Choosing a sunscreen can be tricky. How can you tell what ingredients to look for—and which ones to avoid? Being able to read, and decipher, a sunscreen’s ingredient deck is critical.
Many chemical sunscreens contain synthetic ingredients that are toxic. The chemicals act as endocrine disruptors and throw the body out of whack, especially our hormones. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), endocrine disruptors are the engines of chaos, wreaking subtle havoc in our bodies. They increase the production of certain hormones and decrease the production of others; interfere with hormone signaling; tell cells to die prematurely; compete with essential nutrients; and accumulate in organs that produce hormones.
Avoid toxic chemicals
Chemical sunscreens rely on highly allergenic chemicals to block the sun, such as oxybenzone. Oxybenzone penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream and acts like estrogen in the body. One recent study has linked oxybenzone to endometriosis in older women; another study found that pregnant women with higher levels of oxybenzone gave birth to daughters smaller than the norm.
Why risk the potential harm that such chemicals can cause? Here’s a shortlist of chemicals to be on the lookout for:
Acts like estrogen in the body; alters sperm production in animals; may cause endometriosis in women; and triggers high rates of skin allergies.
Also causes hormone like activity in the body; alters reproductive system, thyroid and behavior in animal studies; and induces moderate rates of skin allergy.
Disrupts estrogen, androgen and progesterone.
Can cause allergies and is a suspected environmental toxin.
Produces excess reactive oxygen species that can interfere with cellular signaling, causes mutations, leads to cell death and may be implicated in cardiovascular disease.
Choose a mineral sunscreen
Mineral sunscreens, such as those with the active ingredients of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, make for a safer choice. Zinc and titanium are nontoxic minerals that sit on top of the skin rather than penetrate it. Yes, they are harder to rub in. That’s why they are also called physical sunscreens, because they form a coating on the skin (typically whitish) that literally blocks the sun, mineral filters have much lower toxicity concerns.
The right SPF (sun protection factor)
The SPF listed on the product corresponds to the length of time that you can stay outside in the sun without risk of sunburn. Calculating your recommended SPF is also influenced by your skin type.
Fair skin = 10 minutes
Olive skin = 15 minutes
Dark skin = 20 minutes
What’s the formula for how long you can stay in the sun without burning? Multiply your skin type by SPF number. For example, a fair skin person using a sunscreen SPF of 15 (10 x 15 = 150) would have 150 minutes or 2.5 hours of sun protection.
Beware of super-high SPFs
A super high SPF can lull consumers into complacency. In theory, applying sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 100 would allow beachgoers to bare their skin 100 times longer before suffering a sunburn. Someone who would normally redden after 30 minutes in the midday sun could stay out for 50 hours.
But there are many problems with SPFs above 50. Although a SPF of 100 sounds impressive, the extra protection it offers is negligible. Properly applied SPF 50 sunscreen blocks 98 percent of sunburn rays; SPF 100 blocks 99 percent. Not only is their claim of sun protection inflated, higher SPF products require higher concentrations of chemical filters, which means greater chance of hormone disruption.
To make it easier to choose a healthy sunscreen, check out the EWG’s list of the best sunscreens here: