In an attempt to protect ourselves from the sun's UV rays, it has for the most part backfired on us.
Too little sun has caused global vitamin D deficiencies
A 2009 study in the Pediatrics journal found that 70% of American children have insufficient amounts of vitamin D in their bodies. What's even more shocking is about an estimated 1 billion people worldwide, across all ethnicities and age groups, are deficient in vitamin D.
Known as the "Sun Vitamin", it's a steroid with hormone like activity, and is essential for growth and development. The irony here is the myriad of health issues associated with a lack of vitamin D, ranging from numerous types of cancers, to osteoporosis, and autoimmune diseases.
This pandemic is mainly attributed to reduced exposure to sunlight, so spending a little more time outside (at least 20 minutes in direct sunlight every day is recommended) before applying sunscreen, and getting your vitamin D levels tested through your doctor would be ideal.
However, we should still protect ourselves from UV rays, mainly UVA. With the widespread use of chemical sunscreens, they can add an increased risk of certain health problems on top of a vitamin D deficiency.
So how can you properly protect your skin from the sun's UV rays?
The efficacy and safety of chemical and mineral sunscreens
Chemical and mineral (or physical) are the two general types of sunscreens available. They can be differentiated by their SPF (sun protection factor) agents, which have their own mechanism for protection.
Chemical sunscreens absorb into the skin and work by absorbing or scattering UV rays, while minerals sit on top and reflect UV rays off of the skin.
Most of us buy sunscreen products based on its SPF number. The higher, the better - right? Not exactly.
The SPF of a product only indicates protection against UVB rays, while disregarding UVA rays.
Most of the time this leaves the skin less protected than it should be, even if a product states it's broad-spectrum, as we get way more UVA exposure than UVB.
The essential difference between UVA and UVB rays that's contributing to vitamin D deficiencies
UVA rays aren't blocked by the ozone layer or clouds, and therefore make up the majority of UV radiation reaching Earth's surface. They penetrate more deeply into the skin than UVB rays and cause photo-aging, which leads to wrinkling, leathering and other signs of sun damage.
UVB rays are mostly absorbed by the ozone layer, and only account for a small portion of the UV spectrum. They're considered the "good" rays (while UVA are considered bad) because they help your skin produce vitamin D, while UVA rays do not.
However, UV radiation in general is classified as a "complete carcinogen", meaning it can be both a risk factor for skin cancer, and obviously an essential health component for synthesizing vitamin D, as well as endorphins.
Chemical sunscreens come at a cost
- They work by absorbing into the skin, and potentially the bloodstream
- Must wait 20-30 minutes before they become effective
- May start to breakdown during sunlight exposure
The truth is that chemical sunscreens are toxic.
Some of the most common chemical sunscreen ingredients include:
Chemical sunscreen products usually contain two to six of the above listed ingredients (but there are a total of 9 others approved by the FDA). All of these ingredients can have negative implications on our health.
Homosalate, oxybenzone, and octinoxate are hormone disrupters, and can possibly affect reproduction and development.
Oxybenzone has been shown to cause allergic reactions, and cell death. It's also a penetration enhancer, meaning it helps other potentially harmful ingredients in the same product penetrate the skin as well. Considering most mainstream products are filled with toxic chemicals, this poses a huge health risk.
Oxybenzone and other sunscreen chemical agents also have devastating affects on coral reefs, causing bleaching and die-offs.
Mineral sunscreens are safe and effective alternatives
- They do not absorb into skin, but rather sit on top
- Act as a mirror by reflecting UV rays off of the skin
- Become effective immediately after application
There are two ingredients that fall under this category: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Since they reflect UV rays off of the skin's surface, they will not absorb into your bloodstream. According to Skin Deep's Environmental Working Group (EWG), mineral sunscreens, in particular zinc oxide, deliver the best UVA and UVB protection out of any sunscreen agent.
Think back to when lifeguards used to have their noses covered in white goop - that's zinc oxide. Thankfully, it won't be as obvious nowadays.
It's best to use a mineral sunscreen with only zinc oxide, or a combination of both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
While titanium dioxide is great at protecting against UVB rays, it does not protect against UVA rays as well as zinc oxide does. Also, zinc oxide is considered safer to use on the skin as it doesn't cause irritation, and is even used in rash creams for babies.
Comparison of chemical and mineral sunscreen ingredient efficacy
Here's a graph from the Environmental Protection Agency comparing all of the 17 FDA approved sunscreen agents and their efficacy for protecting against UVA and UVB rays.
If mineral sunscreens are so healthy and effective, then why aren't all sunscreens made with minerals?
Mineral sunscreens tend to be heavier on the skin, and usually leave a white sheen. Consumers generally like products that aren't noticeable, especially if they are unaware of the health risks.
