that can irritate skin, cause allergic reactions, or upset cellular metabolism? And, shouldn’t sunscreen sprays and lip sunscreens be free from chemicals that can irritate the lungs or gut, in case we inadvertently ingest or inhale them?
In an ideal world, yes.
Penetration enhancers in sunscreen
Unfortunately, many sunscreens not only fail to protect the skin as they should, they can also cause skin damage, disrupt hormones, and form potentially harmful breakdown products that affect our overall health. Sunscreen manufacturers also like to use ‘penetration enhancers’ to enable the creams and lotions to stick to the skin. This means that any nasty chemicals have an easier time getting through the skin and into general circulation. In fact, it’s not unheard of for undesirable chemicals from sunscreens to end up in breast milk, blood, and urine, as well as to build up in tissues in the body.
Active ingredients in sunscreens come in two forms: mineral sunblock and chemical filters. Chemical filters are the most common active ingredients and usually comprise a combination of oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Most sunscreens contain at least two of these chemicals. Mineral sunblocks usually include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide either alone or in combination. A few products use both chemical and mineral ingredients.
Organic sunscreen may actually be bad for you
A word on the word ‘organic’ in relation to sunscreens: chemical sunscreens are, somewhat confusingly, ‘organic’, while mineral blocks are ‘inorganic’. As such, a sunscreen referred to as ‘organic’ may actually be worse for your health than one that contains ‘inorganic’ ingredients. Confused? That’s understandable. Chemistry is weird in its nomenclature.
The 5 worst toxins in sunscreen
Putting that confusion aside for a moment, what you really need to know about toxins in sunscreens is that there are five key culprits to look out for (currently):
- Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3, or BP-3)
- Octinoxate (Octylmethoxycinnamate)
I should also mention that many products also contain a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate.
Retinyl palmitate is an antioxidant that combats skin aging, which sounds good, right? Yes, but… studies suggest that when used on the skin, retinyl palmitate may actually react with sunlight to trigger the development of skin tumors and lesions (R). Retinyl palmitate may also be listed as retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and retinol on product labels, and is best avoided.
Another thing to consider is the use of products containing sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and/or sodium lauryl sufate (SLS) prior to applying sunscreen. These are often included in body wash and other soaps and are two of those ‘penetration enhancers’ I mentioned above (as is DEET). So, try to avoid using products that contain SLS or SLES as they may accentuate the negative effects of those chemicals listed above.
The problems with nanoparticles in sunscreens
The two most widely used ingredients in inorganic, mineral, sunblock are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These are highly effective at blocking UV rays and are generally considered the better option for sunscreens, compared to the chemical filters already discussed above. These ingredients do not break down in the sun to create toxic by-products, and they provide strong sun protection including from UVA rays that cause skin cancer (and collagen degradation that leads to wrinkles).
That said, sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide do pose some risks to health if not handled properly. The main concern here is that modern mineral sunscreens are formulated with nanoparticles to minimize the white tint that used to make users look like mimes. These nanoparticles vary greatly in size, shape, and in terms of coatings, are poorly regulated in many countries, and can pose serious health risks if inhaled or ingested.
To get around these concerns, some companies promote their sunscreens as being made with “non-nano” titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Be very wary of these claims as almost all such sunscreens would still be deemed to contain nanoparticles by US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards. Any sunscreen containing titanium dioxide that is at all transparent will contain nanoparticles as the lotion would otherwise be opaque.
No requirement for disclosure
Unfortunately, sunscreen manufacturers are not required by law to disclose which types of nanoparticles they use in their products, meaning that it can be hard to determine the safety of such sunscreens.
One key thing to note with these types of sunscreens is that nanoparticles can cause serious lung damage if inhaled (titanium dioxide is considered a carcinogen if inhaled in high doses) (R, R). Titanium dioxide is the one of the most commonly used nanoparticles and is present as a white pigment in paint, as a food additive, in food packaging material, sunscreens, cosmetic creams, and even in surgical implants. Research suggests that titanium dioxide is very slow to be eliminated from the body (it has biodurability), meaning that it could accumulate over our lifetime (R).
The best nontoxic sunscreens
Despite the potential for environmental damage, the best sunscreens for human health appear to be those formulated with zinc oxide. This provides better protection against UVA rays compared to titanium oxide and organic chemicals and is stable in sunlight.
US regulators have only approved zinc oxide and avobenzone as sunscreen ingredients that provide true broad-spectrum protection against UVA wavelengths. Avobenzone has a short-lived absorption capacity, however (it begins to break down after 30 minutes or so) (R), and there are growing concerns over the potential for avobenzone to form undesirable transformation products (including ecotoxins), particularly when it reacts with chlorine (R). As such, if your only option is a sunscreen with avobenzone, try to find one that includes other ingredients (such as triplet quenchers) that help sustain its capacity to protect the skin and avoid undesirable breakdown products (R).
Now, there is another sunscreen option that many people are excited about but that the US FDA has so far failed to approve for widespread use in sunscreens.
Mexoryl SX (Ecamsule) has been widely available in Europe and in Canada for well over a decade. Sadly, though, it is currently only licensed in the US for use at a specific level in Ombrelle, a product by L’Oreal. That’s because the company stumped up the exorbitant cost to apply for an FDA license, which they received in 2006.
