A Sunscreen Summary

Summer has come and we turn to thoughts of sunscreen. Or something like that. This is always a quandary. We ask so much of our sunscreen. We want it to be an impenetrable barrier for all UV rays while being invisible, smelling good, and having no residual side effects. And as more aspects of the sun’s rays are discovered (remember when we didn’t know there were UVA and UVB rays?), we will be calling on our sunscreen to do even more.

The FDA does not have a solid, comprehensive policy regarding sunscreen claims or ingredients. Not even the much delayed implementation of new rules, coming in December 2012, ensures adequate consumer safety. Therefore, it is crucial that consumers learn for themselves what to look for and what to avoid.

Here I have tried to summarize all the reliable information about sunscreen for a quick read. (I heard that laugh.) For a whole lot more info, click on my resources.  You’ll notice that there is no perfect sunscreen.  I cannot give you a specific sunscreen to buy because it is all a risk/benefit analysis between SPF, active and inactive ingredients, and cost.  It is a quagmire, but hopefully once you identify a product you really like, the company won’t change anything for the worse.  Then, you’ll be able to keep buying it over and over.

The Best Resource for Sunscreen Information: Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) 2012 Sunscreen Safety Guide (http://breakingnews.ewg.org/2012sunscreen/)

The Best Sun Protection

The best sun protection involves a multi-faceted approach, including timing, clothing, shade, and sunscreen.

  • Timing: Avoiding the midday sun – between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm
  • Clothing: Wearing a hat, and long sleeves and long pants when possible in the sun
  • Shade: An umbrella at the beach
  • Sunscreen: Choosing a sunscreen with broad spectrum coverage and minimal side effects.

Common active sunscreen ingredients ranked best to worst, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database:

Ingredients EWG Rating UV Rays blocked Notes
Avobenzone 2 UVA Breaks down especially when with octinoxate
Mexoryl SX 2 Some UVA Low skin penetration, breaks down 40% in 2 hours
Titanium dioxide 1-3 UVA, some UVB Low skin penetration, but harmful if inhaled, may contain nanoparticles, can be whitish and hard to rub in.
Zinc oxide 2-3 UVA and UVB Low skin penetration, but may contain nanoparticles, can be whitish and hard to rub in
Ensulizole 3 UVB Can produce free radicals in sunlight, possible carcinogen
Octisalate 3 UVB Generally safe, but is a penetration enhancer
Octocrylene 3 UVB Produces oxygen radicals in UV light
Sulisobenzone 3 UVB, some UVA Penetration enhancer
Homosalate 4 UVB Weak hormone disruptor, forms toxic metabolites, can enhance penetration of a toxic herbicide
Padimate O 6 UVB PABA derivative, releases free radicals, damages DNA, estrogenic activity, and potential allergen
Aminobenzoic acid (PABA) 7 UVB Strong link to allergic dermatitis and photosensitivity, carcinogenic potential
Oxybenzone 8 UVB, some UVA Hormone disrupter, linked with photoallergic reactions, absorbs easily through skin.

(Table complied with info from EWG’s www.cosmeticsdatabase.com and www.skincancer.org/prevention/uva-and-uvb/understanding-uva-and-uvb. This table is not exhaustive. If you have an ingredient not mentioned, search for it in the EWG database.)

Bottom Line:

What to look for:

  • Avobenzene
  • Zinc dioxide
  • Titanium dioxide
  • Lotion sunscreen – provides a controlled application
  • SPF 15 to 50 – proven effective

What to avoid:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Retinyl Palmitate (vitamin A) – encourages tumor growth when in sunlight
  • Spray sunscreens – inhalation risk
  • Powder Sunscreens – inhalation risk
  • SPF lower than 15 or greater than 50 – low is ineffective, high has no scientific merit

Labeling Terms to Question:

“Organic” Sunscreen – None of the active sunscreen ingredients can be organic – they’re either mineral or synthetic chemical. Perhaps some of the inactive ingredients are organic, but make sure it’s not a gimmick. There’s no government oversight of organic claims in personal care.

