What makes sunscreen "organic"?
This is a tricky question to answer since organic has so many meanings. Probably the most commonly held definition involves the use of food of animal or plant origin produced without chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides. This interpretation has since evolved from just describing food to describing products and their ingredients. In this sense, organic is a regulated labeling term indicating that the ingredients were produced through approved methods. These specific requirements must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labeled USDA organic. Entire products can be labeled organic or individual ingredients in a product can be labeled organic, often highlighted with an asterisk.
Another definition of organic is “of, relation to carbon compounds” which when applied to sunscreen means carbon-based chemicals are used to protect the skin from UV radiation. Here, the chemical sunscreen ingredients are technically considered organic as in “organic chemistry” and are a chemical with a carbon backbone (oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octinoxate) instead of mineral or physical or inorganic sunscreens made from zinc and titanium which do not contain carbon.
Is there any regulation in the market that prohibits brands from naming a sunscreen organic when it isn't?
Products cannot be labeled USDA certified organic unless the product is certified.
Can sunscreen be organic but not mineral-based? Can a mineral-based sunscreen be not organic?
Yes and yes. It all depends on which definition you are using.
What are some general tips for choosing "organic" sunscreens? Or should you just ignore the term altogether and look for certain ingredients?
Since organic terminology is extremely confusing particularly when it is applied to sunscreen, it is not a label I would focus on. Instead, look for sunscreens with fewer ingredients that are described as “mineral,” “physical,” and “hypoallergenic.” Make sure your sunscreen contains at least 10% zinc oxide in order to provide protection against both UVB rays that cause burns and UVA rays that are longer, come through windows, and cause brown spots and wrinkles. Increasingly, I tell my patients to look for sunscreens labeled as “reef-safe” which means the ingredients aren’t toxic to coral reefs and other marine life.
What makes a sunscreen "non-toxic" vs. "toxic"?
Non-toxic and toxic are unregulated terms often used as a marketing claim without a clear definition. And unfortunately, even though it should be clear what makes something toxic, for many ingredients it is not clear and the onus is on the consumer to decide what he or she is comfortable with.
Sunscreens are often made with either chemical or mineral/physical active ingredients to provide sun protection. 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 but they do accumulate in our blood and waterways. We are studying this impact more. 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.
I would like to minimize the accumulation of any unneeded chemicals in my body, my patients’ body and in our world, whenever possible so I always recommend mineral/physical sunscreens. Especially when you take into account that avobenzone is a common cause of sunscreen allergy and oxybenzone is contributing to the death of coral reefs.
What are some common ingredients to avoid and why?
I avoid all chemical sunscreen ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and avobenzone because of their risk of allergy, irritation, accumulation in myself, and our world, and possible association with bleaching of coral reefs.
What are some tips for reading sunscreen labels? What should you look for? What should you avoid?
Sunscreens need to have an SPF of at least 30, be labeled broad-spectrum, and have at least 10% zinc in them. You still need to use an antioxidant serum with vitamin C and moisturizer (if you have dry skin) before you apply your sunscreen and makeup after. There are some great sunscreen options with tint in them that can work to blend the skin but very few makeup brands have enough physical sun protection so don’t rely on your makeup as your primary sunscreen.
Should you avoid certain ingredients if you have a health condition like if you're pregnant, have certain skin problems, or another type of condition?
If you opt for a mineral sunscreen, then no. Mineral sunscreens are safe during pregnancy, for rosacea patients and those with sensitive skin. Zinc is anti-inflammatory and a natural skin protectant so it often helps with these conditions.
Do levels of SPF play into the ingredients list?
We typically only apply half as much product as used during the testing to determine SPF. So if a product is SPF 30, you are likely only getting SPF15 protection. The higher the percentage of the sun-protective ingredients often is associated with a higher SPF. However, SPF only addresses your protection from UVB rays. It is equally important to make sure the product has broad-spectrum protection (meaning it protects you from UVB and UVA). ZInc provides the broadest protection of all the sunscreen ingredient options.
What about sunscreens that are formulated with vitamins? Are these okay?
Yes, sunscreen that is formulated with vitamins is fine but don’t count on your antioxidants in your sunscreen as your only form of vitamins for your skin. Since zinc sits on the top of the skin and is a large molecule, very little from the sunscreen will actually be absorbed. I always put my antioxidant serum with Vitamin C+E on bare skin first. Another ingredient people often ask about is retinyl palmitate, a form of Vitamin A. Reports that retinyl palmitate is not a safe ingredient are based on a study from nearly 20 years ago that has never been reproduced or studied when it serves as an ingredient in sunscreen. In addition, there is no scientific evidence that retinyl palmitate is a carcinogen in humans. In fact, retinyl palmitate is found in our skin, where it works as an antioxidant. It is often included in sunscreen as a preservative.
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.