With all the sunscreen options out there claiming to be 100% natural, it can be hard to wade through the sea of ingredients to find a really safe product for your family. In this guide, we'll get down to the basics and spell out the differences between chemical and physical sunscreen, what the active ingredients are, and which brands are actually natural and which are nonsense.
The Difference Between Chemical and Physical Sunscreen
Chemical sunscreens contain active ingredients like oxybenzone, homosalate, and octinoxate. Physical sunscreens (also called mineral or barrier) use natural active ingredients like zinc and titanium oxide.
The naturally occurring active ingredients in physical sunscreens stay on top of the skin and act as a physical barrier to reflect the sun's UV rays so they're never absorbed in the first place. This type of sunscreen stays on well in normal conditions but does has a tendency to come off in water, so it usually requires additional applications.
According to Live Science, synthetic chemical sunscreens work as filters to absorb the sun's UV rays to keep them from being absorbed by the skin.
Instead of physically deflecting UV light, these molecules absorb UV radiation through their chemical bonds. As the bonds absorb UV radiation, the components of the sunscreen slowly break down and release heat.
Why You Should Be Using a Physical Sunscreen
Chemicals contained in conventional sunscreens are is linked to hormone disruption and cell damage that may lead to skin cancer. Isn't that exactly what we're trying to avoid by using sunscreen??
According to the Environmental Working Group,
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reveals that 97% of Americans are contaminated with a widely-used sunscreen ingredient called oxybenzone that has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption and cell damage. A companion study published just one day earlier revealed that this chemical is linked to low birth weight in baby girls whose mothers are exposed during pregnancy.
Chemicals in sunscreen are also damaging our coral reefs. In fact, 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotions settle into coral reefs around the world every single year! One chemical, oxybenzone, has been found to actively cause degradation by leaching nutrients from the reefs and bleaching them white. The problem is so bad that residents of Hawaii are currently working to ban certain sunscreens from being used on their beaches.
Physical sunscreens on the other hand, can be effective against the sun's harmful rays without the heavy chemical load and are much less likely to pollute our bodies and our environment. When chosen carefully, they're effective and safe to use as needed.
How to Avoid Hormone Disrupting Chemicals in Sunscreen
Be sure to avoid the worst offenders. Most of these are only found in chemical sunscreens, but you should always read your labels and ingredients to make sure you're choosing a safe product.
- Oxybenzone, homosalate and octinoxate active ingredients
- Vitamin A in the form of retinyl palmitate
- Other ingredients including dimethicone, phenoxyethanol, polyethylene, polysorbate 60, polysorbate 80, PEG ingredients and quaternium ingredients that can release formaldehyde
- Added insect repellent
- And also avoid synthetic fragrance chemicals when possible
We've included a list of 21 physical sunscreens that are made with truly natural ingredients below.
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We included Babyganics, Aveeno Baby, Hang Ten and Safe Harbor because they market their products as being completely safe and natural even though they contain risky ingredients.
- Babyganics contains phenoxyethanol (commonly used in “natural” products as part of their fragrance panel and is also used as a preservative).
- Aveeno Baby contains benzyl alcohol, which can react with titanium dioxide — another ingredient in their sunscreen — to form aldehydes, including formaldehyde.
- Hang Ten contains phenoxyethanol and polyethylene (a plastic, for heaven's sake!).
- Safe Harbor contains synthetic fragrance (which can legally hide over 3,000 different chemicals), phenoxyethanol, and PEG-40 which is created by combining castor oil with ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen. PEGs are also known to be contaminated with another carcinogen called 1,4 dioxane.
There are just too many truly natural options available to even bother taking a chance with these sunscreens.