Don’t Get Burned This Summer (in more ways than one)…Tell Everyone You Love! {2013 Natural Sunscreen Primer}

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Do Your Kids Need Sunscreen at School? Learn what you might be doing wrong.

Do your kids ever get burned at school?

Not the bully-in-the-hallway kind of “I got burned!” that hurts the reputation, but the pink-skinned sun damage kind that just…hurts.

When the sun starts really meaning business during the noontime recess, I know a lot of parents slather on the sunscreen to protect their kids from nasty burns, and they’re likely also hoping to avoid the dreaded C-word for their children’s skin as they age.

Particularly on days like my son had today – field day, with tons of outside time – I know parents are thinking about the harmful rays of the sun. The popular media has made sure of that.

It kills me.

Kills. me.

Scary: Chemical Sunscreens

dangers of chemical sunscreen

Because I learned a lot in my search for the best natural sunscreen, I know how conventional (chemical) sunscreens work.

Once you apply, you’re locked in. Final answer.

If you don’t reapply in two hours, you’re going to do more harm than good to your skin (or your child’s skin).

It freaks me out how many well-meaning, loving, educated mothers out there put sunscreen on their kids before school to protect them during lunch recess outside…when in reality, by noontime that sunscreen is so deep that it’s definitely not going to protect anything, and it may be bouncing free radicals around the child’s inner skin.

Those well-meaning parents are really doing something like this:

  • About 8:00 a.m.Parent puts sunscreen, SPF 30 or above most likely, on their children. Child complains. Parent tells them it’s for their own good.
  • 8:20 a.m. – Chemical sunscreen has sunk into the skin far enough to grant protection from the burning rays of the sun. Child is safe from sunburn, but is most likely still riding the bus or doing their morning welcome work at their desk.
  • 10:00 a.m. – Sunscreen has drifted deeper into the skin, deep enough for two things to happen:
    1. The protection from the sun’s burning rays is now gone.
    2. Chemical sunscreen is effective via a chemical reaction with the sun, and chemical reactions have byproducts. In this case, the byproduct is free radicalscancer causing reactive molecules, which are now deep enough in the skin to cause some real damage. Yep. Skin cancer.
  • 11:30 a.m. or so – Child actually gets outside for recess. The sunscreen is now totally ineffective and potentially reacting with the sun, sending off bursts of free radicals deep in the skin where they are setting the child up for way more problems that a little pink tinge on the skin.

How does that make sense? Sunscreens causing skin cancer?

EDIT/UPDATE 2015: I learned new information from a biochemist in this interview, and he told me I was a little inaccurate in this post. The petrochemical sunscreens don’t degrade and create free radicals until they’re IN the sun. So unless the child in question tallies up two hours waiting for the bus, at morning recess, etc. before the noon recess, the sunscreen is still likely doing its job. However…what about all those times plus lunch recess plus coming home to play after school? And honestly, we’re splitting hairs here, because the reality is that petrochemical sunscreens are SO bad for you, this little piece of info doesn’t even matter. The endocrine disruptors, increase in allergies and asthma, environmental persistence and carcinogenic qualities of the chemical components of these sunscreens put them solidly in the “do not belong anywhere near your skin” category anyway. It’s just not worth the risk!!

Zinc oxide based sunscreens, on the other hand, do NOT degrade at all and remain effective on your skin all day long, as long as the cream itself isn’t wiped or washed off. The choice is clear…

chemical sunscreens

Here’s how you can combat the awful cycle:

  • Once you apply a chemical sunscreen, you MUST reapply after two hours. The new layer of sunscreen will block the old stuff from reacting with the sun and protect you from the free radicals.
  • Two hours after applying chemical sunscreen, if you can’t reapply, get OUT of the sun.
  • Consume tons of antioxidants, which are in a way the battle soldiers against free radicals. Antioxidants found in food or even skin lotions (good ones) can stop the cell damaging chain reaction that free radicals set in motion in your body. Of course, we’re bombarded with free radicals in everything from the air we breathe to the water we drink to the slightly charred burger from the grill…so you already need your antioxidants. Why create a need for more on purpose?
  • Just get a light base tan gradually as the spring warms up, such that 15-20 minutes outside, even at high noon, isn’t a problem for your skin.
  • Or if you have very light skin or simply haven’t been able to get a base tan (or don’t want to), just use mineral based sunscreen (preferably with zinc oxide) and protect your family from skin cancer without causing skin cancer!

I just sit here and shake my head thinking about it.

That’s why I’m going to talk about this every summer, to everyone I know, trying my darndest to explain in easy-to-swallow sound bytes how chemical sunscreen works, why we need to avoid it, and how easy it is to just switch to a natural sunblock.

I hope my bulleted list explanation above gives you a good cheat-sheet for talking with loved ones and convincing them to try a natural sunscreen instead of the chemicals.

If you want to go deeper and understand more…well, my friend, keep reading…

New Terms: No More “Sunblock”

no more sunblock

When I first started teaching about sun protection, I explained that sunblock is the term for mineral-based creams that sit on the surface of the skin and reflect the UV rays, and sunscreen is chemically-based and absorbs into the skin, effective because of a chemical reaction that happens under the skin.

All of that is still true except the terminology: the term “sunblock” is not allowed by the FDA on sunscreens, which are classified as a drug.

They’re now differentiated as “physical barrier” and “chemical” sunscreens.

Thanks, FDA. Much clearer now…

Just remember to look for zinc oxide as an active ingredient Titanium dioxide is also safe, but only in combination with zinc since titanium dioxide by itself doesn’t protect from the aging effects of the sun (UVA) very well, just the burning rays (UVB). In other words, titanium dioxide is not “broad spectrum.”

You don’t want any other active ingredients, period.

Badger has an excellent tutorial on particle size and lots more on zinc oxide right HERE.

More sources and information here.

What About Vitamin D from the Sun?

sunscreen or vitamin D?

A lot of people (and science, too) say that you shouldn’t wear sunscreen because your body needs sunshine to create Vitamin D.

Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones, a strong immune system, cancer protection, and cardiovascular health.

The very best way for your body to get Vitamin D is directly from the sun, which is nearly completely nixed with even a low SPF 8 sunscreen. You must have some sun exposure without any sunscreen at all to make sufficient Vitamin D.

In fact, you probably need sun exposure without sunscreen during midday when the sun’s rays are the strongest. About 10-20 minutes will do, depending on who you ask, less time for lighter skinned people and more for dark skinned individuals. Sounds like lunch recess to me…

In this document, Dr. Robert P. Heaney, of John A. Creighton University, a professor and co-founder of the Creighton University Osteoporosis Research Center, confirms the timing:

“If we spend all day indoors or go out only in the early morning or late evening, then we simply do not get sufficient ultraviolet radiation from the sun to make enough vitamin D.”

And strangely enough, “Over twice as many people will be struck with a health issue because of Vitamin D deficiency as will be affected by overexposure to the sun.” Read more at my Vitamin D/skin cancer/sunshine post.

One more strange caveat: Washing your skin with soap for 48 hours after good sun exposure can diminish and deplete the Vitamin D your body is creating from the sun! That doesn’t mean you can’t shower, but just avoid using soap on all that skin that doesn’t really get stinky, like arms and legs (maybe shave with water?).

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

Do you go Outside at Noon?

sunshine and vitamin d

In my relatively short eight years as a mother, the recommendations I tried to follow have shifted from, “Apply sunscreen all day, every day,” to “Stay out of the sun between the hours of 10a-4p and use sunscreen otherwise,” and now I see more, “You can’t get enough Vitamin D before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m., so you really should get 15-20 minutes of sunshine right at noon, then go inside (or apply natural sunscreen?) for the rest of the day.”

What’s a mom to do?