It's also more expensive to use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide than it is to use chemical agents. A lot more minerals in a formula are needed to obtain broad-spectrum protection, whereas only a small percentage of sunscreen needs to contain chemicals.
To put it simply, corporations do not care about the health risks associated with the products they produce, otherwise they wouldn't sell and market them.
Since mineral sunscreens are often heavier and greasier, companies may market theirs as being "clear" when applied to skin. These are zinc oxide or titanium dioxide nanoparticles, which were manufactured to be microscopic.
They can potentially cause damage to DNA within skin cells. Keep a look out for products that are "non-nano" (I'll list some good recommendations below).
Why uncoated minerals?
Nanoparticles are more susceptible to degradation, so they're sometimes coated with an inert substance to prevent free-radical formation on the skin. Free-radicals cause oxidative stress, which damages and contributes to aging skin.However, the coatings themselves can break down and create additional free-radicals.
Avoid sunscreen sprays and powdered makeup
Spray sunscreens and powdered makeup with sunscreen agents in them should be avoided, whether they're chemical or mineral-based.
Inhalation of these sunscreen agents (mainly nanoparticles) can negatively impact the lungs. They're also not adequate substitutes for the protection you get from creams and liquids.
How to easily read a sunscreen label
On a product's label, all sunscreen agents will be listed under "Active Ingredients".
However, just because the sunscreen ingredients are safe and healthy, doesn't mean the rest of the ingredients in the product are.
The rest of the ingredients that make up a sunscreen are listed under "Inactive Ingredients".
Completely avoid any product that contains:
Fragrance, parfum, or aroma
Any kind of PEG (PEG-50, for example)
The Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database is an excellent resource for checking how healthy a product or ingredient is, so you don't have to be a label expert to know what you're buying.
Oil-based sunscreens are definitely the healthiest option on the market. They don't contain any water so synthetic ingredients like preservatives and emulsifiers are not needed to sustain the formula.
Lastly, check to see if the Inactive Ingredients on a sunscreen are mainly (preferably all) certified organic, which will be stated on either the packaging or the company's website.
Below you'll find only vegan and vegetarian options. They're oil-based, using mostly organic as well as natural ingredients, and non-nano zinc oxide.
Good vegan sunscreens that meet our high standards are extremely difficult to find, so we have included a couple of options from sellers on Etsy. The reason for this is because most oil-based sunscreens contain beeswax.
The below listed vegan products from Etsy have not been laboratory tested for their true SPF number.
With handcrafted products like these, they likely have not been formulated with the correct machinery to properly disperse the zinc oxide in their sunscreens. This may leave the product with uneven UV protection.
Olive & Ivy Botanicals - Sunshade Natural Mineral Sunscreen
Protection: SPF 20 (not tested!)
Price: $11.00 USD (2.0 fl oz)
Where to buy: Etsy.com
Ingredients: Organic shea butter, organic coconut oil, organic jojoba oil, organic lavender essential oil, non-nano uncoated zinc oxide.
Notes: Contains 4 organic ingredients, as well as zinc oxide which is non-nano and uncoated.
Empire Squid Organics - Life Guard Organic Zinc Oxide Sunscreen
Protection: SPF 15 - 25 (not tested!)
Price: $18.00 USD (3.0 fl oz)
Where to buy: Etsy.com
Ingredients: Organic virgin coconut oil, organic shea butter, organic mango butter, organic soybean oil, non-nano zinc oxide, organic lavender essential oil, organic peppermint essential oil, vitamin E.
Notes: Almost all of the ingredients are organic, with the rest being natural. They use non-nano zinc oxide, but don't claim whether or not it's uncoated. This sunscreen comes with three options with varying levels of zinc oxide, so you can choose how much protection you would like. The photo is outdated and their is no beeswax in this formula.
Badger - SPF 30 Unscented Sunscreen
Skin Deep Rating: 1
Protection: SPF 30
Price: $15.99 USD (2.9 oz)
Where to buy: Baderbalm.com
Ingredients: Non-nano uncoated zinc oxide 18.75%, organic sunflower oil, organic beeswax, vitamin E, organic CO2 seabuckthorn.
Notes: Badger has a huge selection of sunscreens, the unscented version is just the basic version - but extremely effective.
They have high standards, and have had their sunscreens independently laboratory tested where they earned "Superior UVA Protection". Their unscented sunscreen cream (as well as others) are 100% certified natural by the NPA, and 98% certified organic by the NSF. It uses only non-nano, uncoated zinc oxide, and scores a 1 in EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetic Database.
Poofy Organics - "The" Sunscreen
Ingredients: Organic jojoba oil, organic unrefined shea butter, organic beeswax, organic virgin coconut oil, organic camellia oil, organic cocoa butter, non-nano zinc oxide (22.5%), organic rosemary extract.