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How to Find Safe Sunscreen Ingredients

I’ve done hundreds of hours of research on sunscreens.

I’ve visited the local morning news multiple times to share sunscreen information.

And most importantly, my family and I have tested over 120 natural mineral sunscreens over the last ten years, rigorously applying two brands every time we go out in the sun, examining each formula for a smooth glide, scent, water resistance, rub-in-ability, and efficacy.

We know what works.

And we know what brands are terrible!

We wouldn’t ask our doctors how to freeze and budget for the healthy foods they want our kids to eat, so why would we ask a dermatologist which sunscreen feels better going on or makes us look less ghostly? That’s what a good friend is for – one who has just happened to have tested over 120 natural sunscreens and isn’t afraid to dish out the truth!

In fact, Katie P. emailed saying:

Thank you for your blog! I have benefited from it so many times. Specifically, when wanting a good sunscreen, where did I go? Of course, to Kitchen Stewardship®.
How to find safe sunscreen ingredients

Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreen: Read the Active Ingredients

The major difference between chemical and mineral sunscreens is that mineral active ingredients are inorganic and sit on the surface of the skin. The active ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

Chemical-based sunscreens must be absorbed into the skin to be effective via a chemical reaction with the UV rays. Ingredients vary widely, as does their safety. (See my article on sunscreen safety and cancer.)

A 2021 study showed that six of these chemical ingredients absorb into the skin at concentrations higher than FDA safety thresholds, even at normal sunscreen application amounts. It really is worth avoiding!1

Zinc Oxide is sometimes referred to as the only safe sun protection available in a tube. It protects from the full spectrum of UVA and UVB rays, incredibly effectively, all by itself, making it truly the best natural sunscreen ingredient available.

What Are Safe Sunscreen Ingredients?

Safe sunscreen should have just one, or maybe two active ingredients:

  • zinc oxide
  • titanium dioxide

That’s it. Nothing more. They’ll all have some non-active “other” ingredients, too, like antioxidants and such, but these are the only two active ingredients you should see on a label of safe sunscreen.

RELATED: How to choose a tinted mineral sunscreen.

Why You Should Switch to Zinc Oxide Based Sunscreens

Here’s the deal – you’re probably wearing sunscreen to prevent two things:

  1. Sunburn
  2. Skin Cancer

What if I told you that all the popular sunscreens out there are rarely preventing EITHER?

Natural Mineral Sunscreen texture

What Ingredients in Sunscreen Cause Cancer?

Not only are conventional, chemical sunscreens not proven to protect against the worst skin cancer, but they may actually CAUSE cancer themselves! Watch for these nasty ingredients in sunscreen and avoid them at all costs:

  • oxybenzone
  • avobenzone
  • parabens

What Does “Natural” Mean for Safe Sunscreen Ingredients?

If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that pretty much everything on the sunscreen bottle or tube is meaningless, especially the word “natural.” When the same brand of sunscreen can have versions that are mineral-based and others that are chemical sunscreens, each with radically different ingredients, and blatantly label both “natural,” you can’t be too careful.

In my search for the best natural sunscreen, I learned that many claims are made on sun cream tubes, from “water-resistant” to “eco-friendly,” from “biodegradable” to “Free of–” any of these:

  • Tears
  • Parabens
  • Gluten (& other allergens)
  • Chemicals
  • PABA

And lately, brands are slapping “reef-friendly” on formulas that aren’t even close because of Hawaii’s new law. Arg!

RELATED: The Cheapest Reef-Safe Sunscreens that actually work!

Why is it all so confusing? Mostly because the FDA took decades to issue updated sunscreen standards, and things got out of hand.

They still haven’t regulated many of these terms, but at least some good things happened with the 2011 updates.

2011: FDA sunscreen guidelines crack down on labeling:2

  • The FDA prohibits sunscreen marketing claims like “waterproof” and “sweatproof,” which the agency said, “are exaggerations of performance.”
  • The FDA also proposed capping the highest SPF value at 50, unless companies can provide results of further testing that support a higher number. (They still haven’t done it, unfortunately! Europe and Australia cap at 50 SPF.)
  • FDA says manufacturers must phase out a four-star system currently used by some companies to rate UVA protection.
Sunscreens that don’t protect against both ultraviolet A and B rays and have a sun protection factor, SPF, of at least 15 will have to carry warning label: “This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.”

 

Currently, the FDA only requires testing for ultraviolet B rays that cause sunburn. That’s what the familiar SPF measure is based on.

But the new regulations require testing for the more dangerous ultraviolet A rays, which can penetrate glass and are most commonly linked to wrinkles and skin cancer.

from NBC News

Unfortunately, the higher SPF sunscreens are providing more UVB protection but not as much UVA – the imbalance is a big problem. This article from EWG is very long but SO good and addresses many problems in the sunscreen world.

