In this article, we’ll compare 3 sunscreens:
We all want to use organic, chemical-free products, but what exactly is the most natural solution if you’re headed out to a beach vacation and need sunscreen?
While the term “organic” may be easy to understand when it comes to food, in skincare products, it can be confusing. Let’s look into why that might be.
In order to truly receive a real organic label, at least 95% of the product must be made from organic ingredients, after the water and salt content is substracted. There are other requirements to this rule like using non-GMO ingredients, as well as avoiding specific ingredients that the USDA lists as being ineligible for its certification program.
This rule is part of the National Organic Program (NOP) and is regulated by the USDA. But the problem is that these USDA rules mostly fall in the domain of agricultural ingredients. So while it might be straight-forward when it comes to simple food products, it can be difficult when it comes to a complex product such as sunscreen.
It also doesn’t help that sunscreens are considered drugs by the FDA rather than cosmetics, so the publicly available information on how a sunscreen can actually get the USDA organic label is complicated to find, let alone understand.
There is no regulation for using the term “natural” in skincare, so companies have been using the term freely. And since this industry is regulated by the FDA primarily, there are many companies that also freely use the term “organic” without the USDA-approved label.
Be careful about labels that focus on some of the ingredients. While 70% of the content might be made from an organic substance, that still leaves 30% of the product where dangerous chemicals may lurk. As you can see, the right choice of sunscreen will heavily depend on the reputation of the company that makes it and whether it’s really being honest to consumers.
Another wrench thrown into the idea of an “organic” sunscreen is the fact that the ingredients that are actually safest for you aren’t even organic to begin with, at least not from the standpoint of what would be defined as organic or inorganic scientifically.
That’s right, the safest active ingredients in sunscreen are actually inorganic minerals.
As you might have guessed, most of those sunscreens aren’t going to be the familiar Banana Boat or Coppertone bottles you see in your chain store locally. In fact, those are typically the ones with the worst ratings, according to Environmental Working Group (EWG), an organization that investigates individual products and what’s in them. Feel free to type in any potential sunscreen product into the EWG search function to find out just safe it is.
But before you start typing in every product that you come across, we have to answer the obvious question here – what is a good sunscreen anyway? Should it be natural and can it even be organic at all?
In order to answer that question, there are a few things to consider…
Chemical Sunscreen vs. Physical Sunscreen
There are two types of sunscreens, and the definition is broader than most people think it is.
In simple terms, a chemical sunscreen is made of chemicals that penetrate into your skin, while a physical sunscreen sits on top of your skin. Generally speaking, a chemical sunscreen is the suncreen lotion you’d typically find at your local drugstore. A physical sunscreen could be a hat, clothing, sunglasses, or a beach umbrella, but mineral sunscreens also fall under the category of physical sunscreens. More on why this is later…
Your first attempt should always be to exhaust the obvious physical sunscreen options. If you have a choice to be outside in the morning or late afternoon instead of the noon period when the UV rays are the strongest, always make the first choice. Sunscreens can only go so far when it comes to protection, so it’s wise to check the daily UV index and to plan your activities accordingly.
This doesn’t mean that you should go without any sunscreen at all. Although being in the shade is less dangerous, you should still be wearing a sunscreen. Many people delay using sunscreen because they’re trying to find that perfect one that’s just the right consistency, just the right price, just the right whatever.
Meanwhile, what they don’t realize is that sun damage isn’t exactly waiting for them to find the right sunscreen protection. Time goes by, the exposure takes a toll on their skin, not to mention that the risk of developing melanoma (the most dangerous type of skin cancer) increases.
So please, while you are searching for the right sunscreen, continue to stay protected, even if it means that you have to use a chemical sunscreen for the time being.
Just make sure to pick a lotion rather than the sprays. Sprays are more dangerous as they pose the risk of inhalation.
And please don’t create DIY suncreens in your kitchen. Skin cancer is too serious a threat to be something to be solved by yourself in your kitchen with a recipe you found on Youtube. A proper SPF rating is hard to achieve in the laboratory and takes a lot of trial and error.
Let’s move on to SPF and what it’s all about…
What SPF Really Means
A higher sunscreen SPF doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be more protected. The SPF is simply a factor of how much longer you can stay out in the UV rays before you get a sunburn, as compared to not using any sunscreen at all.
