Sunscreens can be very confusing especially within the context of green + clean beauty.
You may have heard some people only use mineral sunscreens, while others eschew sunscreen all together for a purely holistic sun protection protocol that involves solely oils and nutrition.
And then there’s the vitamin D aspect – vitamin D cannot synthesize on the skin if it’s covered in sunblock. So what to do? Cover up but take a vitamin D supplement?
I’ll cover vitamin D stuff in a separate post, but for today, let’s get clear on the best form of sun protection for your unique skin, genetic makeup, values and health concerns.
Here are some concerns that should look familiar to you when it comes to sun exposure and sun protection:
- Skin cancer
- Clogged pores, irritation, acne + other skin concerns
- Access to natural vitamin D
- Toxicity of UV filters on the body
- Toxicity of UV filters on the Earth
Let’s now review the sun protection options there are available and list some quick pros + cons. Obviously, you can mix/match these options depending on your unique situation – I do, and I’ll explain how in a second.
1 – Chemical UV filters.
By far the most common – there are over 20 chemicals approved by the FDA that absorb UV radiation and dissipate it before it can cause damage to our skin.
Easily accessible – just go to your local Walgreens.
Available in many formats and SPFs – whatever you want from oil-free to spray to intensely waterproof to foundation/primer.
I’m not trying to be objective here, so I’ll just say that for me, in this category the cons FAR outweigh these minor pros.
Lol, WHERE to begin??
1 – Inadequate UVA protection
It wasn’t until fairly recently that we discovered UVA rays (if you’re curious about the basic mechanism behind sunburn and cancer and how it works, I am working on another post that goes over it so stay tuned) have the potential to not only accelerate DNA damage but more alarmingly, create DNA damage that causes certain cancers. Before these studies, we thought they were fairly harmless and good for tanning. That meant that in the past the FDA did not test for UVA protection AT ALL – just UVB. (However recently we’ve found that UVA rays are not only more prone to cause photoaging than UVB, they are ALSO as likely or MORE likely to create cancer-causing DNA damage.)
Even today, when a chemical UV-filter based sunscreen gives an SPF, that SPF is ONLY valid for UVB rays. Yes it is true that these days most chemicals sunscreens say they are “broad spectrum” BUT in order to say that they must simply block ⅓ of the UVA rays.
The SPF is still determined based only on the amount of UVB blocked. Translation: with a chemical sunscreen you know how much UVB is getting blocked, BUT you are totally unprotected from the majority of UVA radiation hitting your skin.
A good rule of thumb however is that if the sunscreen doesn’t contain Zinc Oxide or Avobenzone then the UVA protection capabilities are basically across the UVA1 spectrum, and possibly still inadequate across UVA2. Just FYI, you can see the ranges below. You’ll notice it’s actually a pretty tight spectrum – from 290 to 400nm. (In case you’re interested, the average size of a skin cell is 30,000nm and the width of a DNA helix is 2nm for comparison.)
Why should you care about UVA protection? Because not only are studies showing that it is just as relevant to cancer risk as UVB, BUT it is ALSO the PRIMARY source of photoaging! So it is UVA rays that are primarily responsible for wrinkles, loss of elasticity and age spots.
Check out this chart that shows the UV protection capabilities of different FDA approved UV filters:
You’ll notice that there is only ONE filter that covers the whole range and that is Zinc Oxide. You’ll also notice the chemical filters most often only cover a small portion of the range, and therefore truly broad spectrum formulations must include at least 2, if not 3 or more active ingredients.
2 – Photo-instability and oxidation potential
Boy, does UV radiation LOVE to cause things to oxidize. One reason why oils go rancid.
Chemicals in chemical sunscreen are just as susceptible to UV damage as your skin. One of the most popular chemicals for blocking UVA rays (the ONLY chemical filter that blocks UVA1), known as Avobenzone (Parasol 1789) is highly unstable and UV radiation will cause 50-90% of it to break down within ONE hour.
For this reason it has to be carefully formulated with other UV filters that help stabilize it. But no chemical UV filter is perfect and they ALL are potentially photo-unstable, especially under certain conditions.
