Friday, April 18, 2008

What About Sunscreen?

Even in the middle of Winter people ask me: what do you recommend for sunscreen? Now that there's a hint of Spring/Summer out there (even though it snowed here today!) I'm sure I'll be asked the question more. So, I thought I'd lay it all out here so you know exactly what I think about sunscreen.

In my opinion, most sunscreens can do more harm than good. Most of them are filled with synthetic fragrances, parabens, formaldehyde donors---ingredients you'd find in common lotions. The biggest difference though, is the "active ingredient." These active ingredients are the components that keep your skin from burning in the sun for a period of time. The problem with these active ingredients is that when exposed to sun, they break down and create free-radicals on the skin. Now wait a minute---aren't these the free radicals we all hear about that cause cancer? They sure are. So, even if you're not being visibly burned, your skin can get damaged invisibly from these chemicals. How does this happen? Instead of being a sunblock that reflects the sun's rays, these particles absorb the sun's energy. The energy has to be released from the particle somehow, so it breaks down and creates free-radicals (also referred to as "oxidative species") Let's take a look at a few "active ingredients" one by one. I've listed a few examples of products that contain these chemicals, although there are many more products than listed.

Used in:
Neutrogena Skin Smoothing Body Lotion
Banana Boat UVA & UVB Sunscreen
Jason Naturals Sunscreen

Oxybenzone is one of the most commonly used SPF agents, and possibly the most damaging. According to the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep website, a 2006 study showed that oxybenzone (aka benzophenone-3), "produces excess reactive oxygen species that can interfere with cellular signaling, cause mutations, lead to cell death and may be implicated in cardiovascular disease." Cellular mutations? Isn't that what causes cancer? That's the fallacy of modern sunscreens today. We think we're protecting ourselves with these chemicals, but they can be doing just as much, or even more harm than the sun. Oxybenzone is also known to be absorbed into the skin and the bloodstream, and can affect the endocrine system and hormone function in the body.

Used in:
Blistex Lip Balm
Carmex Lip Balm

Phenol receives a risk of 10 on the EWG Skin Deep Database, the worst score an ingredient can get. It is banned in Canada and Japan, there is limited evidence that it is a carcinogen, it is known to be a reproductive and developmental toxin, and a wildlife pollutant.

Octinoxate (Octyl Methoxycinnamate)
Used in:
Alba Organics Sunscreens
Jason Naturals Sunscreen
Coppertone Sunblock
Aveeno Facial Sunblock

Often listed as "made from cinnamon" by the peddlers of "natural" products, Octinoxate is an endocrine disruptor, estrogen mimicker, a penetration enhancer, and "produces damaging reactive oxygen species upon exposure to sunlight."

Used in:
L'Oreal Daily Face Moisturizer

Octocrylene is restricted in Japan because it creates free radicals on the skin when exposed to sunlight and is a penetration enhancer. One study says that "when octocrylene penetrates into the skin, the level of reactive oxygen species increases above that produced naturally under UV illumination." Another free-radical-forming chemical.

PABA (Octyl Dimethy PABA, PABA Ester)
Used in:
Aubrey Organics Nature's Balance Unscented SPF Hand and Body Lotion

PABA has a long list of concerns. In the manufacturing process, it can be contaminated with nitrosamines, a group of dangerous carcinogenic chemicals. It too produces free radicals on the skin, and lab tests have shown it to cause cellular mutations. A penetration enhancer and a hormone distruptor, PABA has long been an ingredient to be avoided.

Used in:
Jason Naturals
Total Block Cotz Waterproof Sunblock

Nano Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide are gaining popularity among the "safer" companies that make sunblock. Sometimes billed as "natural" or "mineral" these particles are anything but natural. Labs take the natural minerals of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide and put them under intense heat, light, and other processes that break down their natural structure to make them smaller particles. These nanoparticles are then absorbed into the skin and in to your body. You now have these little particles of metal in your bloodstream that your body doesn't know how to handle. Nanoparticles are a very recent invention and there has not been enough study done to find out the side effects of these unnatural particles. They too break down to create free-radicals in your skin. In their natural, non-nano form, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are my safer sunblock agents of choice. The most difficult thing is that companies don't usually disclose if they're using nanoparticles. So, it could be listed as zinc oxide and we don't know if it's "regular," "micronized," or "nano." Micronized is smaller than natural and larger than nano. Most companies claim that micronized particles are not absorbed into the skin.

The Safer Choice: Non-Nano Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide. Zinc Oxide especially is a great sunblock agent. It gives you both UVA and UVB protection. This is the old-fashioned zinc oxide you see in old surfing movies---the white pasty stuff. Yes, it's not as convenient, and it's not as fashionable, but it's the safest and gives you the best protection. One thing to consider when using a zinc oxide sunblock is to apply it frequently. Zinc oxide is a powerful anti-inflammatory, so it's going to soothe your skin. So much, in fact, that you could be sunburned and not know it. After your day in the sun, you go in and rinse off the zinc oxide and you could be deeply burned. This is why I always recommend to apply it every hour to make sure you've got adequate protection, even if you feel like you're not getting burnt.

