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
Brand: Block Island Organics Natural Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 30 (Top recommendation) (View Price on Amazon)
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
Brand: Alba Botanica Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen, Fragrance Free, SPF 30 (View Price on Amazon)
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
Brand: Goddess Garden Organics Everyday Natural Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30 (View Price on Amazon)
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
Brand: Babo Botanicals Clear Zinc Sunscreen, Fragrance Free, SPF 30 (View Price on Amazon)
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
Brand: Kiss My Face Kids Mineral SPF 30 Natural Organic Sunscreen (View Price on Amazon)
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!