During the spring and summer months, most of us find ourselves more involved with outside activities for longer periods of time. When out in the sun for more than 15-30 minutes, it’s important to safely and effectively protect your skin. Finding a non-toxic and safe sunscreen that offers adequate protection is not always easy. The good news is that more and more non-toxic and safe sunscreens are hitting the market. Our 2022 updated article below contains important things to consider when choosing a safe sunscreen for you and your loved ones.
The Importance of Using a Safe Sunscreen
When choosing a non-toxic and safe sunscreen, look for a sunscreen product with non-toxic ingredients, one that is effective against UVA and UVB rays and is NON-GMO certified. Be careful of many popular and even some so-called safe sunscreens that may contain harmful chemicals that can enter your body through your skin. Finding a safe sunscreen always takes some time and effort. And most of us do not have an extensive chemistry background enabling us to determine which sunscreen ingredients are harmful and which sunscreen ingredients are safe. Before you make a sunscreen purchase, take time to go online to read labels and research the ingredients. A long list of chemical names that are difficult to pronounce most likely means you will be drenching your body in toxic chemicals during a time when skin pores will be open. And, of course, be especially careful what you put on your children’s skin.
Sunscreen Guidelines: What to Avoid When Choosing a Safe Sunscreen
Avoid Spray and Aerosol Sunscreens
Spray, and aerosol sunscreens can pose serious inhalation risks and lung injury. Even the FDA voices concern about spray sunscreens. While mineral blockers are usually considered a good alternative to other chemicals in sunscreens, that’s not the case with spray sunscreens. Be concerned with spray sunscreens that contain titanium dioxide. A 2006 report from the International Agency for Research on Carcinogens found that titanium dioxide is “possibly carcinogenic” to humans when inhaled. The EWG’s (environmental working group) report on nanoparticles says: “The lungs have difficulty clearing small particles, and the particles may pass from the lungs into the bloodstream. Insoluble nanoparticles that penetrate skin or lung tissue can cause extensive organ damage.” This may also be true in sprays containing zinc oxide. The take-away is to cross sunscreen sprays off your list.
Avoid Sunscreens with Benzene (Updated June 2021)
A new report by Valisure, an independent team of scientists that test the chemical composition of healthcare and medication products, indicates that benzene, a known cancer-causing chemical, was found in 78 sunscreen and after-sun products. According to Valisure, “27% of samples tested by Valisure contained detectable benzene, and some batches contained up to three times the conditionally restricted FDA concentration limit. Fourteen of the products (5%) contained benzene at levels higher than 2 parts per million (ppm), which is the FDA’s recommended limit for benzene in medically valuable drugs that can’t be made without it.” Exposure to high levels of benzene causes cancer in humans, particularly blood cancer, including leukemia. Valisure has petitioned the FDA to recall the 78 products and conduct further investigation into the manufacturing of these products. A complete list of the sunscreen products containing benzene can be found in the petition link above. Almost all 14 sunscreen products that show benzene levels above 2 ppm were sprays; however, benzene was also found in lotions and sunburn-relief gels.
Avoid Super-High SPFs
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and refers only to UVB protection. Higher numbers often tempt people to stay in the sun longer than they should – in other words, a false sense of security. Anything higher than 50 SPF is most likely not a good idea, and the FDA calls them “inherently misleading.”
Avoid Oxybenzone and Other Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (Update)
Often used in sunscreens, oxybenzone penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream, and can mimic estrogen in the body. It can also trigger allergic reactions. Data are preliminary, but studies have found a link between higher concentrations of oxybenzone and health concerns. One study has linked oxybenzone to endometriosis in older women; another study found that women with higher levels of oxybenzone during pregnancy had lower birth weight daughters.
In 2019 FDA proposed that oxybenzone could not be classified as safe and effective based on the current data. The FDA stated that although oxybenzone is one of the more thoroughly tested sunscreen ingredients, additional data is needed because existing tests raise health concerns. Of particular concern to the FDA were test results showing:
- Oxybenzone is allergenic.
- It is absorbed through the skin in large amounts.
- It has been detected in human breast milk, amniotic fluid, urine, and blood.
- It is a potential endocrine disruptor.
- Children may be more vulnerable than adults to harm from oxybenzone “because of the potential for higher absorption and bioaccumulation.”
- The agency requested studies of oxybenzone that measure skin absorption and potential impacts on hormone levels, reproduction, and development.
