Greener sunscreens that won’t leave you red

Just in time for summer, The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released its 2010 Sunscreen Guide. Alarmingly, this study found that 92 percent of brand name sunscreens either don’t sufficiently protect skin from sun damage or contain hazardous chemicals — or both. 

Ultimately, the best defenses against harmful UV radiation are protective clothes, shade and timing. But I can’t see this going over well this summer: “No kids, we can’t go to the beach with your friends. We have to wait until after 5pm because that is when the sun’s rays are not as harmful. And you have to wear your long shorts, rash guard and a hat.” Um, yeah, that’s not going to work – so, sunscreen is a must for this fair-skinned family.

The choice for us is to find safer, more effective sunscreens. That starts with choosing a mineral-based sunscreen, which is generally safer than a chemical one.

The problem with chemical sunscreens is that, well, they use chemicals to protect our skin from the sun – chemical compounds like avobenzone, oxybenzone, and octyl methoxycinnamate. These chemicals absorb the light rays rather than deflecting them, with the majority of them only blocking one kind of the sun’s rays (either UVB or UVA).  In order to block both types of rays, most chemical-based sunscreens have to use many different types of chemicals. Often the chemical particles are very small, called nanoparticles, which are small enough to penetrate the skin and enter the blood stream. Young children’s skin is especially sensitive to these chemical allergens.

The other type of sunscreen is mineral-based sunscreen. Mineral sunscreens contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which are minerals that deflect the sun’s rays. So, unlike chemical sunscreens that absorb the sun’s rays, these sunscreens form a physical barrier to protect your skin from absorption. Look for sunscreen with at least 7% zinc oxide or titanium dioxide for broad spectrum protection. One thing to watch for with mineral sunscreens (just like chemical sunscreens) is micronized particles – look for mineral sunscreens with mineral particles larger than 100 nanometers.

Another issue with mineral sunscreen is a symptom my son likes to call “ghost-face.” Basically, because the mineral creates a barrier on your skin, it doesn’t absorb the way chemicals sunscreen do. So, the lotion can create a white effect on the skin. If you are going for the golden brown look (well, you probably don’t care much about sunscreen anyway), this may not be the choice for you. As for me, I just blame my intensely white skin on the sunscreen rather than my complete lack of tan, so it works just fine for me.
There are a number of safe, effective mineral sunscreens on the market. You just may have to look beyond the big brands to discover some safe and effective sunscreens – like UV Natural, Soleo Organics, Miessence, Badger and California Baby. These brands can be found in health food stores, online, and even in some traditional drug stores.

More sunscreen tips:

  • The majority of sun damage occurs before the age of 18, so it’s important to keep kids protected from too much sun exposure.
  • Apply sunscreen frequently – more frequent applications protect even better than a high SPF rating.  Try to coat on the sunscreen 20 minutes before sun exposure and then reapply every two hours at a minimum.
  • Stick to SPF 15-50. SPF 15 blocks 93.3% of UV rays while SPF 30 blocks 96.6%. Any SPF higher than 50 is misleading.
  • Apply generously – many dermatologists recommend using a full ounce on sunscreen (an amount that would fill a shot glass) if you are applying to your face and body.  Most people use about half that amount.
  • Broad-spectrum is crucial.  Look for broad-spectrum products that filter the UVA rays that penetrate to the dermis, causing damage that may show up years later. There is no FDA requirement for sunscreen to block any UVA rays at all, so read the label and buy carefully.
  • Include anti-oxidants – With sun exposure, free radical formation is inevitable, but damage to your skin can be minimized with the use a topical Vitamin C or anti-oxidant product at night, especially after a day in the sun.  Also look for mineral sunscreens that are high in anti-oxidants like green tea.
  • Avoid sunscreen with Vitamin A (added to 41% of all sunscreens).  An FDA study indicates that a form of vitamin A, retinyl palmitate, when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.
  • Prevent sun damage now and later – The UVB (burning) rays are 1000x stronger than UVA rays, while UVA (aging) rays are 1000x times more prevalent than UVB rays.  So when it comes to sunscreen your rule of thumb should be: to prevent burning wear a lot, to prevent aging, wear it all the time.

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