“Waterproof”, “Sweatproof”, “Towelproof” – These terms are proving to be false. All sunscreens are diminished by swimming, sweating, or toweling off. Don’t believe it.

“Sunblock” – No product fully blocks the sun. This term misleads users into a false sense of security. The term will be banned by the upcoming December 2012 FDA rules.

“Chemical-free” – I haven’t a clue what this term means. Maybe it means “toxic chemical-free” or that the active ingredients are minerals (zinc and titanium) but there are “chemicals” in the inactive ingredients.  Besides, everything is a chemical.

Additional Tips:

Don’t ask too much of your sunscreen beyond blocking the sun, whether it’s nti-aging, self-tanning, wrinkle smoothing, bug repelling, make-up foundation… It’s better to have a product that does one thing well (blocking the sun), rather than doing two or more things less than well.  Additionally, sunscreen should be reapplied every 2 hours – how often are you reapplying that SPF foundation?  Also, retinyl palmitate, or vitamin A, which is used as an anti-aging ingredient, has repeatedly proven to speed up the growth of skin tumors when exposed to sunlight.  It’s fine in a night cream, but shouldn’t be in sunscreen.  However, it is a very common inactive ingredient.

Apply sunscreen 20-30 minutes before sun exposure. Use 1 oz. of sunscreen at each application – that’s about a handful. Reapply sunscreen every two hours, regardless of how strong the SPF was to begin with. Reapply after swimming, sweating or toweling off. In other words, use a lot.  Yes, it’s a bother, but let’s think in the long term here.

If you’re looking for a safe way to sunbathe and get a good tan, I don’t have a good answer for you. Call me unfeeling or out of touch, but there is no healthy way to force your body to tan excessively. No sunscreen will help, tanning beds are problematic, and self-tanning creams have their own retinue of hazards. If you’re looking for healthy skin color, eat right and exercise regularly. However, if you’ve been blessed with porcelain skin and you’re just aching for that deep Brazilian tan, I recommend that you accept yourself as you are. It’s not worth the price.  Tanning is a sign of damage to the DNA in our skin.  It is our bodies’ attempts to prevent further damage.

Conclusions to Avoid

After reading all of this and the EWG study, you may be tempted to veer off in one of two wrong directions:

  • Wrong Conclusion #1:It’s better not to wear any sunscreen at all. That way all the concern about absorption and broad spectrum and nano-particles and everything else wouldn’t matter.
    • • Despite risks associated with sunscreen, experts agree that it’s much better than nothing.
  • Wrong Conclusion #2:I just won’t go outside. Then I don’t have to worry about sun burns or sunscreens.
    • • This is throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. We need the exercise, fresh air, mental stimulation and relaxation that comes from the outside. Plus, we need some sun exposure for the creation of necessary vitamin D (read the EWG study).

Sunscreen Glossary

Active Ingredients – the ingredients that actually screen the sun’s rays
Broad Spectrum – blocks both UVA and UVB rays
Chemical Sunscreen – refers to sunscreens where the active ingredients are not minerals, which would be zinc oxide and titanium dioxide
Hormone Disrupter – a chemical that mimics or interferes with the body’s regulation of hormones
Mineral Sunscreen – refers to sunscreens where the active ingredients are minerals (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) that provide a physical barrier against the UV rays.  Inactive ingredients may still contain “chemicals”
Nanoparticles – particles smaller than 100 nanometers (nm), concern is mixed on the harmfulness of nanoparticles absorbing through the skin
Penetration enhancer – something that helps other chemicals penetrate the skin
Radicals or Free-radicals – atoms, molecules, or ions that have unpaired (i.e. free) electrons. They are highly chemically reactive and can cause DNA damage.
Sunblock – a term that will soon be banned by the new FDA regulations because it gives a false sense of security.
UVA – the sun’s rays which cause photo-aging, wrinkling, immune suppression and cancer.
UVB – the sun’s rays which cause sunburn; also causes cancer

25 thoughts on “A Sunscreen Summary

  1. I use badger’s sunscreen, I like it the best and their company is similar to Dr Bronners. Does Dr Bronners have any sunscreens in the works? They should!

  2. Hi Tom – I’ve used the Badger one as well, and it has done well. I have had the opportunity to meet the family that runs Badgers, and they are very “Dr. Bronner’s-y” or perhaps we are “Badger-y”. Anyhow, it’s all good! Their Badger Balm is great.

    Dr. Bronner’s is not and will probably never develop a sunscreen because the company has chosen to pursue products that can be certified organic. Sunscreen can’t, as I mentioned above. It is a very necessary skin care product for life in the sun, but it won’t be coming from Bronner’s.

    All the best,

  3. Great write up, thank you! I agree about the Badger sunblock and their bug balm is super! Those two in addition to my Bronner’s baby mild bar and a tube of Wound Warrior are my go to’s in my adventuring!

  4. Any homemade sunscreens that you suggest?

    I’ve found multiple “natural” ones online but they all include Zinc Oxide. Can’t seem to find one that excludes that ingredient.

  5. Thanks Lisa- I really appreciate your efforts in this whole blog with everything you do.

  6. Hi Cassie – I don’t have any homemade recipes unless you are talking about sewing a cover-up. Generally zinc oxide is regarded as one of the safer sunscreen options. Is your concern about its safety or its appearance?

    Thanks, Tom!

    All the best,

  7. Zinc oxide actually blocks the most UVA and UVB rays(and doesn’t cause cancer in the process). I buy what’s called Extra strenth Zincofax(45%)zinc oxide and mix it with coconut oil, for easy blending. It’s baby bum cream, but it’s the best. Oxybenzone and Octocrylene BOTH increase free radicals on the skin(which cause cancer) and they’e activated by UV a.k.a SUNLGIHT. As or the rest, I havent’ researched them as these were the only 2 ingredients in all 5 of my sunscreens(which I immediately threw away).

  8. I have so much trouble with so many things in sunscreens….I tend to have very dry skin and I am 68 , so I am begining to see those signs too. So many of the sunscreens feel so heavy and alot of them make my skin itch and tingle. Any suggestions?? I have very fair skin so I know I need really good protection.

  9. Awesome post Lisa. I’ve been wondering about Bronner Sunscreen (or similar) – Thank you so much for all the wonderful information –

  10. Wow, this is a really great article! It tells the facts without being at all biased. I’ve heard so many misleading facts about sunscreen lately so this was really spot on for me. Thank you! It’s great to see and make me feel good about supporting the Dr. Bronner’s line of products!

  11. All you have to do is take 4mg or more astaxanthin daily and you will find it gives outstanding protection from burning. It will take a couple of weeks to begin taking effect. I use it myself and I can now mow for 3 or 4 hours in the sun without burning. Before astaxanthin I would have been quite burnt from such exposure. Astaxanthin is an extremely potent natural antioxidant that comes from a type of algae. It has many more benefits but prevention of sunburn is one of the more noticeable ones.

  12. I completely concur that Badger is the best sunscreen out there. It’s the only commericial sunscreen we use. I’ve been thinking of trying a green tea/coconut oil combination as a homemade sunscreen. Have to look up studies on the effectiveness of course. Thanks for the article!

  13. Glad this post has been so helpful!

    Hi Dana – Homemade sunscreens can be a good way to go, but you’ll need something more than green tea and coconut oil – both have some UV protection, but not more than SPF 4. Combining them with zinc oxide might make an effective product, but look into it more thoroughly than I have.