For example, a study showed that nanoized titanium dioxide, ostensibly added to a formulation to INCREASE sun protection, actually caused the chemical UV filters in the product to degrade more rapidly, releasing free radicals and decreasing the photoprotective properties. Eeeep.
Sunscreen manufacturers argue that the risks associated with photo-instability (production of free radicals, reduced efficacy of the UV filter, phototoxicity/photoallergy, and – more long term – photo-aging and cancer) are nominal, however very few studies, especially long-term have been done to demonstrate what is actually true. So this is an unknown risk – something to be aware of. Could your sunscreen actually be contributing to skin damage because it’s UV filters are causing free radical damage?
Additionally, UV degradation or not, studies have shown that photoallergic reactions DO occur with UV filters. Certain individuals allergic or sensitive to UV filters will burn worse with a chemical sunscreen than without any sunscreen at all.
3 – Hormonal Issues
This one is a BIG deal if you suffer from hormonal acne. Seriously, your sunblock may be contributing to your stubborn acne that is not going away no matter how healthy you eat.
Most of the most popular UV filters (used in practically every sunscreen) have been shown to be endocrine system disruptors. Specifically, studies have shown instances of this chemical in the blood or a build up of this chemical in the body after using the sunscreen containing it. For anyone with adult acne tendencies this should raise a giant red flag. (Actually, for anyone suffering from any type of hormonal dysfunction, including this should raise a red flag) Adult acne almost ALWAYS has a significant hormonal component.
One of the MAIN causes of the hormonal imbalance that causes adult acne is EXTERNAL xenoestrogens and other chemicals that are able to MIMIC our body’s own hormones contributing to hormonal imbalances which lead to health issues – chief amongst them acne.
The most problematic UV filter is also the most common: oxybenzone. It has been shown to have an absorption rate of up to 9% – that means that 9% of the oxybenzone you put on your skin ends up in your blood and is circulated to every part of your body. Another study suggests that over 96% (!!!) of the US population has detectable levels of this powerful endocrine disruptor IN THEIR BODIES.
Oxybenzone acts like estrogen in the body. It alters sperm production in animals, has been linked to endometriosis in women, and to a low sperm count in men. One study showed that women exposed to the chemical while pregnant gave birth to children with a low birth weight.
You may be wondering – how does estrogen cause acne? Long story short – if the body senses we have excess levels of estrogen, two things will happen. 1) The liver will be overwhelmed trying to get rid of it and there will be a backup of toxins in the body so the skin will start showing signs of toxin release, ie blemishes 2) The body will produce more TESTOSTERONE to get the RATIO back to what is normal. Testosterone activity in the skin causes our sebum and dead skin cells to get a lot more sticky, resulting in way more clogged pores.
The second most worrisome UV filter when it comes to hormone disruption is octinoxate. It has been linked to thyroid and reproductive issues in studies done on animals and even more disturbingly “behavioral alterations.”
Below is a chart that gives more detail. A good rule of thumb is that if the UV filter ingredient starts with and H or an O (HO!) it is a hormone mimicker that our bodies have been shown to ABSORB.
Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world. One million species of fish, invertebrates, and algae are estimated to live in and around the world’s reefs – that is a whopping 25% of all marine life.
The problem is, chemical UV filters, such as Oxybenzone have a devastating effect on coral reefs – which are KEY to the health of our oceans, WHICH in turn, are KEY to the health of our Earth. Oxybenzone causes planula (the larval form of coral) to harden and be stuck inside their individual skeletons, preventing maturation. It can awaken coral viruses. The coral then becomes sick, expelling their life-giving algae. Without these algae, the coral “bleaches” (turns white), and prematurely dies.
Each year an estimated 8 million pounds of sunscreen washes off ocean-goers into coral reef environments, not to mention the amount of sunscreen that is washed off in showers and eventually drains into the ocean.
This puts a whopping 10% of the world’s coral reefs at risk for die-off.
And it’s not just the coral that suffers from the UV filters poisoning the Earth’s oceans. Oxybenzone has also been shown to cause feminization of male fish. The other risks it poses are no doubt numerous and equally devastating for not only individual species but for the Earth’s ecosystem as a whole.