I'm still looking for a product with non-micronized zinc oxide for my personal use and recommendation. As soon as I find it I'll be sure to post it. If any of you know of any sunblocks that fall under these guidelines of safety or have any product suggestions, be sure to post your comments below. We are currently developing a sunscreen with zinc oxide, as well as some other choices, and we'll keep you informed of them as they come out.

There's always another more organic option: a wide-brimmed hat!

What do you think? Would you rather use the less-fashionable white sunblock for safety's sake, or would you take your chances with nanoparticles?

Badger Balm and Mexitan use micronized particles instead of nanoparticles. They claim that the particles are not absorbed into the skin. So far, these two products are the safest that I've seen. Thanks to Monica for the tip!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this enlightening post. I think I am done with chemical sunscreens from now on...Concerning the zinc oxyde, I suppose in the old fashion paste it is also in powder form, so I guess the difference with the micronized one is the size of the particles in the powder, no? So how can we know which form has been used in different products...say Burt's Bees baby diaper, Weleda sunscreen SPF20 or mineral make-up for that fact?

statia said...

We've definitely been doing more research in regards to sunscreen for kids. There are some out there, one of them we use is California Baby, which the sunscreens are listed pretty low in hazard by the Cosmetic Safety Database. I would rather use that than not use anything at all on my son and run the risk of him getting sunburned or worse on his sensitive skin. Keeping a hat on him is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.

Anonymous said...


This is Christina from Chicago. My son is 2 1/2 years old and has seen three hot, sunny summers. I am in total agreement with Stephanie and have been so since he was born and looked at all the ingredients in the safe, "baby," sunscreens. He has never used sunscreen and has NEVER had a sunburn...more than an occasional "farmer's tan" on his forearms. No, it's not easy having him keep long sleeves or his hat on while playing in the sand at the beach or having fun in the pool. But, I really feel that lack of ease is much better than him being exposed to chemicals in products that are being marketed to supposedly protect him. When your sunscreen comes out, though, Stepnanie, I will be sure to try it, and I'm sure I will LOVE it like all your other awesome stuff.

Anonymous said...

I think we should use moderation when it comes to the sun. I think we have become obssessed with avoiding it. The sun provides us with necessary Vitamin D which sun block also blocks. i personally do not use sun block or anything with SPF. I agree with the wide brim hat and using common sense.

Jodi said...

Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I really appreciate all the interesting information you share.

kazmira said...

Thank you for your article! As for recommendations, have you heard anything about Burt's Bees Chemical-Free sunscreen (
Other than that I can't think of any non-chemical sunscreens, even from the so-called natural skincare companies, which is absurd. Some, like Weleda, just seem to have avoided it altogether, which is also absurd, because it's absolutely the most important thing to put on your skin, even if you stay in the shade or wear a hat (seeing as UVA/UVB rays can still bounce off other things, like water, and onto your skin). But I'm wondering: is it impossible to find a nice moisturizer w/SPF, or a not-too-heavy sunscreen I can glide over my moisturizer on a daily basis? Something that's not beach sunblock (heavy, greasy, with that sunblock-y smell) but an everyday skin protector that will actually be in harmony with my skin, not suffocate it? Has anyone tried the Badger Balm or Mexitan? Judging by the packaging, I'm worried that, despite the wonderful non-toxicity, neither will feel much better on the skin than Bananaboat...and I have a feeling Burt's Bees won't be much different. Ugh!

kazmira said...

There's also this sunscreen from a company called Botanical Works: I'm not sure if it's light enough for use on the face, nor am I sure whether the zinc oxide in it is nano or micronized...I'll email them to find out.

Anonymous said...

I just read on another site ( that Jason's chem-free sunblock use non-nano zinc oxide and TiO2. It's an older post '06, so can you verify it's true? You listed Jason as an offender in your post.

Unknown said...

what could be said about this product and how much spf would it rate as ?{25}1187

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Here's the deal--Jason's may be using non-nano zinc oxide, but they're still using octinoxate, oxybenzone, parabens, and other chemicals in their products. (According to, Jason's "Family Sunblock SPF" uses all of the above chemicals."

It's hard to say because they're not disclosing all of their ingredients on their website. I'd have to look at the acutal label to find out. Their sunblock powder isn't on the cosmeticsdatabase, however, a few of their other products are. Their other products contain mica, which ewg has a problem with, mainly because it's bioaccumulative. It's hard to say what kind of SPF it has...SPF is not just calculated by how much titanium or zinc oxide a product had by percentage, but how well it stays on your skin. A powder may be less effective than a cream because it may be easily brushed or washed off.

Anonymous said...

I noticed in your 2009 newsletter that you have plans in the works for makeup. I think that would be amazing as I am currently using mineral makeup (Bare Minerals) with nano-particles in it. I look like a zombie without it so I haven't stopped using it yet and I can't use cream foundations because they make me breakout. I hope you have success with the makeup line and hopefully it will be a product I can use without having flare ups. I'll keep my fingers crossed. I'm also really looking forward to a possible sunscreen from you. Do you know if it's true that sunscreen is what is stopping women from getting wrinkles or does it just prevent burning?

