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Is Your Sunscreen Safe?

mother applying sunblock to little girl's nose

Did you know that research shows that 97% of Americans have toxic sunscreen chemicals in their blood? Anything that you put on your skin can enter your bloodstream, and most sunscreens have ingredients that are known to cause harm to people and aquatic life within just one hour of application.

Here’s how to find a sunscreen that is safe and non-toxic for both you and the ocean.

If you have sensitive skin like me, you know never to blindly trust the chemicals in most cosmetics and skin care products. However, even after reading the back of every sunscreen bottle at the natural food store, I found myself frustrated and disappointed.

It turned out that all of the so-called “green” and “organic” brands had at least one highly questionable chemical ingredient in them!

Why should anyone have to trade short-term protection for long-term harm?

Beware Petrochemical Ingredients

Most FDA-approved petrochemical-based sunscreens include one or more of the following:

  • Octylmethoxycinnamate
  • Oxybenzone
  • P-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
  • Cinoxate
  • Dioxybenzone
  • Ensulizole
  • Emcasule
  • Homosalate
  • Menthyl anthranilate
  • Octocrylene
  • Octyl dimethyl PABA
  • Octyl salicylate
  • Sulisobenzone
  • Trolamine salicylate
  • Avobenzone, also known as Parsol 1789
  • Tterephthalylidene dicamphor sulfonic acid, also known as Mexoryl SX.

Because they are applied to your skin, all of the petrochemical-based sunscreens are absorbed into your bloodstream in amounts higher than any other petrochemical contaminant found in our air, water or food.

Petrochemical-based sunscreens can have side effects because many mimic estrogen’s effects in our bodies. They also don’t biodegrade, and therefore accumulate in the watershed everywhere we swim, damaging aquatic ecosystems and coral reefs.

All of these petrochemical ingredients are cumulatively toxic, and by using them again and again, you trade UV damage for chemical damage in the long term.

In fact, a 2000 Swedish study concluded that higher rates of melanoma occurred in those who used sunscreen versus those who did not.

Parents need to know that NONE of the petrochemical sunscreen ingredients listed above are FDA approved for use on children and babies. In fact, none of these compounds are tested for SPF on children’s skin, so products that use these ingredients and are marketed as “baby” formulas are misleading you.

Unfortunately, these petrochemicals are found in virtually all major brand names, and even in many of the “eco” brands found at the health food store.

No one should have to choose between skin cancer and breast cancer!

Mineral Sunscreens

There are two FDA-approved mineral sunscreens: Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide. Zinc Oxide is the only ingredient approved for use on babies and children, and is also the main ingredient in most diaper creams.

Zinc oxide is better than titanium dioxide in sunscreens for the following reasons:

  1. Zinc oxide has a broader UVA and UVB absorbance spectrum than Titanium dioxide, so it provides better UVA protection.
  2. Zinc oxide is safer because it creates fewer free radicals than Titanium dioxide.
  3. Zinc oxide is the only active ingredient approved for use on babies under 6 months of age; Titanium dioxide is not.
  4. Zinc oxide is made from a critical mineral nutrient that’s also found in many multivitamins; Titanium dioxide is made from a toxic heavy metal.

Micronized vs. Nanoparticles

Nanoparticles are defined as having a diameter of less than 100 nanometers, (0.1 millionth of a meter) which is about the size of a virus. Micronized particles, on the other hand, are defined as having a diameter of less than 100 microns, (0.1 thousandth of a meter) which is about the width of a human hair.

Micronized mineral sunscreens have been on the market for decades, and have a lot of supportive data on their safety. Nanoparticle mineral sunscreens, however, are very new and have been marketed by chemical manufacturers as an innovative way to make their formulas less whitening on your skin.

The problem with nano sunscreens is that the long-term safety of these particles is unknown, and some recent scientific studies, including one published in Scientific American, have demonstrated these particles can damage aquatic ecosystems when they wash off of your body. Other potential issues include elevated skin penetration and free radical creation in the body.

Manufacturers often market their nanoparticle sunscreens under the “micronized” umbrella, since technically nanoparticles have been micronized very finely. This is dishonest marketing. Unfortunately, the only way you can tell if a manufacturer is not using nanoparticles, is if they say it’s “Non-Nano.” Look for that on the label.

Toxic Additives

Many sunscreens—even the ones without petrochemical or nano-sized ingredients—can have questionable or toxic additives. Synthetic vitamin A, sometimes called Retinyl palmitate or retinol, is added to many sunscreens and cosmetic products as an antioxidant, anti-aging ingredient.

