Summertime means spending more time outdoors and in the sun. While exposure to the sun can provide vitamin D benefits, it can also damage and burn your skin if you’re not adequately protected. That means using a sunscreen that is both safe and effective.
But with so many brands on the market, how do you choose the best sunscreen—one that works without exposing you to harmful chemicals?
How to Choose a Sunscreen: Ingredients to Avoid
When choosing the best sunscreen, it’s important to know that active UV-filtering agents in sunscreens come in two forms: mineral and chemical.
Many sunscreens on the market today contain chemical filters. The names of these chemical filters include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. Most popular sunscreen brands have a combination of two to six of these chemical filters.
Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, use zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as a UV filter—which are both effective and natural sun protectants. But you want to be careful when reading ingredient labels since many sunscreens mix mineral sun filters with (potentially harmful) chemicals.
When deciding how to choose the best sunscreen, it is important to know that research has found that some of the chemical UV filters listed above can mimic hormones in our body and have the potential to cause skin allergies. The most problematic ingredient used in non-mineral sunscreens is oxybenzone.
Oxybenzone, like with anything we put on our skin, has been shown to get absorbed into our bloodstream. In fact, based on a sampling of children and adults, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has detected oxybenzone in over 96% of the US population (Calafat 2008).
What is concerning is that oxybenzone has been found to exhibit an estrogenic-like effect in the body. Studies have linked oxybenzone application to endometriosis in older women, low sperm count in men, and low birth weight in newborn girls. It has also been found to cause an allergic sensitivity rash.
While being mindful of what you put on your body is important at any stage in your life, it is especially critical during pregnancy and while breastfeeding since oxybenzone has been found in breast milk.
When choosing a sunscreen, you also want to avoid ones that contain oxybenzone, as well as petrochemicals, methylparabens, and parabens.
Why UVA and UVB Matter More than SPF
When considering how to choose the best sunscreen, you also want to look at the level of UV protection it provides. Ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) protection matter more than the sun protection factor (SPF). Here’s why.
While the UVB rays are what help produce vitamin D, they are also the rays primarily responsible for sunburn and non-melanoma skin cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma (von Thaler 2010).
UVA rays are deeper penetrating rays and are harder to block with sunscreen filters. UVA rays have been shown to cause harmful free radicals to form on the skin and are linked to a higher risk of developing melanoma.
Many sunscreens with a high SPF block the burn causing UVB rays, but they don’t decrease the skin’s exposure to UVA rays. Plus, because you’re not getting a visible burn on your skin, you may be inclined to stay out longer in the sun—increasing your exposure to damaging UVA rays.
You also want to be wary of sunscreens that are in a spray, or loose powder form since they disperse in to the air and can easily be inhaled into your lungs. Not only do our lungs have a difficult time clearing these particles, they can be absorbed in to our bloodstream and can potentially cause end organ damage.
What Is the Best Sunscreen?
For sun protection, I prefer zinc oxide sunscreens. Zinc oxide is the ingredient that gives you that ghostly white appearance. What’s important is that zinc oxide sunscreens don’t only block UVB rays they also block the deeper penetrating ultra violet A (UVA) rays more than any other sun-blocking ingredient approved for use in the United States. (Schlossman 2005)
Titanium dioxide is another safe, active ingredient for sun protection. Our current favorite for us and our kids (because why would you want to put something on your own skin that you wouldn't put on your child) is the All Good Sunstick, SPF 30 with zinc oxide. This zinc oxide sunscreen is small enough to always have on you, goes on easily, and is not too white or greasy on your skin.
I also recommend increasing your body's internal antioxidants, which help you to naturally decrease your chance of getting a sunburn. Getting your daily fill of fresh fruits and vegetables and making a green smoothie with berries for you and your kids is a great way to ensure a baseline dose.
It is not exactly clear how this happens, but it is hypothesized that since a sunburn is in part an inflammatory reaction, the anti-inflammatory effects of antioxidants help to increase your threshold of sun exposure.
One example of an antioxidant that helps to do this is astaxanthin (found in krill, salmon, and shrimp). Proanthocyanidins found in dark colored berries such as blueberries and blackberries are another example of potent antioxidants, so get your fill in the summer months when these berries are fresh. Other nutrients to consider include resveratrol and lycopene.
For a full review of sunscreen and a list of the better/worse sunscreen options, please refer to the EWG's Guide to Sunscreen.