5 Tips for Choosing a Safe, Natural Sunscreen

Elizabeth Marglin

by | Updated: December 4th, 2016 | Read time: 3 minutes

By now, you’d have to be an ostrich if you haven’t realized that a) unmitigated prolonged sun exposure is dangerous to your health and b) store-bought sunscreens contain harsh chemicals that could even worse for you than the sun. So what does this mean for summer sunning? Here’s the bad news: Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S., with more than 3.5 million cases diagnosed every year. A 2014 Mayo Clinic study found that melanoma had increased nearly eightfold among people ages 40 to 60, with the biggest growth among women, who experienced a 24-fold increase in the disease.

5 Tips for Choosing a Safe, Naural Sunscreen

But it’s not all doom and gloom. You can still sun have fun in the sun—if you do your due diligence. And you don’t have to resort to DIY sunscreen either. In fact, homemade sunscreens can do you a great disservice, because even if you do use the right ingredients, like zinc oxide, cosmetic chemists say there is an art to mixing them together. If you do it wrong, the sunscreen will be ineffective—and you might not find out till you sport a painful sunburn.

This summer, vow to be a savvy sun-goer. One caveat: Skincare companies use a lot of hyperbole, making it hard to know if a sunscreen is safe and effective. Sunscreen manufacturers can claim that a sunscreen is “gentle” or “natural” even if it’s full of toxic chemicals. So next time you purchase a sunscreen, consider these five principles for what makes a sunscreen safe.

1. Skip the spray option

Even though they are a godsend in terms of applying to squirming kids, aerosolized sunscreens may pose serious inhalation risks. (The FDA is currently investigating the risks of accidental inhalation of spray sunscreens.) Although the safety and efficacy of spray sunscreens is in question, companies continue to turn them out.

2. Beware of Super-High SPFs

The biggest problem with higher SPFs (sun protection factor) is complacency—consumers get lulled into a false sense of safety. The FDA calls inflated SPFs “inherently misleading.” High-SPF products tempt users into staying in the sun longer and overexposing themselves to both UVA and UVB rays. The confusion lies in the fact that SPF refers only to protection against UVB radiation, which burns the skin. SPF has nothing to do with sun’s UVA rays, which penetrate deep into the skin, suppress the immune system, accelerate skin aging and may cause skin cancer.

The typical pattern of misuse: people extend their time in the sun well past the point when users of low-SPF products exercise caution and head indoors. Typically, they get as many UVB-inflicted sunburns as unprotected sunbathers, plus are likely to absorb more damaging UVA radiation. In other countries, such as the EU, SPF claims are limited to 50+, and the FDA is considering implementing the same standard here. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends that consumers avoid products labeled with anything higher than SPF 50 and reapply sunscreen often, regardless of SPF.

3. Nix the toxins

According to the EWG, the ingredients that are most problematic are oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate and octocrylene. Found in nearly every chemical sunscreen, the chemical oxybenzone penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream and acts like estrogen in the body. The EWG cites two studies: one that linked oxybenzone to endometriosis in older women; another that found women with higher levels of oxybenzone during pregnancy had lower birth weight daughters.

4. Give Retinyl Palmitate the boot

This form of vitamin A, retinyl palmitate (or retinol), is a known reproductive toxicant but it also touted to have anti-aging benefits. While deemed innocuous when used in a night cream, on sun-exposed skin, retinyl palmitate may speed development of skin tumors and lesions, according to government studies. The FDA has yet to rule on the safety of retinyl palmitate in skin care products—it’s still added to 25 percent of all sunscreens. The EWG recommends that consumers avoid sunscreens containing this chemical.

5. Mine the minerals

Doctors generally agree that mineral sunscreens—products where the chief protection is provided by zinc oxide or titanium dioxide — are best. Zinc and titanium are nontoxic minerals that sit on top of the skin rather than penetrate it. Yes, they are harder to rub in. But there are sacrifices to be made for safety. And the options are abundant. According to the EWG, there are 173 sunscreens on the market that pass this stringent criteria—consult the EWG’s guide before you shop.