Unknown said...

I recommend people buy a jar of diaper ointment (I use E. FOUGERA -- 20% non-nano zinc oxide and mineral oil, beeswax and white petrolatum (aka: Vaseline)), a bottle of glycerin and some distilled water. Take an empty squeezable mayonnaise bottle. Fill it 1/3 with the ointment. Add an ounce of glycerin and an ounce or two of water. Shake well. There's your sunscreen. Add more water if you need it (it's going to evaporate soon anyway). I use this and I can't tell it from the nano-type. It works great too.

Anonymous said...

Have been using Blue Lizard for a while - loved it - until they would not give me a definitive answer whether or not their product used nano particles.
I wound up using Green Screen non-nano organic sunscreen. 25% regular zinc oxide.
Blue Lizard protects better & longer but at what cost?

Anonymous said...

There's an organic sunscreen that claims to be is called juice beauty...

Anonymous said...

just use pure virgin coconut oil, it's all natural and good for you too!

Anonymous said...

Green screen made with zinc oxyde, non nano, and tinted so it doesn't look white. Not too pasty but more so than regular sunscreens.

allison40 said...

This is in reply to the person who asked about zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in powder form. There is more concern on the part of researchers for the effects of these two minerals in nano-particular form when they are in powder form due to inhalation hazards. I guess they're not good for your lungs, and they're more easily absorbed by the skin in powder form. I read somewhere (and forgive me, because I've been doing a lot of research about this stuff myself lately and I don't have the source handy)that there have been studies done on nano-particularized zinc oxide in sunscreens, and there've been no findings of zinc oxise in any other tissues of the body, urine, or living skin cells of those tested. I will look to see if I can find that source and cite it here later when I do. Badger does use nano particularized zinc oxide in their sunscreens-says so right on the bottle, and they have a webpage dedicated to an explanation of why they use it and why the think it's safe to do so. I personally have found it very difficult to figure out what's safe and what isn't after wading through pages of research articles and information gleaned from sources like EWG and Friends of the Earth. I'm looking for some pure non-nano Zinc Oxide and wondering if anyone knows of a reliable and reputable source?

Anonymous said...

Badger uses nanos-new formula-says so right on their bottle and they have a page dedicated to it on their site-thanks!

Valerie said...

This website:
assures only using larger particle sized zinc oxide and very clean ingredients.

Valerie said...

Also, here is a recipe to make your own zinc oxide sunscreen but I'm having a hard time finding non-micronized zinc oxide powder to buy in bulk.

Heidi, NY said...

Researching non-nano sunscreens for myself and family, I have found Loving Naturals 30 spf, with mild white tint at See review of safety claim at Another is SolGuard by Caribbean Solutions at with spf 15 and 25. SolKidKare is spf 25 and water resistant. Sol claims to be non-nano and transparent... hard to believe it can be both. We have not yet tried these options. Good luck choosing and thank you to Stephanie for your helpful site!

Ali said...

I wanted to suggest Miessence Reflect Outdoor Balm. Its organic, non-nano and totally synthetic chemical free. All consumer issues addressed :)

List of ingredients is following:
zinc oxide, daucus carota (carrot) CO2 extract , natural coconut extract, avena sativa (oat) kernel flour, mixed tocopherols, certified organic copernicia prunifera (carnauba) wax, certified organic olea europaea (olive) fruit oil, certified organic simmondsia chinensis (jojoba) seed oil, certified organic rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) leaf extract, certified organic butyrospermum parkii (shea) fruit butter, certified organic unrefined cera alba (beeswax)

Sandra said...

I was looking at the EWG's report, and it seems like "UV Natural" is one of the best. What do you think?

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Yes, it doesn't look bad at all. For anyone interested, here are the ingredients: Zinc Oxide 24.8 % and Caprylic/capric triglycerides (Derived from Coconut Oil)
Fumed Silica (Colloidal Anhydrous Silica)
Zinc Stearate
Vitis vinifera (grape seed) oil
Macadamia ternifolia seed oil
Camellia Oleifera(green tea) Leaf Extract
Vitis vinifera (grape seed) extract
Tocopherol (Natural vitamin E)
Iron Oxides

Although I do still prefer Badger or Loving Naturals over this one, as there are fewer synthetics and no silica.

Anonymous said...

I just came across this at Josiah's Oils while searching for a product for my infant. Would you be willing to share your thoughts on this? I think it looks good but I don't know if the vitamin E could be a concern for some reason?
Active: Zinc Oxide (22% non-nanoparticle)
Inactive: Coconut Oil, Shea Butter, Grape Seed Oil, Sunflower Seed Oil, Olive Oil, All-Natural Vitamin E & Pure, Unrefined, Unbleached Beeswax.

Stephanie Greenwood said...

As long as that's the full ingredients list, I don't see a problem with it! You can read more about vitamin E here: