Common Questions about “Natural” Sunscreens

Common Questions about “Natural” Sunscreens

What exactly is a natural, non-toxic sunscreen? Are natural and non-toxic sunscreens the same thing? What ingredients do natural sunscreens use versus chemical?

Natural and non-toxic are not the same thing. Natural means the ingredient occurs in the same state in the natural world as it does in a product. Toxic relates to whether something is good or bad for you. Things can be natural and still be toxic and things can be non-toxic and not natural. Neither term is regulated by the FDA, they are simply adjectives that brands choose to use to describe their products, but the basis of their claims are not validated.

In the world of sunscreens we talk about chemical vs mineral protection. Minerals sunscreens, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are natural and non-toxic. They sit on top of your skin and block the sun like reflectors.

Chemical sunscreens like oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate and avobenzone must be absorbed into the skin before they can protect us from the sun’s radiation. These ingredients protect the skin by absorbing the sun’s rays then converting them into heat that is released from the skin. These are not natural and likely non-toxic.

Why do some people prefer to use a mineral sunscreen as opposed to a chemical one?

Most drugstore sunscreens contain a combination of chemical sunscreen that provide pretty good UVA and UVB protection. Using these products is definitely better than not using anything. But here is the rub. These are chemicals that our body absorbs. We can measure them in our blood and urine. They are well studied and labeled by the FDA as non-toxic. And, despite the reports out there, they do not cause cancer and have NOT been shown to cause hormone disruption in humans. BUT they do accumulate in us and I would like to minimize the accumulation of any unneeded chemical in my body and our world whenever possible. Further, avobenzone is a common cause of sunscreen allergy and oxybenzone is contributing to the death of coral reefs.

Therefore, I prefer mineral sunscreens that contain zinc oxide. Zinc provides protection against both UVB rays that cause burns and UVA rays that are longer, come through windows and cause brown spots and wrinkles. It has a reputation for being thick and white, making people look ghost-like but now many of the sunscreens with zinc are cosmetically elegant. And unlike the chemical sunscreen ingredients discussed above, zinc is a natural mineral and not absorbed by your body. Titanium dioxide is another good physical sunscreen but it only protects from UVB rays, so products need to have both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to provide broad spectrum protection.

Are mineral sunscreens as effective as chemical? Do natural sunscreens need to be applied as often and do they hold up as well in water?

Now, in the USA, sunscreen labeling is tightly regulated. All sunscreens must pass testing to prove the claims on their labels including SPF, UVA and UVB protection as well the length of time the protection is maintained when in water.

All sunscreens start to lose their effectiveness once they are applied and need to be reapplied every 2 hours.

Are there other differences in the formulas i.e. Different SPFs, UVA/UVB protection, chalkier, thicker,

Yes, there are huge difference in sunscreens formulas. I always tell my patients to keep trying sunscreens until they find one they like! You can get sprays, creams, wipes, powders, sticks. There are now so many available, you will find one you like…but you may just have to hunt to do it!

Are mineral sunscreens okay for those with sensitive and/or acne-prone skin?

Yes, they are even better than chemical sunscreens! Zinc is a natural anti-inflammatory and less likely to cause allergy than the chemical sunscreens. As for acne-prone skin I recommend selecting a zinc based sunscreen with an oil-free base.

What are your tips for choosing the best sunscreen?

I like my skin care products to be specialists. Often, the more a single product claims to do the less likely it is to do all those things well. As sunscreen should be an important part of your skin care routine you will need more than one product.

I recommend having several, these are all #nonsponsored recommendations.

A daily face sunscreen with the option to have tint (my favorite: Dermaquest Sheer Zinc)

A power sunscreen for easy reapplication during the day (my favorite: Brush on Block and Colorscience)

A body sunscreen for neck, chests, arms during summer days (my favorite: 

ISDIN Eryfotona Actinica)

A sunscreen that is water resistant for exercise and water play (my favorite: Replenix Sheer Spray)


Researchers Say Oxybenzone Kills Baby Coral And Contributes To Reef Decline.

Reuters (10/21, Liston) reports that a study published Oct. 20 in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology suggests that oxybenzone, a chemical commonly found in sunscreen that filters UVA and UVB rays, kills baby coral and is implicated in global coral reef decline. The chemical, which acts as an endocrine disruptor, also increases coral’s susceptibility to bleaching. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, no data exist demonstrating that the chemical is hazardous to human health.

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Meet the author: Board-certified and practicing dermatologist, Dr. Heather D. Rogers, MD, is the founder of Doctor Rogers Skin Care and Modern Dermatology in Seattle, Washington. She studied at Stanford, University of Washington School of Medicine and Columbia University Medical Center. She lectures nationally, is well published, and an active member of the American Academy of Dermatology. Highly respected among the skin care community, Dr. Rogers has been annually named “Top 1% of Most Honored Doctors in the US” by Castle Connolly.

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