This time will be different for everyone. Your skin type will play a major role in this. Darker skin may maybe get a sunburn in 20 minutes, while someone with fair skin might get a sunburn in as little as 5 minutes. The method of categorizing one’s skin type is found by the Fitzpatrick scale.
But for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that you’d get a sunburn in about 10 minutes. You’d multiply the SPF factor by 10 minutes to find out how long one application will protect you under the sun. So, an SPF 30 would protect you for 300 minutes, while an SPF 50 would protect you for 500 minutes. Of course, there are factors that might leave you less protected, like water, perspiration, or not applying enough sunscreen. So even after you do this calculation, it’s always a good idea to reapply your sunscreen earlier.
Once you go to the higher SPF levels, they start doing more harm than good. Just for the sake of logic, an SPF 80 sunscreen multiplied by 10 minutes is a whopping 800 minutes, or 13.33 hours. I don’t know about you, but if I were to go outside with this kind of sunscreen on my skin, it’s going to be nighttime before it’s even time for me to reapply this sunscreen if we go by the logic of SPF protection alone. Rarely anyone will be spending this much time outside.
Beyond this redundancy, the reasons why these higher SPF factors aren’t that beneficial are two-fold. First, they block vitamin D from entering skin. Vitamin D has many virtues, but one of them is to fight skin cancer. This is a benefit you’d definitely want to take advantage of! Second, in order to achieve higher SPF levels, more ingredients are required. And for someone who is looking for a natural, or even organic solution, this is a move in the wrong direction.
To recap all the information from above:
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s talk about the solution:
How Mineral Sunscreens Are Different From Chemical Sunscreens
Most sunscreens on the store shelf are chemical sunscreens. But what’s in a chemical sunscreen anyway?
The FDA currently has 17 approved active ingredients for sunscreens. They are:
- p-Aminobenzoic acid
- Padimate O
- Phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid
- Menthyl anthranilate
- Octyl methoxycinnamate
- Octyl salicylate
- Trolamine salicylate
- Titanium dioxide
- Zinc oxide
The most common offenders from this list, which conveniently tend to sit on your local drug stores shelves, are oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, octinoxate and their derivatives. These are the active ingredients in chemical sunscreens.
The problem with chemical sunscreens is that in order to protect you, the UV rays must actually penetrate your skin first. Then, the sunscreen causes a chemical reaction that gives off heat. Even though a chemical sunscreen improves your protection against UV rays, free radicals were created and your DNA in your skin was damaged during the process.
Most sunscreens sold have oxybenzone it. It mimics estrogen and can wreak havoc on your endocrine system. There are plenty of studies that generally agree that exposure to oxybenzone in adolescent boys and men decreases their testosterone level. Oxybenzone affects hormones and is dangerous, especially when inhaled as spray sunscreens. The sad thing is that most people already have oxybenzone in their system, so it will take a long time to decrease this in the overall population. Oxybenzone isn’t the only dangerous ingredient on this list – some of the others found here affect thyroid hormones (source).
Don’t ignore the inactive ingredients as those can have negative effects on your health as well, including the same hormonal effects as those found in the active ingredients. When looking for the right sunscreen, avoid phthalates, parabens, synthetic dyes, preservatives, and fragrances (source).
Compared to those ingredients found in chemical sunscreens, minerals are very different. The two minerals that are allowed by the FDA are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.. Zinc oxide is much safer than titanium dioxide and takes care of both UVA and UVB rays (what we’d call broad spectrum protection), so I will be referring to zinc oxide only moving forward.
Instead of absorbing the UV rays into the skin, zinc oxide reflect them without the harsh side effects that the chemical sunscreens cause. You still need to be cautious not to inhale it or accidentally get it on your lips, but as far as the skin is concerned, it won’t be absorbed and is generally safe. You might be thinking, why isn’t everyone using zinc oxide and why are these dangerous chemical sunscreens even in existence?
First, it comes down to price. The safer a sunscreen is for you, the more expensive it tends to be. And let’s face it, not everyone can afford some of those better sunscreens, especially when so much of it needs to be applied to the skin. Second, the higher the content of zinc oxide, the more pasty-looking the cream is. This is known as a white cast. It’s hard to convince everyone of the dangers of skin cancer, so many people will inevitably choose the convenience of a sunscreen that’s easier to apply on their skin.