Um, yeah. It goes without saying that I no longer use chemical UV filters except for in the rarest of emergencies, and even then I get really mad at myself.
So – on to other options.
2 – Physical UV filters.
There are 2 but they can take a few different forms.
Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are the ingredients you’ll see in this category. In general, these are ingredients the green beauty community feels pretty good about.
However, there is quite a bit of green washing going on with these mineral filters as well. The EWG rated zinc oxide its first choice for sun protection and it’s my first choice too. But is it a perfect, totally safe and harmless choice? That is often how it is portrayed.
In actuality, both Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide have many of the SAME cons as chemical sunscreens, only to a LESSER degree. So they are by no means perfect, they are just the lesser of two evils.
Zno vs TiO2
Also, they are all too often talked about as though they are interchangeable since they are both mineral filters. They are not – there are significant enough differences between the two.
Here are the key differences that are the reason why I avoid even Titanium dioxide – not to the same extent that I eschew chemical filters, but I much prefer Zinc Oxide over it.
Titanium Dioxide does NOT cover the ENTIRE range of UV radiation like Zinc Oxide, for one. It only protects against SOME (UVA2), not all, UVA radiation (UVA1 + UVA2). It is also more prone to acting as a photocatalyst than Zinc. (Photocatalysts form free radicals when exposed to UV radiation.) For this reason, Titanium Dioxide is often coated in another chemical to reduce its reactivity. The chemicals used for coating do not need to be disclosed by the manufacturer and so go unlisted on the ingredients and therefore unknown by the consumer.
In addition, it is more allergenic than Zinc and also more prone to cause acne in those who are acne-prone. For me, it varies. There are some sunscreens that contain TiO2 that seem ok, while others break me out. I prefer to avoid it, although I will use it on my body no problem, as long as the sunscreen also contains a large percentage of ZnO.
Zinc Oxide, on the other hand, does give you the most complete coverage of any single UV filter – across UVB, UVA1 and UVA2. Now, that is only true if it is NON-NANO. What does that mean?
ZnO: Nano vs Non-nano
It means, roughly, that the smaller the particle size, the less UVA1 protection, ALTHOUGH there are certain manufacturers out there that specialize in creating ZnO for sun protection that say they’ve created micronized ZnO that can cover the full UV range.
So, maybe despite the hullabaloo of the importance of using non-nano zinc it means less than you think it does? The EWG seems to think so, and honestly, the data is all over the map.
For one, ALL mineral filters are ground to be very, very fine. The difference between nano, micronized and non-nano zinc is all found on the spectrum between about 20nm and 300nm. Below 100nm mesh size is considered nano, above 100 is considered micronized and above 300 is considered non-nano, with some manufacturers stating they use 6,000nm size aggregates in their sunblock.
For two, particle size is only ONE variable. Other variables include the shape, the coating and surface area.
The major concerns with nano and to a certain degree micronized ZnO are that it has less UVA1 protection, that is it more reactive (and therefore LESS photostable and MORE prone to causing free radical damage) and that it can be absorbed by the skin.
There are studies that show that with micronized and nano particles, absorption doesn’t seem to be a cause for concern, so we’re ok on that front.
Regarding the UVA issue, with ANY sunscreen, mineral or chemical, the only FDA regulation is that it has to block ⅓ the amount of UVA as it does of UVB, and I highly doubt with tests being as expensive as they are that ANY sunscreen company, especially small green ones, ACTUALLY test the true percentage of UVA blocked.
That being said, a general rule of thumb is the larger the particle size, the better the broad spectrum UVA protection.
But even if someone is selling non-nano ZnO, and even if word on the street is that it blocks UVA completely, it has NOT actually TESTED and been PROVEN this is true. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, NO MATTER WHAT active UV filters are used, you can only be SURE that you are getting ⅓ the SPF with regards to UVA.
Interlude: SPF maths
Some maths perhaps to illustrate? So – if your sunblock is SPF 30, you’re blocking 97% of UVB. If it’s SPF 50, you’re blocking 98%. SPF 100, is 99%. Kind of misleading – you’d think that when the SPF doubles, the protection does too right? Nope. It just goes up by one teeny tiny percent. Weird. Moral: SPF 30 is fine for basically everyone.
