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Warm weather means two important things: 1.) ice cream cake, and 2.) more time in the sun! Luckily, I’ve got you covered on both fronts, because today I’m going to give you the scoop on the latest research in safe sunscreen, why safe sunscreen is important, and some of the best safe mineral sunscreen options for adults and kids.
I’ve been passionate about sunscreen for years—specifically mineral vs chemical sunscreens—because everyone uses sunscreen, and it’s something we slather on our kids daily. Many people have sunscreen in their medicine cabinets, but haven’t considered what’s on the label.
As it turns out, there’s a big problem with many of the sunscreens on the market. In 2020, the FDA admitted popular chemical UV filters aren’t safe, but isn’t requiring manufacturers do anything about it. Yes, you read that right.
So, what does this mean for you? And which sunscreens are actually safe for you and your family to use? I’ve got all the answers below!
Chemical vs Mineral Sunscreens
Sunscreens are classified as either chemical or physical. Chemical sunscreens contain one or a combination of different chemical UV filters, including avobenzone, octisalate, and oxybenzone. Chemical sunscreen absorb into the skin and act like a sponge and absorb UV rays. Then, they covert them into heat and release them from the body.
Physical sunscreens, also known as mineral sunscreens, create a barrier on the surface of the skin to physically bounce or reflect the sun’s rays. In other words, they do not penetrate the skin. The two mineral UV filters are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
The bad news? Many chemical UV filters, which are most commonly used in sunscreens, have endocrine disrupting effects and aren’t proven to be safe. Organizations like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) have been calling attention to the safety issues with chemical UV filters for decades.
For example, oxybenzone, which is found in 40% of chemical sunscreens on the market, is linked to hormone disruption, breast cancer, negative birth outcomes, reduced male fertility, and possibly cancer. It’s also linked to the killing off of coral reefs. Four other popular chemical UV filters, including octinoxate, homosalate, octocrylene, and avobenzone, are all linked to endocrine disruption, meaning they can blocks or alter proper hormone function in the body.
Then, in 2019, the FDA dropped a bombshell. It released the final draft on sunscreens monograph, which states that there is “insufficient health and safety data” to designate chemical sunscreen filters allowed for use in the US as “generally recognized as safe and effective,” or GRASE. According to the FDA, the only two active sunscreen ingredients that are currently GRASE are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are the two mineral UV filters.
The Trouble with Ingredients in Sunscreen
So, what makes chemical filters potentially harmful? The FDA changed its tune because of new research that revealed the four most common UV filters in chemical sunscreens—avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule—are absorbed by the body in substantial amounts after a single use.
This research also revealed widely used chemical UV filters circulate in the bloodstream for days after application.
Then, in February 2020, the FDA dropped yet another bombshell. It released new testing that showed chemical UV filters are detectable on the skin and in the bloodstream weeks after application. Blood tests showed concentrations of oxybenzone were more than 180 times the FDA’s level of concern after a single application. They soared to more than 500 times after four days of regular use.
As you might expect, this is highly problematic. These active ingredients are linked to things like endocrine disruption, cancer, and negative birth outcomes. If you’re applying these ingredients to your skin daily as recommended, you could have 500 times the FDA’s level of concern circulating in your body in less than a week.
Other Not So Safe Sunscreen Ingredients
Besides the active ingredients, sunscreens also contain other ingredients to make them lightweight, smooth, and wearable. While mineral filters are safe, you also want to make sure that your sunscreen doesn’t contain known harmful ingredients such as parabens, phthalates, sodium laureth sulfate, and fragrance.
It’s also incredibly important to avoid sunscreen that contains vitamin A, also called retinyl palmitate. Research has demonstrated that retinyl palmitate may speed the growth of skin tumors when applied to skin in the presence of sunlight.
Mineral Sunscreen and Nanoparticles
To create mineral-based sunscreens that are both usable and effective, manufacturers often use nanosized versions of minerals. Nanoparticles are measured in nanometers, which are equal to one billionth of a meter. Given that a strand of human hair is about 80,000 nanometers thick, that’s pretty tiny.
When it comes to mineral sunscreens, size may matter. Research suggests nanoparticles of minerals do not penetrate the skin in significant amounts, which is why they’re GRASE. However, more research is needed to understand how nanoparticles may impact human health if they’re introduced into our bodies, specifically when inhaled or ingested.
Because of this, I recommended looking for a non-nano mineral based sunscreen, especially if you’re using one that has a spray technology. A non-nano particle is larger than 100 nanometers.
Safe Sunscreen, SPF, and Broad Spectrum
The higher the SPF, the better, right? Well, not really. An SPF of 100 doesn’t actually give you “double” the protection as SPF 50. SPF 50 blocks about 98% of UVB radiation, and SPF 100 blocks about 99%. People who wear higher SPF actually tend to spend more time in the sun and have a higher risk of getting burned. In 2011, the FDA said sunscreens with SPF values greater than 50 “inherently misleading.”
It’s also important to note that high-SPF products require higher concentrations of UV filters. Some of these chemical UV filters have known health concerns. You still need to apply it just as often, which means you’ll be applying more harmful ingredients to your skin more often without significant benefit.