Four studies published in 2020, after the FDA proposal, support earlier findings that oxybenzone may act as an endocrine disruptor and may increase the risk of breast cancer and endometriosis. If safe sunscreen is important to you, skip those that list oxybenzone as an ingredient.
Chemical Ingredients to Avoid
Please avoid the following toxic chemical ingredients, which can be found in some safe sunscreen products: Avobenzone, parabens, fragrance (it can have up to 1500 toxic chemicals hidden behind the term fragrance), homosalate, and propylene glycol.
Avoid Retinyl Palmitate
According to government studies, retinyl palmitate may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions on sun-exposed skin. Why is this “inactive ingredient” allowed in sunscreens intended for use in the sun? Good question. The FDA has yet to rule on the safety of retinyl palmitate in skin care products, but EWG recommends that consumers be proactive and avoid sunscreens containing this chemical.
Avoid Combined Sunscreen/Bug Repellents
Bugs are typically not a concern during the hours when UV exposure peaks. Sunscreen usually needs re-application more frequently than repellent, or vice versa. Studies suggest that combining sunscreens and repellents leads to increased skin absorption of the repellent ingredients – many of which are toxic.
Avoid Sunscreen Towelettes or Powders
The FDA’s sunscreen rules bar sunscreen wipes and powders. But some small online retailers are still offering towelettes and powders in what they call safe sunscreen. Please don’t buy them. Why? Dubious sun protection. Besides, inhaling loose powders can cause lung irritation or other harm.
Avoid Tanning Oils
Tanning oils are simply a bad idea. If they contain sunscreen ingredients, the levels are always deficient and offer little, if any, sun protection. Don’t buy products with SPF values lower than 15, nor those without zinc oxide UVA protection.
Skin Care with Added Sunscreen
This is an area in which women and men should be extremely watchful. Many skin care products boast of containing an added safe sunscreen for anti-aging benefits. However, the same ingredient guidelines for sunscreen apply to skincare products. Often the added sunscreen contains the same toxic ingredients as most sunscreen formulas. Add those ingredients to the already toxic ingredients of most skincare products, and you are actually getting a double whammy of toxic chemicals.
Many homemade sunscreen recipes floating around promote essential oils, especially red raspberry seed oil and carrot seed oil, for adequate SPF protection. I notice more social media posts about adults and children experiencing sunburns after using these homemade essential oil sunscreens. According to essential oil expert and author, Robert Tisserand, “𝗧𝗵𝗲𝗿𝗲 𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝗻𝗼 𝗲𝘀𝘀𝗲𝗻𝘁𝗶𝗮𝗹 𝗼𝗶𝗹𝘀 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗺𝗲𝗮𝗻𝗶𝗻𝗴𝗳𝘂𝗹𝗹𝘆 𝗳𝗶𝗹𝘁𝗲𝗿 𝗨𝗩 𝗿𝗮𝘆𝘀.” This also includes carrier oils such as coconut, olive, and grapeseed. If you are in the sun for long periods of time, some very effective, non-toxic, chemical-free sunscreens are available with proven SPF protection. Do your research to find one that meets the needs of your family. When used with a carrier oil, the good news is that some essential oils are very effective for 𝗮𝗳𝘁𝗲𝗿-𝘀𝘂𝗻 skincare. 𝗡𝗼𝘁𝗲: The research often quoted about red raspberry seed oil says in part: “𝘙𝘢𝘴𝘱𝘣𝘦𝘳𝘳𝘺 𝘴𝘦𝘦𝘥 𝘰𝘪𝘭 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘸𝘦𝘥 𝘢𝘣𝘴𝘰𝘳𝘣𝘢𝘯𝘤𝘦 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘜𝘝-𝘉 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘜𝘝-𝘊 𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘦𝘴 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 *𝘱𝘰𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘢𝘭* 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘶𝘴𝘦 𝘢𝘴 𝘢 𝘣𝘳𝘰𝘢𝘥 𝘴𝘱𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘳𝘶𝘮 𝘜𝘝 𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘵𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘢𝘯𝘵.” Potential does not mean that it works or is an effective sunscreen.
