Hands holding a sunscreen bottle and pointing to the ingredients list while speech bubbles float around.

Safety Considerations of Sunscreens

As we all know, sunscreen is a cheap and easy way to prevent the sun’s harmful UV radiation from damaging our skin. However, there are thousands of different sunscreen options out there featuring a seemingly random assortment of chemicals and ingredients. This makes it difficult to truly understand what you are putting on your body.

Physical (mineral or natural) sunscreen vs. chemical sunscreens

All sunscreens generally fall into one of two major categories, physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens, and it’s important to understand the differences. Below is a quick breakdown:

Physical sunscreens

Physical sunscreens are made of natural components and sit on top of the skin. They work as a barrier to your skin, absorbing and reflecting the UV radiation from your body. The most commonly found ingredients in natural sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – both of which are FDA approved.

Advantages

  1. Immediately effective upon application
  2. Not absorbed into your skin, leaving no trace chemicals in your body
  3. Safer for babies and pregnant women

Disadvantages

  1. Can appear white on the skin when properly applied
  2. Because it’s sitting on top of the skin it’s more susceptible to rubbing off, especially while doing a physical activity, swimming, or sweating. So you’ll need to apply sunscreen more frequently.
  3. It’s thicker, so more needs to be applied for full coverage.

Chemical sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens are made of a variety of different chemicals. They are designed to be absorbed into the skin (unlike natural sunscreens which simply sit on top). These chemicals work from within the skin to break down and transform the UV radiation into heat, which is then expelled from the body.

Advantages

  1. Most brands go on clear and transparent, preventing the ghost-like appearance
  2. Less is needed to fully protect the skin, making the bottle last longer

Disadvantages

  1. You have to wait 20-30 minutes after application for the sunscreen to become effective
  2. Involves chemicals which are absorbed into the skin. Can cause irritation for skin and/or eyes

Ingredients and chemicals

Many people have concerns about the chemicals and ingredients found in various sunscreens. There have been various studies done to determine if any of the common chemicals have a negative impact on a person’s health, but the findings are somewhat vague.

It's a personal choice

Recent findings show that many of the active ingredients in chemical sunscreens can stay in your body for days. While this can be concerning to some, the potential health impact is largely unknown. The FDA cannot confirm these chemicals to be safe, but they are also unable to confirm if they are not safe – it’s simply unknown. So if this is a huge concern to you, the safest bet would be to simply stick with the physical sunscreens for now. They sit on top of the skin and would not be absorbed into your body.

Broad-spectrum is key

You also need to make sure you are always getting broad-spectrum coverage. If you decide to avoid chemicals and go with a physical sunscreen, make sure to keep an eye out. Two of the most common ingredients in physical sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Zinc oxide provides true broad-spectrum coverage, however, titanium dioxide only partially protects the skin from UVA rays. So if you choose to go with a physical sunscreen make sure it’s not a formulation with only titanium.

Environmental considerations

Another recent concern is coral bleaching and sunscreen's overall effects on the environment. Chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate (found in almost all chemical sunscreens) are shown to be damaging to marine life. Hawaii is the first state in the US to ban sunscreens with these ingredients, and many other states may be following their lead. So if you are planning to go into the ocean, err on the side of caution and stick with a physical “reef-safe” sunscreen. The fishies will be very thankful!

What do dermatologists recommend?

WEAR SUNSCREEN! It’s that simple. There are no studies showing any sunscreen; chemical or physical, having a negative impact on your health. However, there are countless studies showing the extremely negative impact UV rays can have on your health. So regardless if you choose a chemical or physical sunscreen, dermatologists simply recommend you keep your skin protected. Buy a few sunscreens, try them out, and choose your favorite. As long as they have a high UPF rating, provide broad-spectrum coverage, and a high level of water resistance, you’ll be in good shape!

My personal favorites

Hawaiian Tropic Island Sport SPF 50 (Chemical): It’s easy to apply, leaves almost no white streaks, provides great coverage, it’s cheap and affordable and it smells great! I use this almost daily, especially when I’m going to be sweating a lot.

Thinkbaby SPF 50 (Physical): Don’t be fooled by the name, this is as good for adults as it is babies. This is a great physical alternative, one I use anytime I’ll be out on the water. It’s the first sunscreen to pass Whole Foods’ Premium Care requirements. Also, it’s reef-safe, water-resistant, free of any potentially harmful ingredients, and provides great coverage.

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