Sun exposure is great for your brain, bones, and skin. It can improve mood and sleep quality plus relieve stress. It provides all these benefits due to its ability to create vitamin D. (Learn more about Vitamin D here.) However, too much sun causes sunburn, blisters and can create flu-like symptoms or headache. Prolonged over-exposure to the sun contributes to skin wrinkles and premature aging and skin cancers.
The danger zone of exposure times will vary based on your skin type and geographic location, but for most people, the best times to cover up are between 10am and 4pm. Keep in mind that UV rays pass through clouds and mist so while you don’t see the sunlight or feel it’s warmth, your skin is still at risk.
Staying in the shade, wearing clothing and hats, and sunglasses are great ways to protect from the sun, but if you and your family are active outside in the summer then you’ll also want to apply a good sunscreen. Finding a quality sunscreen to put on your body is as important as any other organic, non-toxic foods that you put in your body. The skin is the largest organ of the human body and adults have an average of 22 square feet of it! It’s protective, but also porous, like a sponge.
So, what are considerations for selecting a good sunscreen? In this blog we break down labels and terminology about sunscreen and help you identify ingredients to avoid. We’ve even selected a few of the more common brands and personally tested them out to share with you our top picks.
Full Spectrum: UVA/UVB
There are two types of UV light that can harm your skin: UVA and UVB.
- UVA (long wave) rays account for 95% of the UV radiation that reaches earth and penetrate deep into the skin. UVA rays contribute to the wrinkling and premature aging of skin and studies over the last two decades found they are contributors to skin cancers.
- UVB (short wave) rays burn only the surface of the skin and cause sunburn, blistering and wrinkles or premature aging. These rays play a key role in the development of skin cancer.
Only a “broad-spectrum” or “full spectrum” sunscreen is designed to protect you from both UVA and UVB. [Ref: Skin Cancer.org]
What is SPF?
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and is a measure of how well a sunscreen will protect from UVB rays. (not UVA) The SPF rating is not linear, however, and so higher SPF ratings don’t necessarily equal exponentially more protection. Here’s an example:
- SPF 15 blocks 93% UVB
- SPF 30 blocks 97% UVB
- SPF 50 blocks 98% UVB
It’s best to get a SPF 30 or 50 and reapply every 2 hours. (Refer also to Water Resistant Sunscreens, below, for considering when considering re-application) [Ref: Skin Cancer.org]
Water Resistant Sunscreens
The FDA allows claims of “Water Resistant” on sunscreens in the US to advise buyers of sunscreens which are independently tested to hold their SPF rating in water or while sweating. (“Sweatproof” and “Waterproof” are no longer allowed by the FDA). Water Resistant sunscreens are marked in either 40 or 80-minute increments after your skin becomes wet. It’s also important to re-apply after you towel off, as you’ll be wiping off the sunscreen with the towel. [Ref: FDA.gov]
Toxin Cautions for You
Classic sunscreens use chemical active ingredients designed to dissolve and dissipate UV rays. One of the most commonly used chemicals in sunscreens is called oxybenzone, which can cause allergic skin reactions and studies have found contribute to hormone disruption in children and adults. Other chemicals to avoid are:
Mineral-based sunscreens use mineral (aka “physical”) active ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to scatter and reflect UV rays. These are less likely to cause allergic skin reactions. Also, mineral sunscreens sit on top of the skin, rather than absorb into it. Because of this they’re effective immediately – no need to wait 15-20 minutes for them to absorb.
However, even mineral-based sunscreens can have significant amounts of inactive ingredients that can make up 50-70% of the product. One of the most common is called methylisothiazolinone which can also cause allergic skin reactions. [Ref: EWG.org]
Toxin Cautions for the Environment
It’s important to remember that if we’re putting sunscreens on our bodies and then getting into the rivers, lakes and oceans that we’re introducing these chemicals to the aqua ecosystems as well. Anyone who’s ever had a fish tank understands about the impact from the introduction of chemicals to the water on the fish and corals. Hawaii has become the first state to actually ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate due to the damage caused to the coral reef systems (called “bleaching”).
What about Aerosol Sprays?
Did you know that sunscreen sprays advise not to apply to the face and avoid inhaling? Spray sunscreens are thinner and so it’s difficult to get full and complete coverage leaving skin exposed. They’re also often alcohol-based so evaporate quickly. And the simple fact is that even “natural” aerosol sunscreens contain ingredients toxic for inhalation.
It’s overwhelming to read labels in the store to find a quality sunscreen safe for you, your kids, and the environment. It’s more disappointing, still, to come home and apply the sunscreen only to find it’s overly greasy or leaves you looking white and pasty. We have selected a variety of the most common natural sunscreen brands and put them through our own review process to help you.
The All Good Sports brand was by far the most comfortable sunscreen containing non-toxic ingredients. My kids love that it’s not greasy and doesn’t paint their skin with a layer of thick, white cream. We also love the MyChelle brand stick. It’s a smaller Colorado brand so prices are pretty steep per ounce, but it goes on little faces easily.
You can learn more and check on the safety of your own favorite brand of sunscreen from the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Sunscreen.
Enjoy all of your outdoor sun activities safely! Happy Summer!
This article was updated June, 2022.
Disclaimer: Nutrition therapy is not intended as a diagnosis, treatment, prescription, or cure for any disease, or as a substitute for medical care. Jen Marshall and Stacy St Germain are not licensed medical providers. Nutrition plans are not intended as a substitution for traditional medical care, nor should be interpreted as medical advice, but instead is an adjunctive and supportive therapy.