Let’s talk about sun safety and choosing a safer sunscreen for you and your family.
I love buying sunscreen every spring. Sounds a bit weird, but it’s true. Perhaps because it signifies all the good times and warm, sunny days that lie ahead.
Now do I like actually using sunscreen?
Nope. We all know it’s a pain, especially when squirmy kids are involved.
But good sun protection is so very important, and there’s science to back this up. So first let’s get some of the basics down. Then I’ll share some of the best (and safer) options I’ve found for myself and my family so you can head out and enjoy some sunshine without worry.
A little heads up folks. This article is a longer one, but it’s a really important topic, and worth your time for sure. So stick with me!
Before we dive in, I have to say that while this post is meant to be highly informative, and I do my best to research and present unbiased and accurate info, I am not a medical or health provider. So always consult your doctor before making any health or lifestyle changes. Makes sense right?
Ok. Now let’s get to some eye opening facts…
Kinda scary, right? We all love the sun. And many people prefer the look of a tan. But the fact is you’ve got to protect your skin.
Sun science – what we’ve learned so far
When I set out to write this post I thought it was going to be pretty straightforward. Having a molecular biology background, I knew the science behind skin damage. UV light damages DNA, which if not repaired by our cells, can lead to mutation and potentially cancer.
So pile on the sunscreen and you’re all good, right? In reality, things are little more complicated (aren’t they always?). But here’s what we do know.
“Solar ultraviolet radiation is an established cause of melanoma, and sunscreen use is recommended for sun protection in addition to clothing and shade. Sunscreen can decrease the risk of sunburn, squamous cell carcinoma, actinic keratosis, and nevi in children. Melanoma may also be preventable by sunscreen use, but high-quality evidence is still scarce.”
The Norwegian study quoted above, as well as another study conducted over fifteen years in Australia, looked at sunscreen use and melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer).
Both found that regular, broad spectrum SPF15+ sunscreen use reduced melanoma risk (compared to using SPF less than 15 or more sporadic use). In the second study, melanoma occurrence was cut in half.
Were these studies totally conclusive? No. Humans are never perfect for scientific studies because, well, we are human. And sunscreen is not a magic bullet. Many of us don’t use it properly (i.e. choosing a broad spectrum formula, using enough product and reapplying when necessary).
So yes, we need more research, particularly when it comes to melanoma (which is strikingly on the rise in the U.S. by the way).
But the take home from the research so far is that proper sunscreen use, combined with other good sun protection practices, can without a doubt help to protect your skin from cancer and premature aging.
But what about Vitamin D? Isn’t a little sun good for you?
Yes. And here’s an important piece of the puzzle. Sunlight (specifically UVB) is necessary for the production of Vitamin D, which is not technically a vitamin but rather a hormone that plays many important roles in the body, including we think cancer prevention.
Vitamin D deficiencies are on the rise as we spend more time indoors. And while we can get vitamin D from food, many argue that the most beneficial form (D3 sulfate) comes from sun exposure.
The key seems to be in getting the right amount of sunshine. Just enough to produce adequate levels of important D3 sulfate, but not so much as to burn or cause undue damage to the skin.
For fair skinned folks such as myself, this might be just 10-20 minutes of sun exposure. The time of day, time of year, where you live, your natural skin color, and how much skin you expose all affect how much sunlight you need for optimal vitamin D production.
According to the Vitamin D Council:
“Exposing your skin to the sun for too long, so that your skin starts to burn can be dangerous. This is because it can increase your risk of developing skin cancers. Research to date shows that moderate but frequent sun exposure is healthy but overexposure and intense exposure can increase your risk of skin cancer.
After you have exposed your skin for half the time it takes for you to begin to burn, cover up with clothing and go into the shade. Using sunscreen is not as recommended as using shade and clothing to protect your skin, because it hasn’t consistently been shown to prevent all types of skin cancers. But if you do want to use sunscreen, use a sunscreen that blocks both UVA light and UVB light.”
And here is what health and wellness expert Dr. Andrew Weil has said on the subject of Vitamin D:
“Don’t bake on the beach, or spend a summer’s day outdoors unprotected. Certainly, use sunscreen if you will be outdoors when the sun’s radiation is at its most intense – especially between 10 am and 2 pm, near the summer solstice, and at high altitudes or low latitudes. But it may do you more good than harm to get out in the sun for 15 minutes or so without protection several days a week. Afterwards, go back inside and slather on the sunscreen.”
So as is the case with many things in life, common sense and moderation seem to be the name of the game. For me, this means exposing my skin to some sunlight and using a broad spectrum SPF 15+ sunscreen (along with other protective measures) to minimize sunburn, skin damage and premature aging.
It seems there is a place for sunshine and a place for sunscreen, and they can happily co-exist.
Alright, now that we’ve cleared (or maybe not cleared) up some of the science, let’s talk about safer sunscreen options, shall we?
Here comes the sun (protection)
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There are two forms of sunscreen – chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing and transforming UV radiation as it enters the skin, while physical sunscreens block or deflect UV radiation from entering the skin in the first place.
I strongly prefer a physical sunscreen and here’s why.