Unfortunately Retinyl palmitate has photo-toxic and photocarcinogenic properties, according to several studies. In other words, when exposed to sunlight, the synthetic vitamin A in sunscreens and cosmetics does the opposite of what it is supposed to do, and becomes harmful to your skin, potentially encouraging the growth of tumors.

Many sunscreens also contain preservatives, parabens and other chemical additives you really want to avoid consuming. After all, skin is very absorbent, and anything you put on your skin goes directly into your bloodstream. (Which is precisely why some medicines are administered in patch form.)

Is Sunscreen Really Necessary?

The answer is “maybe,” and only when you can’t control how much sun you are exposed to. For instance, if you work outside all day as part of your job, if you plan on spending the whole day at the beach, or if you need to protect sensitive areas of your face, like around your eyes, that are particularly susceptible to photo-aging, it’s smart to use a safe, non-toxic sunscreen.

Even smarter still, is to have an umbrella, a hat, and protective clothing.

But under most circumstances, you don’t want to block your body’s ability to produce vitamin D, and should go without sunscreen. The fact is, getting some sun exposure every day is one of the best things you can do for your health.

Sun exposure allows your body to naturally produce your own supply of vitamin D, and experts agree that this is the best form of vitamin D you can get.

Moderate daily sun exposure has also been shown to help protect against as many as 16 different types of cancer, including; skin (yes, ironically), breast, colon, endometrial, esophageal, ovarian, bladder, gallbladder, gastric, pancreatic, prostate, rectal, and renal cancers, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

A recent study conducted by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, followed nearly 30,000 women over 20 years, and found results that suggest mortality rate is higher for people who stay out of the sun than those who don’t.

Optimizing your vitamin D levels can literally cut your risk of several cancers in half!

You’ll need to expose more than just your face and hands to get optimal vitamin D though. In fact, you really need to expose your face, full arms, hands, legs from knee down and feet—or about 40% of your body—to get enough of this essential vitamin. But do the best you can.

The point to remember is that once your skin turns the lightest shade of pink (if you’re lighter skinned), or begins to darken just a shade (if you are darker skinned), it’s time to get out of the sun or cover up. This could be just a few minutes for some fair-skinned people.

Past this point of exposure, your body does not produce any more vitamin D, and you’ll begin to get sun damage, and sunburn is never good for your health.

Supplementing with microalgae such as spirulina, astaxanthin, and chlorella or blue-green algae can make the body naturally more resistant to sunburn (and help heal one quickly, too!).

Astaxanthin has extraordinary antioxidant powers to protect your skin against sunburn, and supplementing with 4 mg a day for at least a month can potentially double (at least) the time you can ordinarily spend in the sun without burning.

Astaxanthin is fat soluble, so it must be taken with a healthy meal that includes plenty of fat or you just won’t absorb it.

You Might Also Be Interested in…

So, What Sunscreen is Safe?

After searching online for a Reef-Safe, Non-Nano, Zinc Oxide mineral sunscreen, there were many good choices. I ran those choices through the Skin Deep Sunscreen Safety Database for sunscreens that scored a 1 for low harm.

We ended up buying Badger Sunscreen because it has non-whitening zinc oxide, smells delicious, and is made by a small, family-run business. I can also get it at my local grocery store. Be aware that Badger contains a variety of essential oils, which can be allergens for some people. Badger is well-rated by the Skin Deep Sunscreen Database as a 1 for low harm.

Badger Sunscreen contains:

  1. Non-Nano, Uncoated Zinc Oxide 22.5%
  2. Organic Sunflower seed oil,
  3. Organic Beeswax,
  4. Organic Seabuckthorn fruit extract,
  5. Organic Jojoba seed oil,
  6. Organic Orange peel oil,
  7. Organic Tangerine peel oil
  8. Vanilla fruit extract
  9. Tocopherol (Sunflower Vitamin E)

Now, these basic, understandable ingredients make sense to a health-conscious person!

Even if you don’t buy the sunscreen recommended above, whatever sunscreen you do use this summer, the Skin Deep Sunscreen Database is a great resource for checking its safety and impact on the environment.

Other family-friendly sunscreens that rated 1 for safety in EWG’s sunscreen database include:

Also check out the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, made by the same great non-profit. It’s a great resource for researching the safety of all your make-up, skin care and beauty products, so you can be a wise consumer, and choose personal care items that will protect your family in every way.