If you’re in need of sunscreen for a tropical vacation, it isn’t much of an issue. But if you’re looking for an everyday sunscreen to use under your make-up, then finding the right sunscreen will definitely be a process of trial and error before you find something that works for you.
(By the way, make-up with SPF already built in isn’t enough for most people. That’s because you need to apply a quarter of a teaspoon of it to your face to get the SPF that’s advertised. If you aren’t willing to smear this much make-up on your face, wear a separate sunscreen under your make-up instead.)
Beyond just looking at zinc oxide, you’ll have to find out what the other ingredients are to find the sunscreen that works best for you.
Pick a sunscreen that’s specific for you:
- Babies and others with sensitive skin – sunscreen labeled for babies. Also look for sunscreen without alcohol, as alcohol is one of the worst irritants in sunscreens for those with sensitive skin. Also make sure there are no parabens, preservatives or fragrance.
- If you have oily skin, avoid sunscreens that have oily ingredients.
- If you have dry skin, pick any mineral sunscreen, but also wear moisturizer under it to keep your skin hydrated.
Based on my research, there are quite a few mineral sunscreens that are generally safe to use. I’ve focused on three choices that are popular, readily available, and reasonably priced.
Badger SPF 30 Clear Zinc Sunscreen
This company produces its sunscreen in the US and only uses 5 total ingredients, which are all natural and give the product a 98% certified organic label. Badger uses a generous amount of zinc oxide for protection, which typically gives this sunscreen a thick, white consistency. Their Clear Zinc line seems to alleviate the white cast somewhat without compromising in the protection, which is why I chose it.
The company goes to great lengths to show that its sunscreen is organic, cruelty-free, hypoallergenic, biodegradable, among other benefits. It uses uncoated zinc oxide, which I don’t particularly like since uncoated zinc is known to be photoreactive. Badger states that it solves this problem by using larger particles of zinc oxide, rather than nanoparticles that can even get in your bloodstream. Besides this benefit, these larger zinc oxide particles (called non-nano) make the sunscreen less white, so it’s a win-win overall.
Keep in mind that one tube barely has 3 ounces, which is only enough to fully cover one person twice. So if you’re going on a family vacation or don’t want to run out quickly, you’ll need several tubes. Badger Clear Zinc is available at Amazon (check today’s price).
How Badger sunscreen is made:
Thinksport SPF 50 Plus Sunscreen
Another mineral-based sunscreen that’s popular is Thinksport SPF 50 Plus (check price). It goes on smoother than Badger does and leaves a less visible white cast. It too uses non-nano zinc oxide and is highly rated by the EWG.
It doesn’t contain the harmful chemicals that the average chemical sunscreen does and most of its ingredients are natural oils. Thinksport SPF 50 is a solid choice, but it isn’t certified organic. Some of its ingredients may not sit well with those who have sensitive skin. For example, dimethicone is known to cause skin rashes, itching and redness, although this is rare.
Blue Lizard SPF 30+ Sensitive Skin Sunscreen
This Blue Lizard sunscreen has been recommended on quite a few sites online, so I wanted to include it as well. Even though it’s formulated by dermatologists and might be a great solution for those with sensitive skin, I personally don’t like what’s on the back of the bottle.
First, the list of inactive ingredients is full of alcohols, which isn’t necessary. Second, instead of just using zinc oxide as the only active ingredient, Blue Lizard also contains 5% of titanium dioxide as another active ingredient. On the surface, this seems like a good idea because it takes away from the whiteness of the zinc oxide. But zinc oxide provides protection from both UVA and UVB light, while titanium dioxide only protects against UVB light. Titanium dioxide is also more reactive and creates free radicals.
Organic sunscreens are hard to come by, but they do exist. In terms of natural ingredients, the Badger SPF 30 Clear Zinc sunscreen is the clear winner. But no matter which sunscreen you choose, always make sure that it’s a mineral sunscreen and that you apply it generously and often. Avoid the dangerous chemical sunscreens at all costs and don’t forget to wear protective clothing and to shield yourself from direct sunlight as well.