Now for UVA protection:
.97*.33 = .320
.98*.33 = .323
.99*.33 = .326
So if you’re blocking 97, 98, or 99% UVB, that means legally, you are only required to block 32-33% UVA. So NO MATTER the SPF, be it 30, 50 or 100, the level of UVA protection you are GUARANTEED is basically the SAME and it’s still just ⅓ of the total UVA radiation hitting your skin. That’s a bummer. Now, you very well may be getting more complete UVA coverage with non-nano ZnO ONLY sunscreens, BUT you CAN’T be sure!
Why not? Well, some micronized ZnO particles offer just as good UVA coverage as larger particles – I’ve seen the lab results from specialized manufacturers. Also, ZnO has a tendency to clump and create “holes” in protection. The FORMULA of the sunscreen has everything to do with if this occurs to a large degree or not. So even if a formula uses non-nano ZnO, we still don’t know how well dispersed the ZnO in that formula is. All we know is, say it with me, the UVB SPF and that the UVA protection is 30%.
Now, free radical creation is another beast. Arguments FOR micronized zinc include that since it supposedly sits on the outermost dead layer of the skin, the free radicals generated do not harm living skin. In general, the smaller the particle the more reactive it is, but I do think that this concern is only valid for true nano-particles, those smaller than 100nm. Certain pollutants are nano-sized as well, and are the perfect size to mess with cells and set off free radical chains.
What is unclear is if the free radicals generated by micronized ZnO on the outer dead skin layer can set off chain reactions that could end up traveling into healthy skin tissue and causing issues. Either way, ZnO at a non-nano mesh size is VERY photostable and micronized ZnO is much more stable than chemical filters. Nano ZnO, not so sure. Luckily, at mesh sizes under 150nm, zinc oxide appears much clearer and no longer leaves a white cast, while still remaining safe.
It would be great to find some data that shows exactly HOW MANY more free radicals are generated with nano ZnOs vs. the non-nano ZnO vs. chemical filters – is it a HUGE difference or a small one?
Lastly, how do we know that our regular skincare – our oils and moisturizers and makeup aren’t ALSO generating free radicals in the presence of UV radiation? We don’t. They probably are.
Bottom line: there WILL BE free radicals. Whether they are generated by UV rays themselves on unprotected skin, or by UV rays interacting with chemicals/minerals on protected skin, they are kind of unavoidable. Sorries. We’ll deal with these in a second since they are actually more important than you think.
But first, I just want to wrap up on nano vs/ non-nano ZnO. For me personally, I think:
- Any particle size over 100nm is fine
- It is somewhat likely that you DO get more UVA1 protection with a particle size over 300nm, but by no means is it guaranteed
- Free radicals are an unavoidable occurrence no matter what
So: pros and cons of mineral sunblocks:
More photostable than chemical filters – when used as a standalone ingredient (MAY cause chemical UV filters to degrade FASTER, in the case of TiO2)
Very safe and nontoxic – no signs of absorption by the body – no endocrine disruption!
Can leave a white cast
Another con that isn’t mentioned is that – hello! – ZnO and TiO2 are ALSO toxic to marine life in both their nano and non-nano forms.
They can do all kinds of nasty things like damage the embryos of tiny sea creatures. Not to mention, with ZnO and TiO2, sunscreen is only ONE of the sources for contamination. Boat hulls painted white also leech large amounts of these minerals into the sea.
True, the studies that showed the embryo damage used FAR larger concentrations of these minerals than the sea contains, even in busy harbors, BUT still – samples I received of ZnO from a specialty manufacturer have Toxic to Marine Life warnings all over them in large letters.
Now are they AS toxic as Oxybenzone? Doubtful but also, I. D. K. No one does. More studies need to be done! But just because your mineral sunscreen says “reef safe” don’t go feeling all high and mighty. It’s still NOT “100% marine life safe.”
Which brings us to the third sun protection option:
3 – Holistic Sun Care
Let’s rewind to why we’re seeking sun protection in the first place:
- Decrease risk of skin cancer
- Minimize photoaging
- Avoid sunburn
How are all these things caused? By direct UV ray damage.
