The trouble with chemical sunscreens

Not all sunscreens are created equal! Here’s how to get top level protection from sunscreens that use only safe, natural ingredients (and why it’s so important to avoid the sunscreens that don’t).

Most of us can spend a small amount of time in the sun without an SPF and benefit from the boost of vitamin D. But for extended periods in the sun (and we’re hoping for lots of those now that it’s summer) and for people with fragile, sensitive skin, it’s absolutely vital to have a sun protocol that includes hats, sunglasses, cover-ups, sunscreen, and after sun care. 

One of the most important things you’ll purchase this summer is a safe, effective sunscreen. But how to choose which to go for?

Most mainstream sunscreens — the type you’ll commonly find in a supermarket — are chemical sunscreens. They’re made of a carbon-based compound that penetrates the skin. They work by absorbing UV rays into the skin, changing the rays into heat, then releasing that heat from the skin. They are easy to apply and cheap to produce, but there are a few very concerning things about these types of sunscreens.

Because they create heat in the skin, they can irritate sensitive or compromised skin, particularly skin affected by rosacea. They’re also linked to a higher rate of breakouts in people with acne-prone skin.

Also, by inviting UV rays into the deeper layers of skin, they create the possibility for those rays to damage the skin below its surface.

And if that wasn’t worrying enough, there’s also evidence that chemical sunscreens disrupt hormone production in females and males of all ages. One very common active ingredient in chemical sunscreen, oxybenzone, has been associated with increased risk of endometriosis in women, weakened sperm quality in men, skin allergies, hormone disruption, and cellular damage.

What’s more, the US FDA aren’t confident enough to declare the ingredients in chemical sunscreens as safe. They’re currently trying to gather data to determine whether or not the 12 active ingredients commonly used in chemical sunscreens should be evaluated as Generally Regarded as Safe and Effective (GRASE). For now, there’s not enough evidence to definitively make the call. So why run the risk?

Luckily, there are some safe and effective alternatives on the market, which are known as Mineral Sunscreens because of the way they work. The two main active ingredients in Mineral Sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both declared GRASE by the FDA. Mineral sunscreens are formulated out of tiny mineral particles that sit on top of the skin where they deflect and scatter UVA and UVB rays away from the skin. Unlike chemical sunscreens, they don’t create heat (making them better for people with sensitive skin) and they don’t penetrate the skin (so they’re less likely to clog pores and cause hormonal disruption).

More to love about Mineral Sunscreens:

• Mineral sunscreens are naturally broad-spectrum which means they offer strong protection against UVA and UVB rays.

• They start working as soon as they’re applied, there’s no waiting for them to kick into effect.

• They last longer in direct UV light than chemical sunscreens.

After which type of sunscreen to choose, you then need to consider which strength (SPF). The thing about SPF (or ‘Sun Protection Factor’) is that the sunscreen industry wants us to believe the higher the number the better, but experts argue that anything above SPF 50 offers only a marginal amount of extra protection, and actually, wearing a high SPF, while it protects you from burning, could leave you open to deeper and more serious skin damage.

You see, SPF only refers to protection against UVB rays (the kind that cause sunburn) and not UVA rays (the kind that penetrate the skin and cause damage on a cellular level). It’s easy to fall into a false sense of security when you’re using a high SPF, thinking you’re fully protected so you stay in the sun longer when in fact, you’re overexposing yourself to UVA and UVB rays.

If you’ll be out in the sun for a while, Cancer Research UK suggests wearing an SPF 15 or higher and generously reapplying it at least every two hours, for best all round protection. It’s also important to know when to cover up with clothing and hats and when to move to a shaded area or indoors. According to the European Working Group (who have a whole article on the dangers of high SPFs, see references): “When used correctly, sunscreen with SPF values in the range of 30 to 50 will offer adequate sunburn protection, even for people most sensitive to sunburn.” So you don’t need to buy super high SPFs, you just need to be sun smart and use your products correctly. 

So, which brands should you trust? In Organico, our favourite Mineral Sunscreens include Green People, Organii, Weleda and Badger. 

Green People is a certified organic UK company and is committed to using cruelty-free, ethically-sourced natural ingredients. Their line of healthy, natural sun protection uses non-toxic UV filters and a blend of antioxidant-rich rosemary, green tea and edelweiss to protect and nurture the skin. 

Organii’s range of mineral-based natural sun protection is certified organic and made for the whole family. The suncream is waterproof, perfect for a day in the water, and fragrance-free, which makes it suitable for sensitive skin. The Face Cream with SPF 15 is light and easy to wear. 

Weleda is a naturopathic company that’s been around since the early 1920s. They’re loved for their gentle, cruelty-free skincare made with biodynamic ingredients and Green Energy methods.

The mineral-based sun protection for Babies and Kids, in SPF 30 and SPF 50, from Weleda is waterproof and designed for sensitive skin. The fragrance-free formula contains nourishing coconut oil and shea butter to moisturise as it protects, and edelweiss to provide antioxidant power against sun damage. The lotions create a visible white layer so it’s obvious when and where a top up is needed on your child’s body.

Badger Natural Mineral Sunscreen for kids is made with only six ingredients! The cream is hypoallergenic and biodegradable (making it a good choice for the environment), and it smells like creamsicle. With protection that is water and sweat resistant for up to 40 minutes, it’s a must have for long, active summer days.

For UV protection that is firmly rooted in the skincare category rather than the sunblock category, you couldn’t do better than Trilogy’s Age Proof Multi-Defence Moisturiser with SPF15. This is first and foremost a face moisturiser formulated to hydrate the skin, even the skin tone, and smooth the appearance of wrinkles while also providing protection from UV rays including blue light. 

You can find all these natural, safe and effective Sun Creams on as well as in many local Health Food Stores. Have a lovely sunny August folks!


Hannah Dare

Hannah Dare co-runs Organico, the café, bakery and health shop in Bantry, West Cork.

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