Can I be honest here? When I hear something is ‘bad’, I kinda just want to pull a sheet over my head and call it a night. Trying to live clean can be overwhelming, there is so much territory to cover and figure out. Right? And that especially applies to sunscreen. Sunscreen felt big and gnarly to me. I just didn’t want to go there. Here’s how this goes for me: I find out something is ‘bad’, I figure out just enough to pick a better option, then I avoid the topic as much as humanly possible for a period of time, finally, I rip off the band-aid and dive into it like nobody’s business. So, that’s just what happened. The good news? I’m going to distill down my top take-aways right here.
Here is what I didn’t know:
UGH! Look, I understand how this term just gets tossed around and some people take it seriously while others may think of it as another fear-mongering thing. I have had my fair share of friends struggle with infertility and I bet you know (or maybe even have yourself) your fair share too. And then we could talk about hormone based cancers and take it to another level. My point is this is real. Oxybenzone is not your friend. Nor is it anybody’s friend. Even in small doses, this is a problem. Small doses daily all summer long? Bigger problem. (Homosalate and octinoxate are also known endocrine disruptors.)
Broad-Spectrum is a ‘loose’ term
Europe requires that the UVA protection be at least 1/3 that of the UVB protection to receive the term broad-spectrum. The U.S. debated setting similar standards, but in the end decided not to, leaving its standards much weaker. There aren’t many ingredients used in the U.S. that actually protect you against UVA rays, in fact just three. Avobenzone, Zinc oxide and to a lesser extent Titanium Dioxide. However, Avobenzone breaks down when UV rays hit it, meaning its protection is short-lived and it ends up creating free-radicals on your skin instead. (which leads to premature aging and damaged skin cells and DNA. No, thank you.)
SPF is highly variable
The SPF is highly dependent on how much you apply. Lab tests to determine SPF use extremely thick layers of sunscreen; it is unreasonable to imagine anyone applying that much in reality. In fact, even in lab tests they can come up with widely different SPF numbers for the exact same product on different days just through different applications. (This is a big reason why sprays are not recommended. It is hard to get a thick enough coating, not to mention the risks of inhalation.)
SPF above 50 is kinda like a unicorn.
The FDA has said for years that there actually shouldn’t be sunscreens listed with an SPF above 50 because it doesn’t exist. The U.S. doesn’t use ingredients that could have a higher SPF and when they ‘try’ those ingredients are actually not very stable (Octinoxate) once light hits them (awesome, right?). Unstable ingredients lead to free radicals on the skin which again leads to cell and DNA damage.
Sun Protective Ingredients Break Down in the Sun and Create Free Radicals
All active ingredients break down in the sun and end up creating free radicals. Zinc oxide does this the least, but this is something to think about with all of them. This is why you do want your sunscreen to have antioxidants in them, and you will often see a form of vitamin C or vitamin E included for this reason. The mineral forms of sunscreen (the non-nano forms of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) don’t get absorbed into the skin. However, for the chemical active ingredients to work properly, they must be paired with an ingredient than ultimately absorbs the ingredients into your skin. Which means the free radicals get pulled into your skin. Free radicals lead to cell and DNA damage and have the ability to actually speed up the growth of tumor cells.
Many of the active ingredients are known skin allergens.
Maybe you’ve heard the stories about people being ‘sensitive’ to sunscreen or even getting a chemical burn from them and it sounds pretty far-fetched, right? How can that be? Well, it turns out some of those common active ingredients (oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, and avobenzone) are well known skin-allergens and when we have to apply as much sunscreen as we do to allow it to be effective, it becomes a huge problem.
Here’s the good news. Zinc Oxide is one of the best active ingredients for broad-spectrum coverage and it is the only one without hormone disrupting properties or skin allergens and is photo-stable. Even better, there are so many options on the market today that don’t leave you with pasty white stuff all over you. Phew!
Here are a couple of things to know about Zinc Oxide (Seriously, sunscreen is complicated. geesh.)
- Choose Non-nano Particles. This means the zinc oxide is NOT small enough to penetrate into your skin and ultimately into your blood stream. This is good.
- Old bottles of sunscreen with zinc oxide can get separated and ultimately not protect you very well, or at all. As much as it is a pain, buy new each year to be safe.
- Sunscreen sticks are handy because they evenly distribute the zinc oxide and don’t separate. However, you MUST apply enough on the skin to be effective otherwise, they are in a similar category as the sprays.
So no matter what you use, be smart about how you use it. At the end of the day, the SPF number matters less and how you use the product matters more. Sunscreen is not an exact science by any means.
If you are looking for some new sunscreen as we kick off summer, here are some great options:
Beautycounter Protect All Over Sunscreen SPF 30 (This goes on so smooth!)
Face Lotion Options
Beautycounter Dew Skin SPF 20 (This is great for under makeup or as a stand alone)
Can’t Do Zinc Oxide? Try This one:
Primal Life Organics Sun-Up Before Sun Protector (This one uses Raspberry Seed Oil with a natural SPF of between 28-50. I kinda think all sunscreens should come with a range because that would be significantly more accurate.)
Want to read up on sunscreen too? The EWG just released their 2017 report and that’s where I’ve been hanging out the past few weeks:
There are also many, many options of safe sunscreens on the market. If you want to peruse all of the EWG’s recommendations head here:
So, sunscreen has a bucketload of moving pieces. This really did feel like I just opened a big ‘ol can of worms. There was still plenty more to say, like Oxybenzone’s effect on coral reefs (not good), how Titanium Dioxide may not be as photo-stable as zinc oxide and I didn’t even cover the retinyl palmitate (vit A) discussion. I certainly won’t look at any sunscreen the same again, but I’ll also think differently about how I use it. At the end of the day, the best sunscreen is still a hat, shirt and an umbrella.
Tell me, was this useful? What is your favorite sunscreen?
AFFILIATE LINK DISCLOSURE: Every now and again I include an affiliate link in my blog posts. If you choose to purchase through the link, I get a small commission which goes directly back to supporting my blog at no cost to you. I greatly appreciate your support in helping me continue blogging and I only ever recommend or link to a product I have direct experience with and love!