Sometimes it feels like our health is going to rule our lives – I can’t imagine telling my son that he has to stay inside between 10-4 but for 20 minutes at noon. Talk about killing his hockey-loving, tree-climbing, tag-playing social life! I can’t be that structured, but it’s good at least to understand the way the rays of the sun work (through the current lens, which hopefully is getting sharper and closer to the truth each time the tide shifts).

If I’m out before 10 or 11 a.m., we don’t use anything. If we go out between 11-2ish, I try to let the kids play a little and then apply sunscreen. If it’s after 3:00, I let them go without. We don’t do a lot of hiding from the sun or organizing our activities based on time of day and intensity of rays, though.

I just have to hope that we all get enough Vitamin D and avoid the sunburns.

Note: I was reading my own post from 2010 on sunscreen, skin cancer, Vitamin D and more to remind myself of the particulars for this post, and I have to say – it’s really comprehensive. I must have had more time on my hands back then!

If you want to know more and find more scholarly sources for this information about UVA vs. UVB rays, awful health risks of chemical sunscreens, free radicals, SPF, and why people REALLY get burned, click here.

The Balance Between Safe Active Ingredients and Antioxidants

zinc oxide and free radicals

Even zinc oxide and titanium dioxide create free radicals when they interact with the sun to protect your skin from a sunburn. It’s safer because they sit on your skin instead of being absorbed down into your skin, but it is still a problem.

Any sunscreen worth its salt needs to include antioxidant ingredients to combat the free radicals. Some examples include olive oil, sunflower oil, Vitamin E, sea buckthorn oil, green tea, and many more. (journal article on antioxidants and skin cancer)

This is why I don’t really mess with making my own sunscreen. I’m not a real DIY person outside of the kitchen and basic cleaners, but also I wouldn’t want to worry about finding the balance between the best amount of zinc oxide and the right antioxidants. It’s easy to tell if your homemade sunscreen is effective to protect from sunburn, but much harder to tell if it’s still allowing (or causing) future health problems.

Antioxidant ingredients are something to keep your eyes open for when you buy a natural sunscreen.

What is a Nano-Particle, Anyway?

Another issue with mineral sunscreens that is quite a big deal is the size of the zinc oxide itself.

Zinc oxide is a white powder, and it takes quite a bit of it to get an SPF of 30 or above. Because it sits on the surface of the skin, zinc oxide sunscreens by their nature are going to make the user look pasty and white.

Manufacturers do their best to try to integrate the white powder into lotions and creams to minimize the whiteness on the skin, and one way they’ve tried to make a better aesthetic product is by reducing the size of the zinc oxide at a micro level.

A “nano particle” is a particle smaller than 100 nanometers, or 100 billionths of a meter. The problem with them and sunscreen is that they are small enough to seep into the skin, causing similar problems, potentially, as the chemical sunscreens. It’s a debated issue, but I feel safer with brands that choose not to use nano particles.

“Micronized” mineral particles are smaller than regular zinc oxide, but not small enough to impact your cells, just small enough to go on smoothly instead of literally gritty, like sand.

Evaluating a New Sunscreen for Yourself

new Badger 2013 formulas reviewAlthough I have personally reviewed over 40 mineral sunscreens, there are plenty, and more every year, that I haven’t gotten my hands on. Some that I tested three years ago have now reformulated, like the new Badger sunscreen (left) and the Kabana Vitamin D screen and tinted formulas. I have tested those and updated the post (Badger was put in just last week and is a HUGE improvement), but I can’t do it all.

If you’re looking at one of them with interest, you can determine for yourself if it’s a safe buy:

  • Go straight to the ingredients.
  • ONLY the two minerals (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) should be “active” ingredients. I prefer zinc oxide only myself, and definitely any titanium dioxide must be in conjunction with zinc.
  • Only non-nano particles.
  • There should be some sort of antioxidant included (Vitamin E, aka Tocopheryl acetate, green tea, etc.)
  • No retinyl palmitate (synthetic Vitamin A).
  • No parabens, synthetic or unlabeled “fragrances” – that’s a general rule for all body products.
  • Check the ratings at EWG’s database, and remember to go into the individual ingredients. It’s possible for a product to be rated a 1 or 2 (very safe) and have one ingredient that is still hanging out at a 5 or 6 (not as safe).
  • If you can pronounce all the other ingredients, all the better!
  • Note: Many of the best mineral sunscreens (and none of the chemical ones) are rated “reef safe,” which means that they won’t be harmful to coral reefs, a big problem with some of these creams. That also means they’re biodegradable, which is a term that some cancer docs are telling their patients to look for, according to a reader recovering from cancer.