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About the author

Dawn Gifford

Dawn is the creator of Small Footprint Family, and the author of the critically acclaimed Sustainability Starts at Home - How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. After a 20-year career in green building and environmental sustainability, chronic illness forced her to shift her expertise and passion from the public sphere to home and hearth. Get the whole story behind SFF here.

36 Comments

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  • I have read that taking 3,000mg vitamin D acts like a sunscreen and negates use of any sunscreen. What I read (I don’t remember where) did not state any instructions such as how often to take it (every hour, or two, or three, etc.), on a full stomach or not, what SPF it provides, if it’s been tested, how long the effect lasts, among other desired answers I’d like to know. Thanks!

    • I would not use Vitamin D in lieu of sunscreen as it has not been tested at all, and is very unlikely to prevent sunburn.

  • I come from a family where we all have been spending summers working hard outside in the sun. Yes, we did cover sholders and heads, to avoid sunburns and there is one more thing you get if you dont cover your head and are outside in the sun for too long, dont know what it is, big headache and fever I guess. Occasionally we all got sunburns, put some soar cream or butter on them and lived further. Noone ever got melanoma for generations, lived long lives if didnt mess with alcohol and medication. BUT, we also ate almost only our own grown food, non vegetarian.

    The only relatively early deaths (40 – 55 y o) were in cases where excessive amounts of alcohol or medicine where involved. (Even the always grumpy ones lived long)

    The health in the last 2 decades, when we live basically on what we get in the stores has gone so insanely down! But in the country where I come from, the government has basically made it impossible to live again as we did before, with all the land taxes, energy prices, regulations for whatever you do, you gotta go work for someone else to survive and have barely time to eat and sleep.

    Yes, those 30 years ago, it was hard work every day, but isnt it the same now? Only we are more beaten down by it. Also the stress levels – i dont remember being stresses making the hand-held berry picker or working in a garden. I was a kid back then. Then came the school and city life and getting sick again and again. I guess that is why I am here reading this blog.

  • Just please use some sort of sunscreen! When my father was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma I researched it and came up with hundreds of blogs, and support groups containing mostly people in their 20’s dying of skin cancer. Skin cancer kills. It is sad it is true and it is scary! There are great organic sunscreens please use them, especially on kids!

  • Dawn, What a great post on sunscreen safety! Now that summer is here it’s even more important to be informed on what sunscreens are the safest for you and your family. Thanks for sharing!

  • Great information! For me, since I use sunscreen so rarely (except for the natural mineral sunscreen effect of the organic make-up I wear on my face), on the rare occasions I do, I just tend to wear the usual chemical kind. 5-10 days out of the year doesn’t seem like too much, so I’m not to worried about the chemicals adding drastically to my pollution load. But I always use aloe and vitamin E to help soothe and heal after sun. I rarely burn these days, but if I do an ice pack and aloe is the best cure for me. Naturally bringing the inflammation down and aiding healing.

  • Thanks for this post and I will be checking out these sunscreens. I usually like the sprays because with a dark complexion, they normally leave a white residue.

  • I have yet to use any sunscreen on my girlies… we try to avoid harsh afternoon rays, wears hats, etc Thanks for sharing your post with us! I hope you join us again today (yeah I know it’s a day late… linky issues) at Eco-Kids Tuesday!!

  • Thanks for sharing this at A Humble Bumble! I’m going to share with my sister who has 3 young children. I choose not to use it, as I’d rather have the sun’s rays than the chemicals. But good to know there are alternatives out there!

  • I could be missing something but I also think BADGER brand may be a good one as well and a little easier to find. Thanks for a great article! since going to the beach last week and just using what I had on hand (what I bought last summer before I made some changes to my skincare) I’ve had this on my mind.

    • Badger does look good, but it contains soy, which is a problem for us. And, it is made in a facility that also processes gluten, for those who are highly sensitive.

  • This is very informative and useful! I do love the ingredient lists on the brands you mentioned. Thanks for sharing with Healthy 2Day Wednesday; come back tomorrow to see if you were featured!

  • so interesting and informative!! I often wondered about sunscreen….now we are all so brainwashed into the necessity of it I don’t think anyone questions it!

  • Now that I’ve found the safest sunscreen (thanks), now I only have to worry about fluoride in my water!

  • Great post! You sure did your homework! I’ve been in the market for the safest sun screen alternative myself and this is very thorough. Hopefully I can find something like Kabana where I live. Found you through Home is Where My Story Begins link up. I linked up there too. Have a great weekend!