Let’s take them one by one:
Skin cancer: Caused by cellular DNA damage that is left unrepaired or repaired incorrectly.
Until very recently, we thought the majority of DNA damage was caused by direct UVB rays, but it turns out that UVA rays can also play a substantial role in the same type of DNA damage caused by UVB – the type of damage that is the precursor to melanomas.
A recent study showed that while some DNA damage is instantaneous and caused directly by UVB rays since they are more powerful than the weaker UVA rays, another type of DNA damage occurs when the heretofore believed innocuous UVA rays create free radicals that excite the melanin in our skin in a way that makes it as powerful and as harmful as a UVB ray. These excited melanin fragments are powerful enough to cause the same damage UVB rays do. Not only that, they are capable of generating this damage for HOURS after we have left direct UV exposure, meaning that UVA rays and specifically the free radicals generated by UVA reacting with melanin, might be MORE dangerous and MORE cancer causing than UVB. Holy sheets, y’all.
Photoaging: mostly caused by cellular/collagen damage from direct UVA rays, but accelerated by free radical damage.
Sunburn: a HEALING response from the body when it gets signals that the DNA is damaged.
What is holistic sun care?
Au Natural sun protection involves eating foods high in antioxidants, supplementation with antioxidants, being aware of your inherent sun tolerance and gradually increasing exposure time to allow your body to adjust naturally, without burning, and also applying natural oils, butters and possibly other plant based extracts and powders topically to help shield your skin. Also, shielding your body from the sun with textiles and clothing vs. with sunblock. People who practice holistic sun care do not use UV filters on the skin, not even mineral filters, going only the purest, most natural route.
Is this viable?
I think this is a really great way to supply our body with antioxidants and antioxidants are really rad when it comes to free radical protection. In fact, some antioxidants can even help repair DNA damage from UV radiation faster!
(I’m writing a separate article on the incredibly diverse and fascinating world of antioxidants so stay tuned to see the myriad of cool ways they support the body.)
Where I get stuck is that I don’t see how this method protects from DIRECT UV exposure except unless you take the cover-up part seriously and wear hats and long-sleeved tightly woven clothing in the sun.
That would be my main and only concern and given what research is showing us, it may be a much more mild issue than it appears.
As I mentioned before, we’ve begun to discover that it may be that the MAJORITY of sun damage to collagen and skin cells and skin cancer causing DNA damage is caused by FREE RADICALS. Like I mentioned above, it seems as though sun damage continues for hours after we’ve left the sun, and it is caused NOT by the UV rays themselves but by UVA generated free radicals exciting melanin. In this case, using antioxidants is 100% viable and might even be what next-generation sunscreen looks like!
More and more sunscreen manufacturers are including antioxidants like green tea extract and vitamin C in their formulations.
In fact, the study the study that showed that the DNA damage is suppressed by certain antioxidants and completely quenched by others, notably alpha-tocopherol or Vitamin E.
Do oils have natural SPF?
I know there are a lot of articles out there talking about how different oils have different SPFs and how raspberry seed oil has this amazing SPF of 28 and how coconut oil blocks 30% of UV radiation, blah, blah. Apparently, Cupuacu butter helps absorb UV radiation just like chemical sunscreens. I want to believe that stuff, I really do, but there is no definitely testing and science to prove it – not that I’ve managed to dig up. Most of these assertions are based on folk medicine claims.
Then again, from personal experience, I think I do take a little longer to burn and do tan better if I am covered in oil (I use a cocoa/almond/coconut blend). I always assumed it was because the oil is shiny and thick and so it reflects some of the UV rays.
That being said, on my face and arms, I personally was NOT able to use raspberry seed oil as a 1:1 replacement for sunscreen, so EVEN IF it DOES have sun protection properties they are definitely not unlocked by applying it and treating it the same way you would a bonafide sunscreen. I burned as though I had applied no SPF at all.
