Sunscreen Shopping 101 - How To Find The Safest Sunscreen
Updated: Jul 8, 2021
Did you know that Sunlight UV radiation is considered a complete carcinogen? UV radiation can promote the growth of tumors, skin cancer, skin disorders and even suppress the immune system (source)! Knowing how to best protect ourselves from the harmful aspects of the sun is important, so I am here to give you the crash course you didn't know you needed!
1. Broad Spectrum Protection:
A quality sunscreen needs to offer broad-spectrum protection against UVA rays (short and long wavelength, known for causing skin cancer and penetrate deeper into the skin), and UVB rays (absorbed entirely into the epidermis and are known for causing sunburns). UVC rays exist but are absorbed in atmospheric ozone before reaching our skin (source).
Active ingredients in sunscreen are what provide protection from UV radiation. Ambient light is made up of 90-95% UVA radiation and 5-10% UVB radiation. Selecting a sunscreen with a sufficient balance of protection is essential and Zinc Oxide is the only non-toxic active ingredient that provides a complete broad-spectrum protection (source). Please see the chart below for a list of common active ingredients, and associated concerns.
(this chart was sourced from Irina at I Read Labels For You)
As you can see from the chart above, many active ingredients do not fully protect consumers, become unstable when exposed to light, or they can contain toxins. Titanium Dioxide is considered to be a non-toxic active ingredient as well, but it doesn’t adequately protect against UVAs, so this should only be used if accompanied by Zinc Oxide (source). For a better visual explanation, see this graph:
You may be wondering “why doesn’t every company use zinc oxide?”. This is because a considerable amount of zinc oxide is needed to achieve even SPF 30, making it more expensive for the manufacturer and consumer (source). Another reason is that zinc oxide is known for its whitening effect on skin which consumers don’t appreciate, whereas synthetic chemical sunscreens can go on clear. *Please see sunscreen recommendations for new clear zinc oxide sunscreen options* Please be aware that the SPF rating on the bottle only refers to the sunscreen’s protection against UVB rays (source). Even sunscreens with a very high SPF ratings can fail to provide adequate UVA protection if they lack active ingredients protecting from UVA rays (Source); The National Cancer Institute has stated that since 1975, skin cancer rates have tripled and I can’t help but wonder if misleading sunscreens or lack of general sunscreen education have contributed to that spike (source).
In conclusion, I recommend you only purchase sunscreens with an active ingredient of (non-nano) Zinc Oxide or a combination of Titanium Oxide and (non-nano) Zinc Oxide.
In fact the FDA goes as far to say that those are the only 2 active ingredients known to be safe (Source)! See section 2 for an explanation of what “non-nano” means.
2. Particle Size Safety:
Mineral sunscreens (sometimes incorrectly referred to as “chemical free”) are designed to sit on top of the skin; this happens in part because the particles in mineral sunscreen are much larger than synthetic chemical sunscreens (source). Within the mineral sunscreen world, you can find “zinc oxide” and “non-nano zinc oxide”. Non-nano means that the particles are greater than 100 nanometers (source), and this is ideal for three reasons;
first, this provides reassurance that the sunscreen particles are too large to be readily absorbed into our bloodstream;
second, nano-particles are especially harmful to the lungs if inhaled through a spray sunscreen (source) ;
third, nano-particles may pose a greater threat to marine life (source).
There was a study however that concluded that zinc oxide particles even as small as 30 nm were not absorbed by participants (source). For this reason, I wouldn’t throw out a bottle of smaller particle zinc oxide, but I do suggest shopping for non-nano versions when possible or contacting the company for more information on their particle size.
On the flip side, your typical “chemical” sunscreens (non-mineral) are made up of molecular sized particles and these can readily absorb into the skin, blood stream and organs. In fact, Oxybenzone, one of the most common active ingredient in the USA was found in 97% of applicants in a study done by The United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) on 2,500 individuals ages 6+ years. More alarmingly the study showed that children were more susceptible to the harm of Oxybenzone because their surface area of application to body weight ratio was proportionally much higher than adults. Here is an except for why this is a concern:
“Moreover, children are less likely than adults to detoxify and excrete chemicals; their developing organs are more vulnerable to damage from chemical exposures, and not least children tend to be more sensitive to low levels of hormonally active compounds” (source)!
