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Your Guide to Safe Sunscreen

JOURNAL

Your Guide to Safe Sunscreen

Your Guide to Safe Sunscreen

Your Guide to Safe Sunscreen

By Saralyn Bellmer

Sunscreen Demystified

We’ve been getting a lot of questions about sunscreen. For good reason - even in 2022 sunscreen remains one of the toughest products to get right: UV-absorbing chemicals used in a vast majority of sunscreens contain ingredients that are endocrine disruptors, marine toxins, or even carcinogenic. Moreover, that spray sunscreen that goes on so easily? Sadly, it’s even worse: the airborne particulate can easily enter the respiratory system and largely misses the body - becoming a greater environmental hazard. 

Sunscreen on a leg on a pebble beach
There are safe and effective alternatives, however, and new research is showing more promising options for the future. We know it’s hard to wade through the information around this, and that it can be frustrating - and expensive - to try a bunch of products only to find you don’t like them or they’re not what they claim to be. So, we’re here to try to make it simple: By breaking down the key issues, zeroing in on the ONLY FDA approved active ingredients that are both body and reef safe, and giving you our recommendations of products that we’ve tested and loved. 

As of right now in the United States, there are only two active sunscreen ingredients proposed by the FDA as safe and effective: Zinc oxide and Titanium dioxide. The remaining 12 active ingredients currently being used for UV protection remain in a category for which the FDA is "seeking more data". These ingredients are still allowed to be used in consumer products until they are deemed by the FDA as “not generally safe”. However, research has shown that the UV absorbing chemicals under review give cause for concern: many have strong evidence of affecting the hormone and reproductive systems, some are known or probable carcinogens or damage DNA, and several are environmental toxins.

Supergoop makes reef safe claims with reef unsafe ingredientsCoral reef health is perhaps where we see the most concern regarding environmental toxins in sunscreen. Amazingly, an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen are washed off humans into the ocean each year. Many chemicals used in sunscreen are suspected to be harmful to marine life and a handful of the most common have been proven to cause coral bleaching, damage coral DNA, promote viral infections in the coral and disrupt coral reproduction - even at minuscule dilutions. Sadly, we cannot rely on brands that make “reef safe” claims on their packaging - there are no federal regulations around this and we have noticed that many products marketed as reef-friendly use ingredients known to harm coral. 


So what kind of sunscreen is safe? 

Zinc oxide and Titanium dioxide are minerals that can be used as sunscreens - they work by coating the surface of the skin and literally reflecting UV rays away from the body. They are the only two active sunscreen ingredients currently deemed generally safe and effective for topical use by the FDA. 

There is a small catch. As many of us probably know, some mineral sunscreens look visibly white when applied. Mineral sunscreen companies have been working on reducing this visibility and several have found ways to make the application more clear. We expect that this will only improve in years to come. 

Nano vs. Non-Nano

There is some controversy around the particle size of mineral sunscreens. While smaller particles of zinc and titanium are less visible on the skin, there is some concern about these smaller, nano-sized particles being absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream at toxic levels. There are several reputable studies concluding that this is not the case, but while this continues to be researched, we remain cautious. Moreover, there is more evidence that nano sunscreens are toxic for marine life - reason alone to avoid them, in our opinion.

Sunscreens We Love

We think the best natural sunscreen is Zoca Lotion. We deem it the best for how pure its ingredients are: Emily, Zoca’s founder, has used nutrient dense ingredients, high quality oils and herbal infusions to make a cream that is both sun protective and food for the skin. We like this product the most for full body coverage - days spent sunbathing or gardening when large areas of the body are exposed to the sun and a slight white tint is not a big deal. We love wearing this at the beach, knowing that any residue washed into the water is of the purest quality.

Zoca Lotion is a bit on the thick side of mineral sunscreens we have tried, which is is largely due to its purity of ingredients. We do, however, prefer using it for the body rather than the face for this reason. 

Other sunscreens we have tried and liked:

Solara Time Traveler - especially for facial use. This cream blends into the skin and still largely has very good ingredients. Some preservatives and emulsifiers are used but all with good safety ratings. 

Badger Sunscreen with “clear zinc” - We love this sunscreen, use it on ourselves and our families. The previous formula went on whitish, but their new technology, which uses zinc particles with a porous surface texture, does not reflect as much visible light as standard zinc particles. Badger’s ingredients are always some of the best - oils, beeswax, plant extracts, and zinc oxide. 

Thinksport SPF - Also blends well into the skin. Also uses some preservatives and emulsifiers - still with very good safety ratings. 

One great resource when checking product safety is the Environmental Worker’s Group Skindeep Cosmetic Database. While not entirely comprehensive, this third party database is searchable by product and ingredient for safety ratings and related studies. This can be a great way to understand the safety of a product you already have or lookup a specific ingredient in a product that is not listed. 

 

Glossary

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that alter the body’s hormone system. Endocrine disrupting chemicals can impact conditions like Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), Infertility, Endometriosis and Menopause, increased risk of breast cancer, low testosterone in adolescents, fetal weight and shortened gestation periods. 

Beyond chemical sunscreens, endocrine disrupting chemicals are found in consumer products such as plastics, household chemicals, fabrics treated with flame retardants, cosmetics, lotions, products with synthetic fragrance, and anti-bacterial soaps 

Carcinogens are chemicals known to cause cancer. Octocrylene, a common ingredient used in sunscreens, can break down into benzene, a known carcinogen. 

Reef Safe ingredients do not pose a harm to coral health and other marine life. Reef safe is not a regulated claim, so please check your products for their ingredients. Common active ingredients used in sunscreens that are not reef safe: octocrylene, oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, OD-PABA, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, 3-benzylidene camphor, AND nano-titanium dioxide, nano-zinc oxide

Mineral sunscreen: UV blocking product using mineral based active ingredients instead of chemical based. Not a regulated term, so please check your ingredients label for additional chemical UV blockers!

 

Have any questions or have any feedback about the products we have recommended? Leave us a comment or send us an email - we would love to hear from you!

2 comments

Diana Krystofiak

Thank you for posting this information. Every time I go to the dermatologist she tells me that I need to protect my skin and wearing long sleeves is not an option on reeeally hot days. So, this post was informative and I will follow your advice. Thank you!

Sarah

I have my doubt about “reef safe” sunscreens too. I’ve moved toward wearing protective clothing in lieu of sunscreen when I’m on the water. A sun hoodie that cinches at the neck and has thumb holes so it covers the backs of my hands, a gaiter to cover most of my face, rain pants on bottom that stay dry while keeping the sun off my legs. If I’m snorkeling or diving I’ll wear neoprene booties in my fins and keep them on like socks while I’m out of the water, to keep the tops of my feet from burning. It’s not a perfect solution environmentally speaking, since clothing like this is pretty much all synthetic and therefore sheds microplastics. It also looks goofy. But I’ve found it more effective than sunscreen, and it requires less effort compared to applying & reapplying sunscreen.

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