- Chemical sunscreens may degrade over time as more UV radiation is absorbed, making them less effective.
- Physical sunscreens are immediately effective, while chemical sunscreens need time to be absorbed into the skin (usually 20 minutes or more).
- Physical sunscreen ingredients are considered safer. Some of the ingredients used in chemical sunscreens (most cited are oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate) have been linked to health issues such as hormone disruption and cancer – though it’s important to note that there’s no definitive research on this yet.
- Chemical sunscreens are more commonly associated with allergic reactions of the skin.
- Chemical sunscreens can harm the environment. You’ve likely seen sunscreens labeled as “reef safe”. This is important to look for. Hawaii just recently banned sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate because they have evidence of causing harm to marine life and coral reefs.
How do you know which is which? A physical sunscreen will contain as active ingredients the minerals zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, and that’s it. Chemical sunscreens will have one or more technical-sounding ingredients such as oxybenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate, octosalate, homosalate, or avobenzone, amongst others.
What to Look for in a Sunscreen
The current, widely accepted standard for safe sunscreen is a physical sunscreen containing non-nano zinc oxide, with titanium dioxide coming in second place. The term nano refers to the size of the mineral particles. Although the jury is still out with respect to the safety of nanoparticles in cosmetics, I still look for the non-nano distinction in my sunscreen.
So when buying sunscreen, I always look for a mineral, zinc oxide-based product with broad spectrum protection of at least SPF 15, no synthetic fragrance, and no parabens.
Physical sunscreens are usually found in the form of a lotion or a stick. There are some good spray (non-aerosol) formations coming out now which can make application easier, but you’ll still need to rub them in to ensure proper coverage.
Now don’t confuse these newer zinc oxide sprays with all the quick aerosols out there on the market. They sure are tempting. But they usually contain a cocktail of unhealthy chemicals and fragrances that you don’t want on your skin, or in your lungs. Give those a pass.
And if you’re worried that a physical sunscreen will make you look like a ghost, don’t. Formulas have come a long way. With a good product applied properly, you’ll barely (if at all) notice that you’re wearing it. Though, I will happily take a slight pale cast on my kids skin if it means that they are well-protected by a safe product.
Tried and true sun protection picks
There are lots of places to save money on safer products (and I hope to share those with you right here on this blog). Sunscreen, in my humble opinion, is not one of them. Don’t skimp on quality or quantity here.
Buy a good sunscreen. Use it liberally. And use it often.
Fortunately there are many safer options. Enough in fact, that it can be hard to know where to start. Here are my top three picks and the ones I use on a regular basis. Remember that everyone’s skin is unique, so consult your doctor or dermatologist for specific skin concerns/conditions and regarding sunscreen use on infants under 6 months.
Now as promised, here’s some good stuff.
Thinkbaby SPF 50+ Sunscreen Lotion and Stick
The self-proclaimed standard for safe sunscreen and my favorite pick for kids. EWG rated 1 for safety. A good value. Not at all greasy. When I apply this diligently, my kids (who have super fair skin) never burn. I go through quite a bit so I like keep a tube at home and one for on the go. The stick is awesome when you need a quick application on little necks and noses.
Beautycounter Countersun SPF 30 Sunscreen Lotion and Mist
This company knows what it’s doing. Beautycounter is known for their killer combo of safety and performance. Their new Countersun line is a favorite for myself, but great for the family as well. I love how beautifully it rubs in. It has a very light, natural citrus scent, is totally non-greasy yet leaves the skin very soft. You’d almost never know this was a zinc oxide sunscreen. EWG rated 1.
Suntegrity Skincare SPF 30 Unscented Sunscreen Lotion
I spent a long time looking for a facial moisturizer with SPF. I have sensitive skin and don’t like any scent whatsoever on my face. So I mix this sunscreen with a little of my regular moisturizer and use daily on my face and neck. It’s a thicker formula but actually rubs in surprisingly nicely. Suntegrity also makes a nice tinted moisturizer if that’s your thing. This lotion is also great for the family and is EWG rated 1 for safety.
If you want a laundry list of safer sunscreens (and to see how your current ones stack up) you can check out the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Safe Sunscreens. They update it every year and its a great reference for finding better products.
Lastly, don’t forget that sunscreen isn’t the only recommended way to protect your skin from those UV rays! UPF rated clothing, swimwear, hats and sunglasses should also be part of your sun protection arsenal.
Coolibar offers a nice line of clothing, accessories and swimwear for adults and kids that is specifically made for sun protection. Their quick-drying, UPF 50+ rated kids bucket hat has been awesome for my kiddos in the infant/toddler stage.
Sunglasses for little ones are tricky because they tend to get lost or broken oh…all the time. I like that these kids sunglasses from Rivbos are polarized, break-resistant, and won’t break the bank should your kids lose them. They also come with a handy strap and offer a lifetime warranty on the frame which is really cool.
And there you have it. If you found this post helpful please share so we can all be a little smarter, and safer, out there in the sunshine.
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Disclaimer: This site is intended to share my own experiences and opinions in an effort to help people more easily find safer products. It should not be considered health or medical advice. Always do your own research and due diligence before trying out new products.