Find the best safe sunscreen

The Balance Between Safe Sunscreen Ingredients and Antioxidants

Even zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can 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 (although zinc has a safer profile and only emits heat).

Any sunscreen worth its salt needs to include antioxidant ingredients to combat the free radicals.3

Some examples include olive oil, sunflower oil, Vitamin E, sea buckthorn oil, green tea, and many more.

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. PLUS there’s an issue of blending the zinc powder evenly enough that each application is as protective as the rest.

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

Too much to look through right now?

I organized alllll the sunscreens we reviewed in their recommendation category – one page at-a-glance to find out what is safe to buy AND works! Print it or save to your phone for reference!

The guide also includes answers to questions people ask me all the time:

  • Which brand rubs in the clearest?
  • What’s the best for all day outdoor sports?
  • How do I save money on natural sunscreens?
  • What looks good on ladies’ faces?
  • Is there an option that is FAST to apply to wiggly kids?

I’ll send a copy to your email so you can see it right away and find it again later!

Zinc Oxide Nano Particles Could be a Hazard

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. (You can minimize this by learning how to apply mineral sunscreen correctly!)

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 “nanoparticle” is a particle smaller than 100 nanometers, or 100 billionths of a meter. The problem with these nano-sized particles of minerals in sunscreen is that they are small enough to seep into the skin, causing similar problems, potentially, as the chemical sunscreens.

Reducing the size of the particle also changes the way they absorb the UVA and UVB rays which alters the potential effectiveness against sun damage.4

They also can harm coral reefs, and “reef-safe” sunscreens need to use larger particles of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Nanosized minerals can be ingested by corals.5, 6, 7

The FDA, on the other hand, maintains that there is no threat from nanoparticles:

Woodcock said animal tests done by the FDA found no evidence that sunscreens that contain nanoparticles of ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide pose a threat.

 

“We found the particles do not penetrate the skin,” Woodcock said, “If we were to determine any active ingredient does not meet safety standards for drugs, the FDA will notify the public and remove them promptly.”

And the FDA intends to study whether aerosol sunscreens offer adequate protection and whether inhaling the product poses any safety concerns.

These products are often used on children because they are easier to apply. Woodcock said until then, parents should ensure that children hold their breath while the sunscreen is being sprayed.

from NBC

It’s a debated issue, but I feel safer with brands that choose not to use nanoparticles. “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.

“Clear zinc” is a rather new player in the field, and I understand it may not be as reef-safe as it ought to be, but more I need to do more research before I’m fully educated on human health and safety of “clear zinc oxide.” Because it’s new…you can guess my first reaction. 🙂

The Possible Drawbacks of Zinc-Based Mineral Sunscreens

Zinc oxide sunscreens are notoriously difficult to rub in. Your skin can end up looking a little ghostly white from the sunblock. It’s a different look and can be a tricky transition if you’ve been used to spray sunscreen or lotion that’s super easy to rub in until it disappears.

However, I’d rather take slightly pasty looking kids than tempt fate and skin cancer in the name of vanity.

I like being able to see the sunscreen sometimes. That way I know it’s still there and I feel like it’s working.

boy with mineral sunscreen on
Here’s an example of a sunscreen that didn’t rub in well AT ALL!

A deficit of zinc oxide sunblocks is the stained clothing factor. I was disappointed the first time I realized some zinc-based sunblocks made white marks on my nice, dark bathing suits.

Since we are always testing so many of them, it was really difficult to pinpoint if any, in particular, stained the clothes. Some definitely did make marks on the new sun-protective clothing we reviewed, so that hazard is real. Just realize that zinc-based mineral sunscreens have a high potential for staining dark clothing and take care accordingly.

But what’s worse? Stains you can’t see until they’re permanent!

Avobenzone, the only FDA-approved chemical active ingredient that protects against UVA rays (which means it’s in every single “broad spectrum” formulation, almost everything on the market that’s not zinc-based right now), makes horrible orange stains on clothing, but you can’t even see them until clothing has gone through the laundry! I’d find that far worse, personally.

Some people are also sensitive or allergic to zinc oxide. My 2-year-old daughter had an initial reaction of red, bumpy arms (but not bothersome or itchy that I could tell) with the very first sunblock we tested, but then it never happened again. Others have mentioned the same type of reaction.

There are a few natural sunscreens that I’ve reviewed that do not contain zinc, so you’ll want to be on the lookout for them if you have a skin reaction.

2018: FDA Regulated Sunscreen as a Drug

Every year as I do more research and encounter more experts and heroes in the field of natural sunscreen, I learn more. In 2018 I got connected with Kōkua, a wonderful natural sunscreen company out of Hawaii. They worked to support the bill that became law to ban oxybenzone in octinoxate, and with a lawyer at the helm, they know what they’re doing as far as rules and regulations.

Tatyana explained to me the importance of the Drug Facts Box for sunscreen.

I never really thought about the drug facts box on my sunscreen and why the active ingredients are separate from the other ingredients, while on many personal products the ingredients are all bunched together or not listed on the package at all.

That drug facts box means that sunscreen is regulated by the FDA as an over the counter drug. Perhaps a little extreme, but if avoiding sunburn is a health and safety issue, I guess that’s why there are certain standards.

For example, I knew that sunscreens as of 2011 are no longer allowed to say waterproof or sweat-proof or list water resistance higher than 80 minutes. That’s all regulated by the FDA.

What I haven’t realized until now is that some smaller sunscreen companies and personal care product creators that are a little more homegrown have gotten around the regulations simply by not labeling their product “sunscreen.” They will call it mineral protection, or sun shield, or mineral block… And as long as they are not making claims that it will actually protect you from sunburn, the FDA probably won’t come after them.

Now if you know me, you know that I’m not exactly in bed with the FDA. We do not see eye-to-eye on many things. However, if a company is going to sell sunscreen, it is nice to know that they have tested it for claimed SPF and water resistance, that their preservatives do what they say they will do, and that the amount of claimed active ingredient is actually in there.

I’ve tested and reviewed over 120 mineral sunscreens, and in light of this info, my top mineral sunscreen recommendations are split into two tiers:

  • The very top-recommended group must pass extremely strict standards, including having a drug facts box and being registered with the FDA.
  • The “very good list” includes sunscreens that have only one small problem with them. Maybe they’re not registered with the FDA, or they are a little too white for many people’s liking, or they use titanium dioxide, my second favorite ingredient. The second tier might also have some minor consistency problems or some uncertainty about water resistance or burn protection. But only ONE of those issues!

What About Safe Ingredients in Spray Sunscreen?

Although some brands are beginning to make safe, zinc-based spray sunscreens, they’re still pretty hard to find.

The conventional aerosol sprays are NOT safe, for at least 3 reasons as I detail in this post, along with what I think are the best alternatives. I also included my reviews of the 4 mineral sprays we tested over there.

kids at the beach

Bottom Line: Choosing Safe Sunscreen Ingredients

If you’re trying to evaluate a sunscreen that’s not part of my comprehensive review, especially since more mineral formulas are coming out each year and I can’t keep up (a good problem! Competition will increase quality!), here’s what to do:

  • Go straight to the ingredients. There should be a Drug Facts box, optimally.
  • 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!
  • Water-resistant is best – if the lotion doesn’t stay on, it won’t work. 
  • 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. Unfortunately, now that Hawaii has banned a few ingredients, too many brands are claiming “reef-friendly” when they’re really not! This term isn’t as helpful as it used to be. 🙁 
Do you think it’s worth seeking out safe sunscreen ingredients?

If you’re an auditory learner, I did an 8-minute screenshare a few years ago of how I would evaluate a sunscreen I’ve never seen before, and it’s right here on Facebook

You can also catch Tatyana of Kokua Suncare with a quick 2-minute explanation of what to look for in a sunscreen:

Footnotes:

  1. Matta, M.K., Florian, J.., Zusterzeel, R., et al. (2020). Effect of Sunscreen Application on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 323(3), 256–267. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.20747
  2. Martin, D. (2011, June 14). Confused over sunscreen labels? Help is on the way. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna43393769
  3. Godic, A., Poljšak, B., Adamic, M., & Dahmane, R. (2014, March 26). The Role of Antioxidants in Skin Cancer Prevention and Treatment. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2014. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/860479
  4. Moyal D. (2012). The development of efficient sunscreens. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol, 78, 31-34. https://ijdvl.com/the-development-of-efficient-sunscreens/
  5. Glusac, E. (2018, February). Most Sunscreens Can Harm Coral Reefs. What Should Travelers Do? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/19/travel/most-sunscreens-can-harm-coral-reefs-what-should-travelers-do.html
  6. Haereticus Labs. (n.d.). Protect Land + Sea Certification. Retrieved from http://www.haereticus-lab.org/protect-land-sea-certification/
  7. Hawaiian Airlines. (n.d.). Protecting Hawaii’s Coral Reefs. Retrieved from https://www.hawaiianairlines.com/hawaii-stories/adventure/hawaiis-coral-reefs-and-reef-preservation
Learn more about non-toxic sunscreen and sun safety:
Sun Protection Trends Finally Moving in the Right Direction
 

(VIDEO Interview with a lawyer and safe sunscreen advocate)

 
 
Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

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