    All the best,

  14. Great post, Lisa! I have a question (or two):

    After a certain degree of SPF, is there any point in going higher? For instance, I had a friend here in Hawaii who said he applied SPF 70 or 80 every 2 hours during an entire day at the pool. I thought that was an excessive SPF even for Hawaii, even for a “haole,” plus his skin wasn’t the maximum fairness — he is a brunette, medium-to-fair skin. It was a spray he was using (Banana Boat he said); he used a spray as it didn’t get into his eyes, plus some other reasons. In any case, he got pretty dark (but not burned) even with all that SPF (maybe because he was using a spray?). My inclination would be to lessen my chemical exposure by using a lower SPF — maybe 45 or less. What do you think? (By the way, the inhalation risk of a spray can obviously be avoided by not breathing while you apply; I’m not sure if there are other reasons to avoid sprays though.)

    #2 How DO you avoid getting the suncreen in your eye? It seems to migrate there even if you don’t apply it near the eye area.

    • As a soccer referee for 18+ years! I have the secret to keeping sunscreen out of your eyes–an older female ref shared it with me early on. Put on your chosen sunscreen, wait the recommended absorption time (usually 20 minutes), then gently pat apply a powder makeup (mineral pressed powder, etc). It soaks up the excess oil which is the part that drips and stings. I usually do my forehead, temples, eyebrows and under eye areas. Works like a charm. Many male referees use this trick as well.

  15. Oh, Lisa, I see you already answered my question in the data — that over 50 SPF is not proven effective; thanks, I won’t use higher than that.

    I do still have questions about:

    (1) How to keep sunscreen from getting into one’s eyes?

    (2) Using sprays: whether there are any reasons beyond inhalation risk (avoidable via not breathing I would think) not to use it? It seems like the spray wasn’t totally effective for my friend who got quite dark — perhaps it’s not a sufficient or uniform coating/shield. Also, they seem a bit more “chemically”(?). Also, they probably don’t use the non-toxics like zinc & titanium.

    (3) A question for Roxy: Are you saying you only make sunscreen for your baby? Or do you make it for yourself, too? If the latter, could you give your exact recipe? I’m having trouble finding sunscreen without green tea (I do not want to put tea or coffee of any kind in or on my body) so I might look into making my own.

    (4) Bill: Thank you for mentioning that. Does the astaxanthin also protect from wrinkling, aging, and skin cancer? In other words, does it protect from UVA *and* UVB rays?

  16. Hi Aanel – Thanks for writing! Sunscreen usually gets in our eyes either from sweat lifting the sunscreen off of our forehead and carrying it into our eyes, or from our rubbing our eyes in an effort to clear them of water, and thereby either rubbing the sunscreen from one part of our face to our eyes, or the sunscreen on our hands gets in our eyes.. One trick I think is to be sure to give your sunscreen a good chance to sink in and dry before sweating. This is also recommended so that the SPF has a chance to take effect, as well. Apply the sunscreen with a border around your eyes, and wear large sunglasses. Also, make sure it’s not clumped in your eyebrows – this is often what happens with me. Get the sunscreen off your hands, and when you do wipe your face, take care to avoid smearing into your eyes.

    Regarding the sprays, the inhalation risk is what automatically disqualifies them from the Environmental Working Group’s recommendation. Ingredient-wise, there is still as much variance as in the lotions. You’ll just have to read them. I would imagine, to lower the inhalation risk, spray them outside, and not directly on the face. Spray your hands and wipe it on to your face. Hold your breath while spraying, and walk out of the “cloud” before breathing again.

    Regarding the darkness of your friend’s skin, this can happen even with the highest SPF coverage, and regular application, and following all the rules. For one thing, sunscreen isn’t perfect, as I mention above. Note that they never use the term “sunblock” anymore, because they don’t block the sun. I have three kids who all tan exceedingly, even if they don’t go in the sun in the middle of the day, wear thorough sunscreen, and do everything else right. That’s just the way their skin works, and if they spend any time in the sun at all, they will tan. I also have friends who couldn’t tan if their life depended on it. Their skin just doesn’t do that.

    Regarding astaxanthin, I encourage you to do thorough research about that. I’ve seen a lot of mixed reports.

    All the best,

  17. As a mother of 4, sunscreen is always a struggle more mentally and timing and such. Last year I found a company called UV Skinz which was started after the women’s husband died from melanoma. Its outdoor wear and swimwear with UV protection, hats and such. Cute designs especially for little ones. I try to keep my brood from the sun during the mid day hours and then they got out with their UV Skinz swimwear and a large brim hats with UV protection. I am going to look into Badgers and thank you for your entire blog.

  18. Hi Jaime – You are absolutely right. Covering up is the best defense. I checked out UV Skinz, and they definitely have some cute designs.

    All the best,

  19. Great post, thanks for sharing the ingredients, there are some which are in mine , but never knew exact way of use , i absolutely agree on few of the above comments talking about badger sunblock and balm.

  20. Avoidance of the sun’s rays is absolutely and by far the best protection. I’ve been gathering a lot of information to make my own safe and effective body care products and had really hoped to make a reliable sunscreen. After my research, I will be wearing a hat, proper clothing and using daylight hours much more economically.

    What I found is alarming. In a nutshell both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are photosensitive, breaking down into free radicals and damaging skin cells. When using products that contain them, the sun’s rays may not be harming your skin directly but as these SPF additives break down so do the skin cells.

    In addition these metals are polluting our water and have been shown is several studies to cause cancer.

    An excellent website to learn more about toxins in cosmetics and other products is:


    This is an organization dedicated to exposing toxins in our everyday usage. Here’s a brief excerpt from their that page:

    Governments around the world have found sunscreen chemicals in bodies of fresh and salt water AND these chemicals have been found in the bodies of fish that humans and other animals consume. Sunscreen chemicals have even been found in human breast milk. Our own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and progressive scientists from around the globe have established the estrogenic potential of many of these chemicals. Endocrine disruptors can lead to cancer. Cancers overwhelm and threaten to bankrupt our over-burdened “health” care system. Don’t we have enough crises already?

    We recommend the book “Sunscreen Photobiology, Molecular, Cellular and Physiological Aspects” for folks who would like more technical information on the technical aspects of sunscreens. This volume, however, is not the only source supporting the technical info related to the instability of titanium dioxide AND zinc oxide. Here is a statement from a reputable cosmetic industry trade journal:

    “Titanium dioxide AND zinc oxide are commonly used in drug and cosmetic products. Contrary to belief, Sayre and co-workers (Cosmetics & Toiletries Oct. 2000, 75) have shown that these physical sunscreens are not photochemically inactive. Although adequate coating can reduce the risk, an increase in the destruction of photoliable skin lipids is not desirable. The photo-peroxidation of unsaturated skin lipids may result in perturbation of the lipid environment of viable cell layers and degrade skin surface lipids. “

  21. Hi again Lisa,

    Via Twitter, I recently found out about a new all-natural sunblock called “3rd Rock” (or if you are Googling it, “3rd Rock Sunblock”). It looks quite interesting. It’s pretty new and so the website(s) etc. are not as fleshed out as Badger’s, etc. Their website(s) make it sound very good though. Thought I’d mention it.

    Here are some of the links I’ve found:



    Thought I’d let you know, since your post was so informative and you seem so committed to all-natural but effective sun protection.

  22. Does anyone have a recommendation for a more affordable sunscreen? I want to buy something as natural and organic as possible, but I can’t afford to keep spending so much money on these tiny tubes of natural sunscreen. Any brands you all like that you find to be for affordable? Thanks!

  23. According to the table, Avobenzone “breaks down,” so does Mexoryl SX. What does that mean? It sounds like a bad thing, like theingredients can easily become ineffective, but you don’t say how or what causes the breakdown, or what the implications of that are. These two ingredients are ranked highest, so please tell me what that means.

    • Hi Jessie – This means that both avobenzone and mexoryl SX need to be reapplied often, in less than 2 hours.

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