    ~ Ferly
    Gifts We Use {to grow, love and serve}

  • A great post — I had no idea about the chemicals in sunscreen!

    Thank you for sharing at Rural Thursdays this week!

  • I love you. This article, like others of yours I’ve read, ROCKS. Thank you for the plethora of good information!

  • Early research from Missouri University suggests that zinc oxide, when exposed to sunlight, undergoes a chemical reaction that may release free radicals. These, as you know, seek to bond with other molecules, but in the process, they can damage cells or the DNA contained within those cells.
    The researchers suggest this in turn could potentially increase the risk of skin cancer.
    Lead author Dr Yinfa Ma also found that the longer zinc oxide is exposed to sunlight, the greater the potential damage to human cells.
    ‘Zinc oxide may generate free radicals when exposed to UV (ultraviolet) sunlight, and those free radicals can kill cells,’ Ma said.
    I am now personally truly confused, as to what to use for my family!! They refer to nano and sometimes also ordinary zinc oxide in the articles I have found on the subject.- worrying:-(
    Rebecca ( Seasonal Celebration Sunday ) x

    • I saw this article in Science Daily too, but the study is very preliminary and seems to refer primarily to nano-particles of zinc oxide in sunscreens. Since non-nano zinc oxide has been used in diaper cream, skin ointments and sunblock for decades, and is even a form used for vitamin supplements, I am personally about as concerned about it as getting too much phytic acid from a package of store-bought nuts. Since we use sunblock so infrequently, and the type we use is practically edible, I am not going to overworry this one until more conclusive evidence from better studies comes in.

  • Totally going out to get some Kabana now. What a great article. Thank you for doing such extensive research. It’s really helpful. I’ve been really reluctant to do sunscreen much at all…trying to just get them in a hat or back inside if they start to turn pink. I saw a Dr. Oz special on how tomatoes (eaten) actually provide more skin protection too. Pinned this. Thanks! Jodi @ http://www.meaningfulmama.com

  • I am so glad to read this after just having a smiliar conversation with my doctor concerning my 9 month old daughter. I’d love to have you link up on Titus 2 Tuesday tomorrow on Cornerstone Confessions. Thanks again for the valuable info.

    Kathy

  • GREAT post! Thanks for sharing! I was just reading up on sunscreen after I started finding that MSG is in EVERYTHING including things like sunscreens, toothpastes and bug sprays – ugh.

  • I live in the sunny state of Colorado and have been perplexed as far as what to do about sunscreen. Because of my coloring, I’m at a high risk for skin cancer. But, honestly, I just don’t like wearing sunscreen. I haven’t worn any for years, but am wondering if I’m endangering my health. My toddler and I like to get out each day for about 30 minutes and she always wears sunglasses and a hat. But, sometimes she has short sleeves on, and I worry about her getting too much sun exposure. Buying sunscreen was actually on my “to do” list for this week, but after reading this post, (which I found from The Better Mom link-up), I’m wondering if we are better off without it!

    • If you use a safe sunscreen like the two brands I mentioned in the post, you don’t need to fear it will endanger your health. These sunscreens are almost edible they are so safe. Getting just the tiniest amount of color every day is a good idea for both you and your child to optimize your vitamin D. Any more than that and you’ll want to cover up (you and your toddler), or put on sunscreen if you can’t easily use clothing to protect you. In Colorado, you are at a higher elevation and have less protection from the sun than someone at lower elevation, so it’s important that you are extra careful. Clothing works better than sunscreen, but that is not always an option (especially with kids), so you might want to have some safe sunscreen on hand.

  • Thought this may be some helpful information regarding two products that should be contained in your sunscreen. Physical sunscreens such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide work by reflecting the photons of light up and out of the skin so there is no absorption of energy. There is no chemical reaction and no free radicals are produced. Also, make sure they protect against UVB and UVA!

    • Coconut oil, while good for the skin, does not actually contain anything that can block the sun. Only zinc oxide can do that safely and effectively. I used to use coconut oil to enhance and speed up tanning as a teenager, so I would definitely NOT rely on it for sunburn protection.

      Best,
      Dawn

    • Coconut oil, while good for the skin, does not actually contain anything that can block the sun. Only zinc oxide can do that safely and effectively. I used to use coconut oil to enhance and speed up tanning as a teenager, so I would definitely NOT rely on it for sunburn protection.

      Best,
      Dawn

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