It's summer again and we all want to protect our skin. And preventing sunburns on our kids goes without saying. We don't want to deal with the sunburn, sun spots and otherwise damaged skin. But at the same time, we don't want to be spraying our kids with (and inhaling) toxic sunscreen ingredients.
So, which brands are safe? Some brands that you would think are natural or organic are misleading and contain toxic chemical ingredients.
How can you tell if you are using toxic sunscreen?
It is the ingredients of course and not just the base of the formula, but the active ingredients. Dr. Oz did a great short interview on Dr. Andrew Weil where they discuss the difference between chemical and physical mineral based sunscreens. Click here to watch this short and easy explanation by these doctors. Understanding the difference in the 2 categories of sunscreens is very important.
While the physical, or mineral, sunscreens talked about in the interview create a protective layer on the skin, chemical sunscreens are absorbed through the skin. Physical or mineral sunscreens use only one or two active ingredients - zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. That is all. There is a long list of chemical sunscreen active ingredients, including some of the more widely used ones listed below:
Oxybenzone - in addition to high rates of skin allergies, it acts like estrogen in the body, alters sperm production in animals and has been associated with endometriosis in women. It penetrates through the skin and studies have found it present in mother's milk of nursing mothers.
Octinoxate (otherwise called Octylmethoxycinnamate) - moderate skin allergies are connected, in addition to alteration of hormone activity, reproductive issues, and thyroid and behavioral alterations in animal studies.
Homosalate - disrupts natural hormones - estrogen, androgen and progesterone.
As for other (inactive) ingredients commonly found in toxic sunscreen, here are a few of the most common ones:
PABA - becoming less commonly used in sunscreen and skincare products after it was found to cause photo sensitivity and allergic reactions including rash and sores. PABA also stains clothing.
Retinyl Palmitate - studies suggest that this ingredient commonly found in toxic sunscreen may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight. For more information, check out this article from the EWG.
Parabens - these commonly used preservatives, (commonly butyl-, ethyl-, methyl-, and propyl-) are associated with both acute and chronic side effects. They can induce allergic reactions, hormone disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity.
What about SPF ratings?
Well, even this is an ever-evolving topic in physical and toxic sunscreens alike.
The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) displayed a sunscreen label ranges from 2 to as high as 100 and refers to the product's ability to screen or block out the sun's harmful rays. For example, with the use of an SPF 10 product, you can be in the sun 10 times longer without burning as you would without any sunscreen. It is important to know that SPF protection does not increase proportionally with an increased SPF number. For example, while an SPF of 2 will absorb 50% of ultraviolet radiation, an SPF of 15 absorbs 93% and an SPF of 34 absorbs 97%.
In 2014 the FDA changed its regulations, limiting the label of sunscreens to a maximum of SPF 50+. The market was filled with sunscreen brands marketing their SPF 75 and SPF 100 sunscreens. Consumers have a limited understanding that this doesn't mean more protection from the sun. Rather, it meant marginally longer protection.
The FDA suggests using a sunscreen with broad-spectrum and an SPF of 15 or higher regularly and as directed.
Dermatologists strongly recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF 15 or greater year-round for all skin types. If you are fair-skinned or sunburn easily, you may want a sunscreen with a higher SPF to provide additional protection. All sunscreens need to be reapplied, so follow the guidelines written on the bottle.
Waterproof vs. Water-Resistant
This too is something that the FDA changed their regulations on and as of January 2013 sunscreen products were no longer permitted to be labeled "waterproof." The FDA regulates manufacturers and disallows them from making claims that sunscreens are “waterproof” or “sweat-proof.” So as long as you are going in the water, be sure to use a water-resistant sunscreen for proper protection.
Clear Sunscreen vs. Mineral Sunscreen
Well, this is another question to raise and a good one. Many of us mineral sunscreen brands hear the complaints: "it goes on white" or "it leaves a white hue" and with mineral sunscreens, this is completely normal. Non-nano zinc particles are bigger and with good reason. Zinc and Titanium Dioxide can penetrate the skin when in nano-particle form. So it is important to get a non-nano particle sunscreen. Yes, they take a little more rubbing, however, the whiteness does go away. It is just a sacrifice that has to be made.
Clear sunscreens are almost always chemical sunscreens or contain nanoparticles. And spray sunscreens almost always fit into the "toxic sunscreen" category. Why? Because it is hard to spray minerals and mineral sunscreens must be rubbed to create a protective coating on the skin. So, that film you are seeing, that is your sunscreen. It sits on the surface of your skin reflecting UVA and UVB rays.
Now let's talk about specific brands you may have thought were safe...
Let's be honest here. Some brands have names that automatically make you think that they are natural or organic. And many of these are misleading. And of course most of the big and cheap sunscreen brands you can almost guarantee are toxic sunscreens. But just because the sunscreen you are purchasing has a high price tag or is made by a brand you may have thought was natural, always check your ingredients.
Alba Botanica - Unfortunately this brand uses chemical active ingredients in almost all of their sunscreen products. Most of their other products are on point, but oh no, not their sunscreen.
