Did you know that research shows that 97% of Americans have sunscreen chemicals in their blood? Anything that goes on your skin can enter your bloodstream, and most sunscreens have ingredients that are known to cause harm to people and to aquatic life.
Here’s how to find a sunscreen that is safe for both you and the ocean.
Having sensitive skin, I’ve never been one 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?
New labeling requirements notwithstanding, most FDA-approved petrochemical-based sunscreens include one or more of the following:
- P-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
- Menthyl anthranilate
- Octyl dimethyl PABA
- Octyl salicylate
- 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 significant 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 toxic, and by using them, 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!
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:
- Zinc oxide has a broader UVA and UVB absorbance spectrum than Titanium dioxide, so it provides better UVA protection.
- Zinc oxide is safer because it creates fewer free radicals than Titanium dioxide.
- Zinc oxide is the only active ingredient approved for use on babies under 6 months of age; Titanium dioxide is not.
- 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 safety of these particles is unknown, and some recent scientific studies, including one published in Scientific American, have demonstrated these particles can damage the ecosystem. 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.
Most sunscreens—even the ones without petrochemical or nano-sized ingredients—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 noxious 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.
The point to remember is that once your skin turns the lightest shade of pink (if you’re lighter skinned), or begins to darken 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 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 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.
So, What Sunscreen is Safe?
After a long online search, we eventually purchased Kabana’s Organic Green Screen for my daughter, and general family use. Kabana is a small company located in Boulder, Colorado, where outdoor enthusiasts enjoy 300 days of sunshine a year. Their products are very effective and low-allergen, and their website is very informative.
Kabana is a tiny bit waxy and leaves a white sheen unless you buy the skin-toned version, but this simply means it has some staying power on your active child’s skin. They scored a #1 for low harm on the Skin Deep Sunscreen Database.
The only ingredients in Kabana Green Screen are:
- 25% Zinc Oxide (non-nano)
- Eldorado Springs Artesian Water
- Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Organic Jojoba Oil
- Vegetable Glycerin
- Organic Shea Butter
- Vegetable Emulsifying Wax
- Iron Oxide (skin-toned version only)
- Vegetable Vitamin E
I feel very comfortable putting these ingredients on my child’s skin.
Another great safe sunscreen is Badger Sunscreen. 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:
- Non-Nano, Uncoated Zinc Oxide 18.75%
- Organic Helianthus Annuus (Organic Sunflower) Oil,
- Organic Cera Alba (Organic Beeswax),
- Organic Hippophae Rhamnoides (Organic Seabuckthorn), and
- Organic Calenduls Officinalis (Organic Calendula),
- Anthemis Nobilis (Organic Chamomile) Essential Oil,
- Tocopherol (Sunflower Vitamin E)
Now, these basic, understandable ingredients make sense to a health-conscious person!
Even if you don’t buy one of the sunscreens 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 sunscreens that rated 1 for safety this year in EWG’s sunscreen database include:
- All Good Kid’s Sunscreen, SPF 33
- All Terrain KidSport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Auctiv Reef Safe Sunscreen (in biodegradable packaging!)
- BurnOut Ocean Tested Physical Sunscreen, SPF 30
- Nurture My Body Baby Organic Sunscreen, SPF 32
- Sunology Natural Sunscreen, Kids, SPF 50
- ThinkBaby Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50
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.