Homemade Options

If you are a die-hard DIY person unlike myself and feel comfortable making your own sunscreen, I do have quite a collection of resources for you:

Mommypotamus is one of my favorite fact-loving blog colleagues; her posts are always deeply researched and fascinating, like this one on how Sunlight Prevents Skin Cancer


Tired yet?

I hope you can embrace your inner science geek on this one, understand how chemical sunscreens work and seek to find a good natural sunscreen that works for you and your family, along with a healthy philosophy about sun exposure and Vitamin D that will keep your skin happy and your immune system rocking all summer long.

UPDATE: Here’s a post from the following week, responding to a medical professional who disagreed with me.

If you missed the links, here are the other sunny posts at KS:

And some from Mommypotamus, who is an even better researcher than I am:


Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post to Amazon, Kabana, MadeOn, and DIY Organic Beauty Recipes from which I will earn some commission if you make a purchase.

Click here for my disclaimer and advertising disclosure - affiliate links in this post will earn commission based on sales, but it doesn't change your price.

43 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. Marianne Kimura says

    Great article! Industrial chemicals when manufactured also cause a lot of environmental damage. Sticking with the natural things is the best!

  2. Cindi says

    I recently read that coconut oil (and maybe some other oils) will prevent a burn. I haven’t tried it yet, have you?

      • Karen says

        My SIL and her toddler are pale redheads…they successfully used coconut oil as protection in the Arizona desert. I think it obviously does vary by person (my DH didn’t find it effective), but I don’t think skin color is a factor.

  3. Rebecca says

    Thanks for this article. I used to wear conventional sunscreen all the time as a child (I have red hair and my mom was trying to keep me safe!!). As I get older, I find that I have grown wary of anything that isn’t simple, natural or organic being on my skin. So I avoid wearing sunscreen as much as I can, and just try not to be in direct sun for too long at a time. In the spring, when I am still developing my “base tan” as you said, I have to wear sunscreen some, but by this time of year, I don’t burn too badly. My 2 1/2 year old has skin like his daddy and tans right away so he only wears organic sunscreen (zinc oxide based) when he will be in the direct sun a long time. Other than that, I just stick a hat on him and call it good.

    It’s odd how misguided people are in pushing so many things that actually cause at least as much harm as good! Now, thanks to your article, I have more detailed information to share with people who wonder why I don’t use regular sunscreens. Rather than just saying: “I don’t trust anything conventional” :-) Everyone already thinks I am weird enough already!

  4. Rebecca says

    Have you ever been in the ER for sunburn so bad it put you into shock? I have, and that from only being out for 30 min or so.

    Not everyone can get a “base tan” I don’t, my kids don’t, and even my husb who does still burns when he gets very little sun.

    For families like ours who are esp fair skinned and blonde, 20 minutes means blisters on the ears and eyelids. Yep, that hurts.

    • says

      Wow! Yowza…30 minutes and in the hospital. That’s super scary – but I absolutely realize there are very fair-skinned folks out there, which is why I can never be in the camp that says, “Just eat real fats, no one needs sunscreen.” You’re a great example of that being a fallacy! I hope you have an awesome sunscreen that you love or find one on my list! :) Katie

  5. says

    I absolutely love this post. Thank you for all the information! My family & I have always had sensitive skin so wearing a lot of sunscreen doesn’t work for us. We try to just avoid the sun whenever possible and only apply it when we know we absolutely can not stay out of the sun (soccer games, the beach, etc.) Otherwise, we just find a shady area to retreat to. Thanks again!

