How many of us have had a really bad, painful sunburn in our lifetime, probably because we forgot to apply sunscreen or missed some spots?

Sunscreen, typically found in lotion or spray form, can be classified as either a physical or chemical sunscreen. Physical sunscreens reflect sunlight, whereas chemical sunscreens absorb UV light. The use of sunscreen is so important since it helps to prevent sunburns, early skin aging, and skin cancers. And for those living in areas where it feels like summer all year round, it’s especially important!

Woman Relaxing on beach

What to Look Out For

Most of the bad chemicals–oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octocrylene, and octisalate–are found in chemical sunscreens. The most worrisome out of these, oxybenzone, is found in almost 65% of chemical sunscreens, so I’ll go into a little more detail. Oxybenzone ranks a whopping 8 /10 on the EWG website, which means it’s one of the most toxic ingredients found in cosmetic products. It also was named “Allergen of the Year” by the American Contact Dermatitis Society in 2014. Yikes! That’s an award you probably don’t want to receive.

Why does this chemical have such a bad rap? There is some controversy about whether oxybenzone is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it can alter hormone levels. It is thought that it can mimic estrogen in the body. This is particularly concerning considering the Centers for Disease Control found oxybenzone in more than 96% of the American population. It can even be detected in women’s breast milk, meaning fetuses and newborns may be at risk of exposure.

Those are just a few of the reasons why oxybenzone is unsafe, but it’s enough for me to want to avoid it. There is a precautionary principle that states if you don’t know for certain that something is unsafe, it’s better to err on the side of caution. I wholeheartedly agree, especially when there are safer alternatives already out there.

What are the safer alternatives?

Physical sunscreens use zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient. Zinc oxide offers greater protection against UVA rays over titanium dioxide or any other chemical sunscreen. So, just switch over to physical sunscreens, right? Yes! However, avoid these sunscreens in aerosol form. I know it’s more convenient, but it’s just not worth it. Titanium dioxide appears to have low skin penetration, but inhalation is a concern. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has designated titanium dioxide, in its inhalable form, a possible carcinogen.

Using Spray sunscreen on child

Another thing to note: you might see some physical sunscreens marketed as “non-nano,” which is a bit misleading. Nearly all of the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in sunscreen would be considered nanoparticles, under the definition proposed by the FDA. If they weren’t nanoparticles, the sunscreen would appear white and chalky on the skin.

(Side Note: The cosmetics industry is increasing its use of micronized pigments in color cosmetics. You should avoid nanoparticles in loose powder makeup and spray sunscreens because they can cause extensive organ damage when inhaled.)

Should I not use sunscreen so I can get some Vitamin D?

No. The American Academy of Dermatology states there’s no safe level of UV exposure to maximize vitamin D synthesis without increasing the risk of skin cancer. Therefore, continue to use sunscreen, and eat foods rich in vitamin D. Consult your physician to see if you need blood work and based on those results, vitamin D supplementation. Many Americans have low vitamin D levels, which is essential for maintaining healthy bones and supporting a strong immune system.

What SPF should I get?

The sun protection factor (SPF) measures the fraction of sunburn-producing UVB rays that reach the skin. This means an SPF 15 sunscreen allows 1/15 of the radiation to reach the skin. Often times though, invisible damage and skin aging can occur from UVA rays, which don’t cause redness or pain. So essentially, when you’re looking at the SPF number, you’re only getting half the picture because it only relates to UVB protection. The next time you’re shopping, remember to get a broad spectrum sunscreen. “Broad spectrum” indicates it protects against both UVB and UVA.

UVA and UVB rays penetrate different layers of skin

The higher the SPF, the better right? Not necessarily. There really is no need to go higher than SPF 50. The extra protection you’d gain from using an SPF 100 sunscreen is negligible and actually decreases its effectiveness against UVA rays. Also, high SPF sunscreens require higher concentrations of chemicals, which may pose health risks or trigger allergic reactions.

If you really want to get adequate UV protection, make sure you apply enough sunscreen. Most studies show we use far less sunscreen than is needed, so we’re essentially not getting the SPF protection stated on the bottle. For example, if you used 25% of the recommended amount of an SPF 30 sunscreen, you’re only getting an SPF of 2.3! Maybe that’s why you got that bad sunburn!

To summarize, the safest sunscreen is a physical broad spectrum sunscreen (zinc oxide, titanium dioxide) in topical form with an SPF between 25-50. Use a liberal amount and remember to reapply at least every 2 hours. Most importantly, choose one that you’re comfortable using on a regular basis because any UV protection is better than none!

Best Sunscreen Brands I Like

Beauty By Earth Best Sunscreen

Beauty by Earth Sunscreen SPF 25

Why I Like It: This product is a physical sunscreen, using zinc oxide as its active ingredient. There are no harsh chemicals in the inactive ingredients, many of which are organic. It is broad spectrum so it protects against UVA and UVB. It’s also reef safe. I’ve tried it myself and it goes on clear and is non greasy.

Goddess garden organics everyday best sunscreen

Goddess Garden Organics Everyday SPF 30

Why I Like It: Goddess Garden Organics is a physical sunscreen with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as its active ingredients. It has the same benefits as Beauty by Earth, but I recommend the lotion form only—NOT the spray.

Banana boat baby or kids best sunscreen

Banana Boat Baby or Kids Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50

Why I Like It: If you feel like Beauty by Earth and Goddess Garden Organics are a bit pricey, especially if you’re using sunscreen everyday, I found a cheaper alternative. Banana Boat Baby or Kids Sunscreen Lotion is also a physical sunscreen with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as the active ingredients. The inactive ingredients aren’t the most natural, but they’re not horrible. This would still be a much better option than using a chemical sunscreen. It also has broad spectrum protection against UVA and UVB. (Note: Banana Boat Baby and Kids Sunscreen actually have the same exact formulation.)

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