Summertime is approaching, and in South Texas, our days are heating up quickly. We’ve spent a lot of the past two weeks mostly outside, and it made me realize I need to start packing my sunscreen for fun outings. There’s been quite a bit of buzz in recent years about “safer sunscreen” and what that actually means.
I’ve read and researched what I find to be the best choice for our family. There are now so many - maybe too many options - for any kind of sunscreen, chemical or not. So, let’s dive in and see how sunscreen works, why we should use safer sunscreen, what ingredients to avoid or look for and which brands are the best (in my opinion) to put on your body.
How Sunscreen Works
In the past, we referred to sunscreen as sunblock and sunscreen. Sunblock was the thick, white pasty mineral compounds that blocks UVB rays - this is also called physical sunscreen. Chemical sunscreens absorb the UVA rays into the skin.
UVB rays are responsible for causing sunburn, and UVA rays cause tanning, pre-mature aging, and immune system suppression. Once more research was done to discover that not all sunscreens are providing protection from both UVA and UVB rays, we now have the term “broad spectrum” in the sunscreen world. When buying sunscreen, you want to ensure you’ve purchased a broad spectrum sunscreen to fight against both UVA and UVB rays.
In 2011, the FDA came down with some new guidelines for how sunscreen is labeled and sold. For all the details, see this article. Products can no longer claim they “block the sun” as it was misleading for consumers. Mineral sunscreens (and sunscreens in general) need to be reapplied according to the directions on the bottle. Sunscreens are not the only way to protect your skin in the sun, and should be used along with other measures.
General Sun Protection
I have to be honest about the fact that sunscreen is not my favorite thing.. I definitely make sure my kiddos have sunscreen on them on those long, hot pool days in the summer, but I haven’t put on a full body coating of sunscreen in a long time. The more research I do on sun exposure and sun protection, I’m realizing that sunscreen can be an integral part of sun protection but not the only piece of the puzzle.
The Environmental Working Group and pretty much every other resource I found about sunscreen suggest to use others measures of sun protection. Basically, don’t rely solely on sunscreen to keep you from damaging your skin from sun exposure. The EWG provides this graphic to give you tips for how to protect your skin in conjunction with using sunscreen.
There are many companies now offering swimsuits with UV protection. SwimZip is one of my favorite brands offering rash guards and swim gear made with UPF 50+ sun protective fabric. UPF is similar measure to sunscreen SPF but for clothing. SwimZip has options for the whole family, including mom and dad.
Why Safer Sunscreen
This explanation could fill pages and pages, but for the sake of #momlife, let’s keep it simple. Your skin is the largest organ on your body, and it absorbs pretty much anything you put on it: perfume, lotion, soap…sunscreen. Some areas of the body absorb more than others - like your armpits. It’s important to pay attention to what your slathering all over your body day after day. We’ll get to what chemicals are in most conventional sunscreens that can contribute to a whole host of issues for your body.
The EWG has been working hard to bring us the facts on which sunscreens will be the safest for our bodies. Unfortunately, in their recent reports, more than half of the sunscreens on the market in the United States do not provide adequate sun protection.
Some of the ingredients found in chemical sunscreen can wreak havoc on the body. We’ll dive into the specific ingredients next, but these chemical concoctions have been linked to hormone disruption and have even been found in the breastmilk of mothers using these sunscreens. Your skin absorbs whatever you put on it, and in the case of these chemicals, they can even seep into our bloodstream. Using a mineral sunscreen isn’t the perfect solution, but it’s what I prefer for my family.
Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid
I know I sound like a broken record, but the EWG has produced some great articles that detail the toxicity of these chemicals listed above. If you’re into the nitty gritty details of skin absorption and hormone disruption, look into the EWG’s research.
Made Safe is another great organization and website where you can find lots of information on safer products for your skin and your family’s skin. They provided the graphic above to point out the top 3 toxic ingredients found in most chemical sunscreens.
The #1 ingredient to avoid would be Oxybenzone. This is found in almost all chemical sunscreens and can affect your hormones and potentially elicit an allergic skin reaction. Some studies show that it can even cause fertility and birth issues in newborns. These toxic chemicals are also ruining coral reefs in our oceans. Oxybenzone and Octinoxate are harmful to coral reefs and marine life in general.
Sunscreen Ingredients to Look For
A good mineral sunscreen will have one of these two ingredients listed as the “active ingredient”. Some brands have hybrid mineral/chemical blends, so you want to make sure you check the ingredients. These two ingredients are UV blockers and typically, the sunscreens are thicker, more white and sometimes a bit harder to rub in. It took me a few tries to get over feeling a little weird with a layer of white on my skin at the beach, but it eventually evens out and absorbs into the skin.
You also want to check the ingredients for any artificial fragrances or additional fillers that don’t need to be on your skin.
This is a new one for us this year, but I’ve heard people rave about it. I love a good spray sunscreen, but most of the chemical sprays are inhaled by the user and cause irritation to the lungs. Beautycounter brilliantly designed their spray with a “non-aerosol, bag-on-valve actuator system” so there are no harmful propellants on your skin or in your lungs. They also use a non-nano zinc oxide to “ensure there is no potential risk of respiration when sprayed and does not enter the blood stream to cause harmful effects to the body”.
That’s a win for sure in my book. This sunscreen is a tad more pricey than your grocery store find, but it’s worth it to me to make sure we’re not ingesting or absorbing toxic ingredients. We also purchased the sun stick to easily apply to the face. I tell my girls it’s “makeup” like Mommy puts on, which they love.
Badger brand sunscreens were my first purchase in the safer sunscreen world. This is a non-nano, broad spectrum mineral sunscreen that would be a great choice for your family. They also offer sun protecting lip balms.
Tips for Using Safer Sunscreen
Apply 15-20 minutes before sun exposure - reality check: this doesn’t always happen in my house, but we try our best to get it on right after we put on swimsuits. Chemical sunscreens must absorb into your skin before they start working, whereas mineral sunscreens begin working faster as they sit on top of your skin.
Reapply according to the directions - some may be 40 minutes, others may be longer at 80 minutes.
Keep the SPF around 30 - higher SPFs are no longer consider more effective. Consumers tend to grab a higher SPF and assume they don’t need to reapply.
Check the date and where you store - Safer sunscreens may separate or expire faster than chemical sunscreens. Check the expiration date on your bottles and store in a cool, dry area rather than in the direct sun.
Resources for Sunscreen Information
I spent lots of time on the interwebs reading about sunscreen and seeing lots of varying, yet similar information. I urge you to do your own research, too, to discover your best choice for your family. The following resources were very helpful in my safer sunscreen journey.