  6. says

    I keep wondering if I should just use my kids “all natural” boudreaux’s buttpaste as sunscreen. Active ingredient- zinc oxide 16% inactive- aloe Vera, bees wax, carnauba wax, castor oil, citric acid, hydrogenated (ick) castor oil and Peruvian balsam oil.
    What do you think?

  7. says

    I’m blond haired and blue eyed. I used to burn easily and therefore wore sunscreen often. Now don’t burn unless I’m outside for a long time. This happened after changing our diet to include lots of healthy fats — coconut oil, olive oil, butter, eggs. My kids (also fair skinned) never seem to burn either! I keep Mexitan mineral sunblock on hand for when I know we will be out for long periods of time but then only apply it to areas that burn more easily — face, back of the neck, shoulders, upper chest. I never apply to arms or legs.
    Now to just stop washing(shaving with soap) so my skin can get all the vitamin D!

  8. paws says

    I prefer to wear protective clothing and hats instead of sunscreen. When that’s not feasible, I avoid the sun.

  9. Jennifers S says

    I have a few skeptics in my household. Can you direct me to your sources for the chemical-sunscreens-can-cause-cancer facts? I sure would appreciate it.

  10. Jennifer says

    My husband and I have read and talked about many articles on this subject, even about not soaping up body parts that catch rays. You’re the only other person I know of who has mentioned that. We follow practices similar to how you described handling sun exposure with your family; we are confident in those decisions and feel like we are making healthy choices. What gets me is having to continuously explain these things to family when they come to visit us at the coast. Ugh! And they look at us like we’re crazy or like they’re afraid we’re going to poison our son. Most people I know believe the “you must wear sunscreen” hype. Nice to read about your research and know that others out there might learn the harmful effects of commercial sunscreens and the benefits of moderate sun exposure.

  11. Cathy says

    Thanks for the post. I’ve ended up doing much what you have (maybe because your sunscreen reviews from a couple of years ago got me hooked on your blog). I might add that I’ve found that there are some places where the sun is just stronger (Hawaii, high elevation in CA, beaches, large swimming pools). In these places we avoid getting much mid-day exposure and use Badger sunscreen, rash-guards / sunshirts, hats, etc. if we’re going to be out in it.

  12. Jenny says

    I stopped using chemical sunscreens more than ten years ago when my biology major roommate explained what her professor told them about how they work and the not-so-great side effects (basically all the same stuff you said in your post). I am very, very fair skinned and don’t tan, just burn and get freckles. I’ve found the best thing for me is to cover-up with light colored clothing. I’ve spent extensive time in Okinawa and Taiwan, very hot, humid sub-tropical climates, and avoided burns by wearing loose long sleeved shirts and pants/skirts. Currently, I live in North Carolina- very sunny and very hot in the summer. I have found that it actually keeps me feeling cooler because the cloth is reflecting the sun, instead of my skin absorbing it. The key is to wear natural fibers that breathe because if you cover up with polyester, you will have heat stroke.
    Pretty much the only time I use sunblock (mineral sunscreen) is when we go to the beach or if we are going to be in direct sun mid-day with no shade, like a lunch picnic in the middle of a soccer field. I don’t mind the pasty white tint (and I kind of like the fact that I can see where I missed). But maybe that’s because my skin is already so pale, it doesn’t really stand out on my skin.

  13. cirelo says

    I’ve also read that eating phyto chemicals in many summer fruits and vegetables helps prevent skin from burning. I think through a process called hermesis if anyone is interested in looking it up further.

    I found it an interesting discovery considering that we would have these foods in abundance when we most need protection and countries near the equator have them year round.

  14. Lark says

    I left the pediatrician’s office shaking my head last week. He kept telling my son, during a check up, don’t forget to wear sunscreen. He said it so much, I wondered if the industry had him on the payroll.

    I believe that you wear a hat and appropriate clothing, then get out of the sun when you need to. Sunburn is the body’s way of telling you to get out of the sun because it has had enough. When you start to feel it or see it (or someone else does) it is time to go.