Mexoryl SX is a highly effective chemical sun filter and can be easily combined with other UV filters to create very high SPF formulas (R). Tests performed by L’Oreal (included in their license application) showed that Mexoryl SX absorption is very minimal (at less than 0.1%) and poses no risk to human health. Who wouldn’t want that in their sunscreen?
There is one major drawback with Mexoryl, however. Mexoryl only protects against UV wavelengths in the 290-400 nanometer range. Since this doesn’t cover the entire UV spectrum (UVB is 280 to 320 nanometers), Mexoryl must be combined with another UV filter to provide broad-spectrum coverage. Ombrelle, for example, combines Mexoryl with homosalate, octocrylene, avobenzene, and octisalate. Disappointing, right?
And things aren’t much better In Europe, sadly. There, Mexoryl SX is available as the very popular Anthelios line by La Roche Posay. This formula includes octocrylene, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, and Mexoryl, making it marginally better than the L’Oreal formula. Both Anthelios and Ombrelle contain parabens and other undesirable chemicals, though, so there’s still some work to do before we get the sunscreens we deserve.
My hope is that a product will soon be made available that includes Mexoryl alongside zinc oxide or another natural sunblock. Saffron and quercetin are two intriguing potential sunscreen ingredients that seem to confer UVB protection. In one study, a 4% saffron lotion showed an SPF value equivalent to an 8% homosalate lotion (R).
Are there any other options for natural sunscreen? Well, if you’re equally concerned about your own health and the health of the environment, you may be interested to learn of the existence of a newly patented sunscreen based on ingredients that have all been tested to ensure they don’t damage marine organisms, including coral and the ecosystem that depends on coral reefs. This sunscreen formula includes: diethylamino hydroxybenzoyl hexyl benzoate, methylene bis-benzotriazolyl tetramethylbutylphenol, ethylhexyl triazone and the preservative sorbic acid. The sunscreen has been tested and found to be just as effective as regular chemical sunscreens (R). Sadly, there is currently no consumer version of this sunscreen available.
OK, so with all the analysis out of the way, here’s a quick round-up of recommended sunscreens. As you’ll see, I’ve picked formulas that have broad-spectrum coverage, contain natural ingredients, and have a zinc oxide or zinc oxide and titanium base.
Natural sunscreen brand comparison
UV Coverage: Full
Ingredients: Zinc Oxide 22.0%, Inactive Ingredients: Aloe Barbadensis Leaf (Aloe Vera Gel) Juice*, Aqua (Deionized Water), Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter*, Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leaf Extract*, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil*, Eucalyptus Globulus (Eucalyptus) Oil, Gluconolactone, Glycerin*, Lecithin*, Octyl Palmitate, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil*, Sodium Benzoate, Sodium Laurylglucosides Hydroxypropylsulfonate, Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Xanthan Gum, Zemea Propanediol
UV Coverage: Full
Ingredients: Titanium Dioxide 2.0%, Zinc Oxide 14.5%, Inactive Ingredients: Aqua (Water), Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Dimethicone, Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Sorbitan Sesquioleate, Glycerin, Glyceryl Isostearate, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter, Polyglyceryl -3 Ricineoleate, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Oil, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Calendula Officinalis Flower Extract, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Tocopheryl Acetate, Alcohol, Magnesium Sulfate, Polyhydroxystearic acid, Silica, Sodium Chloride, Benzyl Alcohol, Phenoxyethanol
UV Coverage: Full
Ingredients: Titanium Dioxide 6.4%, Zinc Oxide 6.0%, Inactive Ingredients: Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice*, Aluminum Hydroxide, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter) *, Caprylhydroxamic Acid, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride (Coconut) oil, Carthamus Tinctorius (Safflower), Seed Oil*, Glycerin, Glyceryl Caprylate, Glyceryl Stearate Citrate, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil*, Polyhydroxystearic Acid, Sorbitan Oleate, Stearic Acid, Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Water, Xanthan Gum
UV Coverage: Full
Ingredients: Zinc Oxide 18.4%, Inactive Ingredients: Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter, Calendula Officinalis Flower Extract*, Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leaf Extract, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Caprylhydroxamic Acid, Caprylyl Glycol, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract*, Glycerin, Glyceryl Stearate, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Methylcellulose, Nasturtium Officinale (Watercress) Flower /Leaf Extract*, Pueraria Lobata (Kudzu) Root Extract*, Rosa Canina Fruit Oil, Sodium Bicarbonate, Spiraea Ulmaria (Meadowsweet) Flower Extract*, Stearic Acid, Water, Xanthan Gum
UV Coverage: Full
Ingredients: Titanium dioxide 6.0%, Zinc oxide 6%; Inactive Ingredients: Cera alba (organic beeswax)*, Helianthus annus (organic sunflower) oil*, Lycium barbarum (goji berry) extract, Punica granatum (pomegranate) extract, Sesamum indicum (organic sesame) oil*
There are many more natural sunscreens available where the active ingredient is zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. In general, what you want to avoid spray sunscreens whenever you can, especially if they contain nanoparticles, look for a short ingredient list and pick a:
- a non-chemical sunscreen with micronized zinc oxide (or titanium dioxide)
- a sunscreen with an SPF factor of 50 or lower (anything higher is misleading, according to the FDA and the Environmental Working Group).
Given the potential hazards associated with sunscreens, it’s worth reiterating that sunscreens should be your last resort for sun protection. You’re far better staying in the shade, wearing a sun-shirt, and carrying a parasol than covering your body with sunscreen several times a day. But, when sunscreen is necessary, your best options are to choose one of the ones recommended above!