BabyGanics - Yes, even this brand, whose name suggests "organic" has on the market a "Mineral Based" sunscreen that contains the active ingredients: Zinc Oxide (11.2 %), Octinoxate (7.5 %), Octisalate (5.0 %)
Banana Boat - You guessed it. Most everything they have on the market would be classified as a toxic sunscreen. They also use parabens for preservatives.
Blue Lizard - Many consumers consider this sunscreen in the natural sunscreen category. While it's active ingredients are good, it is their inactive ingredients that are toxic with PEGs, Parabens, Propylene Glycol and other such no-good ingredients.
Coppertone - Yes, yes, this one too is definitely a toxic sunscreen. They use not only toxic ingredients, but inactive ingredients also.
EltaMD - While this brand doesn't tend to market themselves as a natural products brand, their 1.7oz sunscreen sells for well over $25. With that you would expect some high end ingredients. However, their active ingredients includes Octinoxate 7.5% and other not-so-great inactive ingredients.
Neutrogena - Uses oxybenzone and other toxic sunscreen active ingredients in almost all of their sunscreen products. This is on top of the many toxic inactive ingredients and preservatives.
No-AD - The name of this brand suggests that maybe they didn't add anything else... Think again. Almost every single one of their sunscreen products is chock full of toxic active and inactive ingredients. Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Parabens and you name it.
Sun Bum - This well packaged sunscreen is marketed to kids and adults and looks very nice. The ingredients are far from good. They use only chemical and toxic sunscreen active ingredients and the inactive ingredients also leave something to be desired. Just one read through their ingredients list and you are lucky to find one ingredient that you have heard of: Avobenzone 3.00%, Homosalate 5.00%, Octisalate 3.00%, Octocrylene 2.75%, Oxybenzone 4.00%. , behenyl alcohol, bht, butyloctyl salicylate, caprylyl methicone, dimethicone, dimethyl capramide, disodium edta, ethylhexyl stearate, ethylhexylglycerin, fragrance, glyceryl stearate, methylisothiazolinone, peg-100 stearate, polyaminopropyl biguanide, polyester-8, silica, sodium polyacrylate, styrene/acrylates copolymer, tocopheryl acetate, trideceth-6, trimethyl siloxysilicate, vp/hexadecene copolyme.
Here is the Enviornmental Working Groups 2015 Hall of Shame. For the complete list, click here.
11 Worst Spray Sunscreens
These sunscreens are aerosol sprays with SPFs above 50+ and the harmful additives oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.
- Banana Boat Clear UltraMist Ultra Defense MAX Skin Protect
- Continuous Spray Sunscreen, SPF 110
- Coppertone Sport High-Performance AccuSpray Sunscreen, SPF 70
- Coppertone Sport High-Performance Clear Continuous Spray Sunscreen, SPF 100+
- CVS Clear Spray Sunscreen, SPF 100
- CVS Sheer Mist Spray Sunscreen, SPF 70
- CVS Sport Clear Spray Sunscreen, SPF 100+
- CVS Wet & Dry Sunscreen Spray, SPF 85
- Neutrogena Fresh Cooling Sunscreen Body Mist, SPF 70
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100+
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist Sunscreen Spray, SPF 70
- Neutrogena Wet Skin Sunscreen Spray, SPF 85+
12 Worst Sunscreen Lotions
These sunscreen lotions claim SPFs above 50+ and contain oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.
- Banana Boat Sport Performance Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
- Coppertone Sport High-Performance Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
- Coppertone Sport High-Performance Sunscreen, SPF 75
- Coppertone Sport Sunscreen Stick, SPF 55
- Coppertone Ultra Guard Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 70+
- CVS Sport Sunstick Sunscreen, SPF 55
- CVS Sun Lotion Sunscreen, SPF 100
- CVS Sun Lotion Sunscreen, SPF 70
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Daily Liquid Sunscreen, SPF 70
- NO-AD Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 60
- NO-AD Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 85
- Ocean Potion Protect & Nourish Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 70
So What Brands Are Safe?
There are several safe brands out there, including ones that are easy to purchase and don't break the bank. Simply read the drug facts on the back of the packaging. The active ingredients should only contain Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide (or both) and the inactive ingredients should be words you can pronounce.
Beauty by Earth facial, tinted facial, and body sunscreens are free from toxins. Instead, the formula has a mineral non-nano zinc oxide base. You'll be able to protect yourself without comprising your health or the environment.
We hope this helped you in better understanding sunscreens and what makes up a toxic sunscreen. Your best bet, regardless of how "green" the packaging may look or how high the price tag is to always read the ingredients.
So the best and most effective sunscreens that are not toxic will:
- Use Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide (or both) as the only active ingredients
- Have an SPF rating of 15-50
- Do not contain Parabens, Retinyl Palmitate or PABA
- Have inactive ingredients you can understand that nourish the skin (aloe vera, butters, oils and plant extracts)
- Do not contain nano-particles
- Does not come in a spray form
Here is another great resource for tips on staying safe in the sun and using non toxic sunscreen from Smell The Roses Lifestyle Blog.