    I don’t know of research, but I do know that once I stopped wearing sunglasses that my vitamin D levels went way up. Maybe that would be a good topic for a future article. What sunglasses are best?

    • says

      Great idea! I read that sunglasses weren’t all that good for you a year or two ago and thought “no way!! I could never live w/o them b/c my face hurts too much when I squint.” Then I misplaced my sunglasses and decided not to worry about it, and I did survive. In fact, I do think my eyes have adjusted so I don’t squint as much, or there’s a really good placebo effect going on. I had no idea about Vitamin D though; that’s fascinating! :) Katie

      • Lark says

        I also wonder if what people eat affects the body’s tolerance to sun. I am sure that it does, but I don’t know if there are studies. I am fair skinned, but notice that I don’t burn as much now that I eat more natural, less processed foods. Just another odd thought running through my mind.

  15. says

    Great idea! I read that sunglasses weren’t all that good for you a year or two ago and thought “no way!! I could never live w/o them b/c my face hurts too much when I squint.” Then I misplaced my sunglasses and decided not to worry about it, and I did survive. In fact, I do think my eyes have adjusted so I don’t squint as much, or there’s a really good placebo effect going on. I had no idea about Vitamin D though; that’s fascinating! :) Katie

  16. says

    Great article! Thanks for such thorough information on such a confusing topic, with so much conflicting info out there! I recently went to buy a new sunscreen/block and was confused even reading the labels on Badger products. I think I got one that fit the criteria listed, hope so!

  17. says

    Do you have recommendations for safe lotions with antioxidants (or a blog post you’ve already written about it)? My inlaws totally forgot to put sunscreen on my kids today and they got pink at the pool. Do you know what’s good and safe to put on burned skin? All this new info about sunscreens is making my head spin. Thank you for all your research and for taking the time to write this blog to inform the rest of us. I have learned so much from you.

    • says

      I’m way too late for that sunburn, but I did read your question over the weekend and wasn’t sure what I recommended, so there it sat. What we have is “My Mama’s Love” Burn-Out cream: coconut oil, beeswax, lavender and eucalyptus essential oils. I’m really not sure if there are antioxidants in there or not. Dr. Mercola’s new sunscreen definitely does, green tea and astaxanthin. More research needed… :) Katie

  18. rachel joy says

    Does the same “re-apply after 2 hours or you’re doing more damage” rule apply for natural sunscreens, like Badger?

    • says

      You should still reapply just to make sure you’re protected, but no, the mineral sunscreens (like Badger and many others) won’t cause MORE damage after 2 hours because they work completely differently than the chemical sunscreens. :) Katie

  19. Jim says

    Great series of articles, very practical and very well documented. Thank you, very useful.

    FYI – some report more natural sun resistance when suplementing with iodine in the diet. It may be that our ancestors ate a less mineral deficient diet and were more naturally resistant to the sun than we are.

  20. Jonathan says

    So, I’ve got a pet peeve/question about washing with soap after sun exposure: As far as I can tell, the form of Vitamin D that your body produces when it is exposed to sun is Vitamin D sulfate, which is water-soluble (I think you can find all of this in the book “Sunscreens – Biohazard”). Since it’s water-soluble, why would the use of soap make any difference? I can think of two potential reasons: a, soap will remove the oils on a person’s skin which might otherwise protect the Vitamin D sulfate from water to a certain extent, and b, people tend to wash longer when they use soap, since they have to use a fair bit of water to get it off. However, even with these possibilities, it still concerns me that I have not seen any mention of this as a potential concern.

    That said, most running around outside does not necessitate soap, so I don’t see a problem with skipping it most of the time. Dirt washes off with plain water just fine.


    • says

      Yes, I suppose even a rinse with water risks losing your Vitamin D – but then swimming is a hazard, too. I guess we have to just hope some gets in at some point! :) Pardon the delay on an answer, Jonathan, your question got totally misplaced. There are ultimately so many questions we don’t understand about the human body….


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