In another study done on 16 women and 9 men who were topically treated with a 4% Oxybenzone, the scientists were still finding Oxybenzone in their poop for up to 5 days after! Unfortuantley Oxybenzone is considered to be an endocrine disruptor (source), meaning that it can mimic the effect of different hormones in our body. The hormones in our body have a delicate balance, and its unnerving to think that these potentially disruptive chemicals have such an easy pathway into our body and can stay in our bodies for days after application.
To dive into the other active ingredients, the studies that have been done on them and the associated concerns, please read this very enlightening study (Source)
3. Application Method
Sunscreens are often sold in sprays where tiny particles can easily be inhaled and enter our lungs (Source). The Environmental Working Group has consistently stated that they rate loose powdered and spray products (especially sunscreens) with a lower safety rating for this reason. This concern applies to both mineral and synthetic chemical sunscreens, as none of them are safe to inhale so please take extra caution if using a spray; avoid spraying the face directly (instead spray your hand and rub on), apply in well-ventilated surroundings, and spray closer to the target area. My recommendation though is the skip sprays whenever possible and opt for the lotion sunscreens (most non-toxic version are lotions anyway).
4. Avoid Undisclosed Fragrances
This rule applies to ANY product you buy. If the ingredients contain “fragrance” “natural fragrance” “100% natural fragrance” “perfume” or “aroma” its best to avoid them. “Fragrance” is a vague term intentionally used to keep ingredients secret. Unfortunately the "transparency list" of ingredients believed to be used under the category of “fragrance” contains over 3000 different chemicals, many of which are carcinogenic (or believed to be carcinogenic), endocrine disruptors, or if nothing else, they are likely to be allergens or irritants (Source, Source).
Instead look for specifically disclosed plant extracts or essential oils. I can promise that there are great smelling sunscreens with fully disclosed ingredients!
5. Harmful Preservatives & Other Toxins
If a product uses water as an ingredient, it needs a broad-spectrum preservative to stop the growth of bacteria, yeast and mold (remember, you can’t see bacteria growth!). Some sunscreens do not use water and can avoid the need for preservatives, but otherwise keep a
careful eye on which preservatives are used (they are usually towards the end of the ingredient list). If you aren’t familiar with some of the most common harmful ingredients in personal care products, stay tuned for my next post where I will be sharing a Common Household Toxin Cheat Sheet that I learned about through Irina, from I Read Labels For You (give her a follow!). (source)
6. My Sunscreen Recommendations
(this is NOT an exhaustive list, please note these are affiliate links, meaning I may receive a very small commission if you purchase through them, the price of the product does not change):
ThinkBaby or ThinkSport – this is the brand my family is currently using. Its non-toxic, I find it spreads easily, smells pleasant, and I also appreciate their tinted face sunscreen so I don’t have to worry about a whitening effect. Here are links for availability in USA & Canada
Badger – Badger offers both non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen and CLEAR zinc oxide sunscreens that are made up of larger particles (large enough to meet the definition of non-nano in the USA, but not in Australia). After reviewing their website I feel comfortable recommending both of their product lines. Links for availability in USA & Canada
Babo Botanicals – Babo offers a non-toxic, non-nano zinc oxide spray sunscreen. If you simply must use a spray then check them out but please try to avoid inhalation. They use a lower percentage of zinc oxide than ThinkSport or Badger and likely needs to be reapplied more frequently. Links for purchase in USA ( I believe Babo Botanicals sunscreen is available in Canada, I can only find links for lotion though)
All Good Sunscreen- another option for spray and cream USA &
Additional Notes (source):
FDA does not allow companies to claim that their sunscreens are “waterproof”, instead the maximum claim is “water resistant up to 80 minutes”.
The FDA requires sunscreens to have an expiration date printed on the bottle if the sunscreen is not proven to last at least 3 years. A bottle 3 years old or older should be considered expired. Your sunscreen bottle should not sit in direct sunlight or excessive heat, however because this is likely to happen, I would urge you to error on the side of caution and use up bottles well before their expiration.
Infants under the age of 6 months old should not have sunscreen applied to them. The FDA recommends keeping them out of the sun at the brightest times of day, to provide proper clothing protection (hats!) and to ask a doctor before applying sunscreen if you feel it is absolutely necessary.
Zinc Oxide on its own doesn’t smell that appealing, so that is why even the most natural brands use extracts or essential oils to help provide a masking scent.
Wow, if you made it to the end, congratulations, you now know more about sunscreen then all of your friends and family. Please help spread the word (and this article!) so that we can best protect the people we love.