How to Choose a Safe Sunscreen
Choose Zinc Oxide
The safest sunscreens use zinc oxide as the active ingredient. Look for Zinc Oxide sunscreen levels over 18% on the back label for proper protection. It provides strong sun protection, doesn’t break down in the sun, and offers good protection from the sun’s UVA rays. A recent real-world study tested penetration of zinc oxide particles of 19 and 110 nanometers on human volunteers who applied sunscreens twice daily for five days (Gulson 2010). Researchers found that less than 0.01 percent of the zinc from either particle size entered the bloodstream. Separately, a European Union review found that sunscreen users did not demonstrate elevated blood zinc levels (EU 2012).
Choose Safe Sunscreen with Natural Base Ingredients
Read the label and research the ingredients. The safest sunscreens will include organic and safe ingredients that provide hydration, antioxidants, high levels of moisture, vitamins, and minerals. These qualities battle skin damage on the cellular level from free radicals generated by the sun and other carcinogens long after environmental exposure.
Choose NON-GMO Verified
Non-GMO Verified means that all the ingredients are free of harmful GMOs.
Choose Sunscreen Labelled Broad Spectrum
In the past, the SPF number only included the UVB protection index. SPF now has relevance for UVA1 and UVA2 protection. The rating is now proportional to both UVA and UVB rays. This means that if a product claims to provide “Broad Spectrum Protection,” the SPF will indicate the relative protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Currently, there are 18 FDA-approved active ingredients in sunscreen that protect from the sun. These ingredients generally offer adequate UVB protection, but only four offer UVA protection: Avobenzone, Mexoryl SX, Titanium Dioxide, and Zinc Oxide. Of these four, only Zinc Oxide can physically block the entire range of UVA and UVB rays.
Choose Water and Sweat Resistant beyond 80 Minutes
This will allow you to spend more time in the water without getting out every 30 minutes to reapply sunscreen. Many people forget about the time when they are having fun. Set your watch to remind you.
Choose Hypoallergenic Sunscreen
Choosing hypoallergenic sunscreen products is always a good idea, especially if you have family members prone to any allergies. Once again, reading the ingredient list is imperative.
Choose Sunscreen that is Safe for Adults and Children
If you plan to use a sunscreen product for the entire family, make sure that the label clearly indicates that it’s safe for adults and children.
Time in the Sun
There is really no good reason to apply sunscreen if your time in the sun is less than 15-30 minutes (depending upon skin type) at a time. Your body needs sun every day for adequate Vitamin D3 production. The most natural way to get vitamin D is by exposing your bare skin to sunlight (ultraviolet B rays). In the summer, this can happen fairly quickly, depending on your type of skin. You don’t need to tan or burn to get Vitamin D. Exposing your skin for around half the time it takes for your skin to turn pink is usually adequate for Vitamin D production. Normally, this amount of time is just 15 minutes for a very fair-skinned person and maybe a couple of hours or more for a dark-skinned person. Again, individual times will vary. The body can produce 10,000 to 25,000 IU of vitamin D in just a little under the time it takes for your skin to turn pink. It’s also important to know the body makes the most vitamin D when a large area of skin, such as the back, rather than a small area such as the face or arms, is exposed to the sun. Remember, the sun should never be feared; every one of us requires the sun to remain healthy. It is truly life-giving.
Research and More Information
Plum LA and Deluca HF. The Functional Metabolism and Molecular Biology of Vitamin D Action. In Vitamin D: Physiology, Molecular Biology and Clinical Applications by Holick MF. Humana Press, 2010.
Reichrath J and Reichrath S. Hope and challenge: the importance of ultraviolet radiation for cutaneous vitamin D synthesis and skin cancer. Scandinavian Journal of Clinical and Laboratory Investigation, 2012.
Rettner, Rachael. Cancer-causing chemical found in 78 sunscreen products. LiveScience. June 2021.
C. A. Downs et. al, Benzophenone Accumulates over Time from the Degradation of Octocrylene in Commercial Sunscreen Products. Chemical Research in Toxicology, 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acs.chemrestox.0c00461
Z.D. Draelos, Are Sunscreens Safe? Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 2010, 9:1-2.
European SCCS, Opinion on Vitamin A (Retinol, Retinyl Acetate, Retinyl Palmitate). Adopted Oct. 6, 2016. Available at ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/scientific_committees/consumer_safety/docs/sccs_o_199.pdf
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace your doctor’s advice. Oasis Advanced Wellness/OAWHealth does not dispense medical advice, prescribe, or diagnose illness. The views and nutritional advice expressed by Oasis Advanced Wellness/OAWHealth are not intended to be a substitute for conventional medical service. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician of choice.