NOW – when it comes to oils having helpful antioxidants, that is NOT BS AT ALL. So when it comes to free radical damage being repaired and avoided, and as the study I’ve been referencing demonstrated, DNA damage being suppressed, then I am 100% on board with antioxidant rich oils and foods. But, when it comes to protection from direct UV radiation, I think oils are not as good UV filters as minerals or chemicals.
But topical antioxidants appear to be extremely helpful in preventing the DNA damage caused by UVA. AND, what’s more, even if you FORGET any sun protection, you can still do A LOT OF GOOD by slathering yourself in an antioxidant rich oil as soon as you come in from the sun since MOST of the DNA damage is occurring AT THAT POINT, 2-3 hours after you’ve come inside. So AFTER sun care with antioxidants is equally as effective and important as pre-sun efforts and application. Mmmm, I’m thinking a cool green tea bath!
So, DO NOT think of oils as being replacements for sunscreen or think that they will prevent sunburn, since that is not true. Their therapeutic value does not lie in blocking UV rays, but rather in stopping the complicated chain of events that is induced by UVA rays and leads to cancer causing DNA damage. Thanks to their antioxidant richness, they are truly the MOST effective way to deal not with SUNBURN, but with a much bigger problem: DNA DAMAGE – the stuff you can’t see or feel.
Before I started this article, I had no idea ZnO was toxic to marine life, which is bumming me out right now.
I also didn’t realize the EXTENT to which antioxidants can help not only prevent and reverse aging BUT ALSO cancer causing DNA damage.
Since it turns out that UVA rays and the free radicals they generate are the primary culprits of aging, AND since it turns out that ALL sunscreens, both chemical AND mineral only have to block 30% of UVA rays, it seems like getting your antioxidants both internally and externally is kind of a no-brainer.
I’m waaaayyy more into antioxidants and holistic sun care now – antioxidants both topical and internal, and I can’t wait to share more about them with you in another post.
Why I Use Mineral Sunscreen
However, I’m still a fan of using ZnO sunblock on my face and the backs of my hands. This is primarily for reasons of vanity and convenience.
My head is flat and small and so hats never fit me, so that option is out.
I still believe that ZnO offers way better protection against direct UVA/UVB radiation than oils/topical antioxidants can. Again, at the risk of repeating myself – oils/antioxidants can shield from free radicals but not from UV rays themselves.
They say the hands and the face are where you notice aging the most. I’ve begun to notice sunspots on my hands and face, and I don’t want more and I want to fade the few I have. In order to do this, it is extremely important to keep them away from UV radiation, as it re-activates the pigmentation pathways in the skin, darkening the sun spot with every UV exposure.
And while free radicals are responsible for some aging, direct UV radiation is ALSO responsible for some of the aging we see on our skin. Not only that, UV radiation creates 80% of the free radicals our skin is taxed with. So protecting the skin from direct UV radiation seems even more necessary/effective than protecting the skin from free radicals, although for maximum damage control antioxidant boosting is obviously a good idea.
I also think that for better or worse, the level of UV radiation we are exposed to today is greater than in the distant past – those idyllic, paleo, pre-modern days where acne and cancer weren’t the rampant issues they are today. We are also exposed to far higher levels of pollutants and toxins both topically and internally. Simply put, our modern world has unavoidable health hazards our distant ancestors did not have to deal with, which should result in a wellness strategy that adjusts for this difference. So I think that eating antioxidant rich foods is paramount to help counteract the free radicals pollutants and toxins generate, but I also think supplementing with them is not a bad idea since many of our foods – especially non-organic fruits/veggies – have LESS NUTRITIONAL VALUE than their predecessors, even just by virtue of the fact that most of us do not eat them freshly picked, but after they have sat in a truck, then in a store, then in our fridge.
In the same way, I think that using “sun oils” is a good idea but I choose to supplement this with mineral UV filters in a very personal, specific and arbitrary way.
In sharing my own sun protection regime and opinions, I don’t mean to tell you what is RIGHT and WRONG. I just wanted to share part of my own journey and education in terms of wellness.
I don’t touch chemical sunscreens if I can help it, but if that’s your jam, then you do you.
If you want to chime in, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
(My research/sources for this article are listed in a separate doc. If you’re interested, you can access the doc here. )