Another important factor? SPF only measures UVB radiation. It doesn’t say anything about deeper penetrating UVA radiation, which may also contribute to skin cancer. In fact, sunscreen manufacturers in the US aren’t required to disclose information about the level of UVA protection. EWG testing estimates that 30% of sunscreens provide insufficient protection against UVA radiation.
Ultimately, choosing a broad spectrum mineral sunscreen that blocks UVA, UVB, and HEV (blue) light is best. A sunscreen that contains at least 15% zinc oxide will provide excellent protection against both UVA and UVB radiation.
How to Protect Yourself From the Sun Safely
While the FDA has asked manufacturers to do more testing, that testing hasn’t been done. Instead of the FDA cracking down on the testing requirement, in April of 2020, they did the opposite. Legislation was added to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that mandated sunscreen ingredients maintain status as being safe and effective without further testing.
This means we as consumers must advocate for ourselves when it comes to safe sunscreen, and reducing our exposure to harmful ingredients. Here’s how you can do that:
1. Eat foods that provide natural sun protection
Who’s up for eating your sunscreen? Foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, sardines, and eggs have been shown to reduce inflammation, protect cells from free radical damage, and may protect against certain types of skin cancer.
Long-term vitamin C intake (along with vitamin E) has been shown to reduce sunburns, and foods high in Vitamin C, specifically citrus fruits, contain compounds that can significantly reduce your risk of skin cancer.
2. Be smart about sun exposure
Striking the perfect balance of just enough sun and not too much is tricky business. You want to make sure you’re exposing your skin to the sun on a regular basis so that your skin is able to synthesize the appropriate amount of vitamin D, but you don’t want that exposure to lead to redness or a burn.
As a general rule of thumb, exposing your skin to about 15 minutes of direct sun a day is enough to provide sufficient vitamin D if you aren’t already deficient. You can also supplement with vitamin D3/K2 orally if needed.
3. Protect yourself with safe mineral sunscreen and UPF clothing
The only two active sunscreen ingredients that are currently considered safe are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are the two mineral UV filters.
While some mineral sunscreens may contain a blend of these two active ingredients, zinc oxide alone is sufficient. Zinc oxide is the only single active ingredient that offers protection from UVA and UVB radiation. Look for a mineral sunscreen that has at least 15% zinc oxide, which provides excellent protection against UVB and UVA rays.
If you do find yourself in the sun quite a bit, the best way to protect yourself is to cover up with UPF swimsuits, shirts, and hats. This is especially important for kids. My kids wear long-sleeve UPF 50+ swimsuits, and a UPF 50+ hat anytime they’re outside.
6 Best Clean and Non-Toxic Safe Sunscreens in 2021
Looking for the best mineral sunscreens that aren’t sticky, chalky, or greasy? I’ve got you covered! Here are my top 5 mineral sunscreens that contain no questionable ingredients and sufficient zinc oxide to give you both UVA and UVB protection.
Countersun is what I use personally for myself and my kids. It’s a non-nano mineral-based sunscreen with antioxidant-rich California Poppy to protect against damaging UVA, UVB, and Blue Light. Countersun is also designed to reinforce the skin’s defenses against oxidation, so it also contains anti-aging properties. My favorite part? There is NO white film!
In my experience, most people have bad experiences with mineral sunscreen because they’re not using sunscreen specifically formulated for the face. The Countersun Sheer Defense For Face SPF 25 is lightweight, sheer, and EWG verified. Use the face sunscreen daily, and the SPF body lotion when you’re outside. It also comes in a spray and stick, and there are tinted options.
Suntegrity has a wide variety of safe non-nano zinc oxide mineral sunscreen products, including a Natural Mineral Sunscreen for Body, and a Face Sunscreen and Primer that is sheer and lightweight. It isn’t greasy, and they have a variety of products that easily fit into your routine. All of the products only include safe ingredients, and they have a nice smell while still being fragrance-free.
Biossance Zinc Sheer Mineral Sunscreen is a non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen that is lightweight, sheer, and EWG verified. This is a great option for people with sensitive and dry skin. It contains no harmful ingredients, and blends in easily.
Juice Beauty SPF 30 Oil-Free Moisturizer is an oil-free sunscreen lotion that provides sufficient zinc oxide protection. The label is clean, and it blends and absorbs quickly without clogging pores. As a head’s up, this one does tend to leave a white cast, but disappears after about 10 minutes. I recommend only using this one on your body as it’s a little bit thicker. For your face, use their Sheer Tinted Mineral Sunscreen.
My top pick for kids, Thinkbaby Mineral Sunscreen uses non-nano zinc oxide in sufficient amounts. It’s specifically designed for kids, so it’s super gentle and very effective. I’ve used this personally on my kids on vacation, and it works really well. It does leave a bit of a white cast, but kids don’t mind. It comes as a lotion or stick.
Is Your Sunscreen is Safe?
Already bought sunscreen and want to see how it stacks up? Check out the EWG Guide to Sunscreen. It provides a searchable list of many common sunscreens and rates them as to how safe they are. Go through your closet now, toss the ones that aren’t safe, check expiration dates, and stock up on plenty of safe sunscreen for the sunny months ahead!
I’d love to hear from you if you give any of these a try, especially if you make the swap to safer sunscreen. Leave a comment below if you have questions!