Hi Sweet Friends,
I love summer. Bare feet. Swimming holes. Veggie gardening. And the soul-warming sun. In my earlier days, I had a dangerous love affair with those radiant rays. Sunscreen? Yeah, right. Nothing was going to stand between me, my baby oil, a Body Glove surfer bikini and a golden tan (or rather, a lobster-red sunburn!).
Today, I’m much wiser, but not just about the importance of wearing sunscreen. I’m also aware that we all need to be savvy consumers when choosing a safe, natural sunscreen.
When it comes to sun exposure and protection, there are a lot of questions to answer. How much basking in the sun is too much? Are there benefits to not wearing sunscreen sometimes? What kind of protection does sunscreen provide? Which ingredients should I avoid? It can be downright mind-boggling to choose a safe, natural sunscreen that feels good AND gets the job done.
That’s why I rely on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Guide to Sunscreens. Every year they do the hard work of analyzing hundreds of sunscreens to uncover health and environmental concerns—and help you choose the best product for you.
Today, I’m digging into EWG’s latest findings, sharing some of their top-rated sunscreen choices and giving you my five essential tips for having a safe relationship with the sun. Hold onto your sun hats, folks, let’s dive in!
Some sun IS good for you!
Vitamin D is an essential hormone for healthy bones, immune function and blood cell formation. Luckily, your body produces vitamin D every time you step into the sunlight. Easy, right? Just keep in mind that you don’t need much unprotected sun exposure to meet your needs. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 5-15 minutes a few times a week is sufficient to maintain healthy vitamin D levels.
Getting some sunshine and fresh air is also great for your mood. There’s nothing quite like soaking up some good old-fashioned rays to turn that frown upside down. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe to sit out and bake sans sunscreen for hours on end. That’s where a great natural sunscreen comes in (stay tuned—I’ll help you find one later on in this article!).
The risks of sun exposure
The truth is, the sun can have some serious damaging effects (no matter how beautiful it is!). Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB) are the two types of sun rays that travel through the earth’s atmosphere and shine down on your glorious skin. They’re responsible for the golden tan so many of us try to attain each year. But if you think that this sun-kissed tone is healthy, think again. When your skin darkens, it’s actually a warning sign that your body is trying to prevent further DNA damage. (Pssst… Don’t worry if you can’t bare to ditch that glow—check out my guide to safe self-tanner here.)
This is just one example of the ways UVA and UVB impact your health. Now let’s explore the difference between the two so that we know why it’s important to protect our skin from both.
UVA rays penetrate the top layer of your skin. They’re often to blame for wrinkles, leathery skin, sagging and sun spots. They can bust through clouds on a gloomy day, seep through your car windows and even sneak through some clothing. Although UVA rays are less likely to give you a sunburn, they’re still linked to increasing your risk of skin cancer because they can damage your basal and squamous skin cells.
UVB rays impact the top layer of your skin. They’re one of the major causes of skin cancer and your worst enemy when it comes to sunburns. UVB rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., especially during the summer months.
Now that we’ve learned about UVA and UVB rays, let’s chat about how find to the perfect natural sunscreen for you!
Decoding the bottle
What do all of those letters and numbers mean, anyway? First things first: Let’s get to the bottom of those often confusing sunscreen labels.
Sun Protection Factor (SPF)
SPF (short for “sun protection factor”) measures how long the sunscreen protects your skin from sunburn caused by UVB rays. So, for example, if your skin would typically burn after 10 minutes in the sun, a sunscreen with SPF 15 should allow you to stay in the sun 15 times longer (150 minutes) before your skin would start to burn.
Keep in mind that SPF doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to the effectiveness of your sunscreen. Higher SPF is not always better—in fact, it can be misleading (source). Also, sweating, swimming and other physical activities can reduce the potency of the SPF, which means you may need to apply it more often. This resource from the Cleveland Clinic has some great application tips to help you get maximum protection!
UVA and UVB Protection
Your sunscreen may be protecting you from sunburn by blocking UVB rays (if you’re re-applying it often enough and using a sufficient amount), but you’re still vulnerable to skin damage if you’re not protected from UVA rays as well. I suggest looking for a sunscreen that has protection from both so you’re totally covered! And that shouldn’t be too hard to find—EWG reported that 99.3% of the products that appear in their 2018 Sunscreen have UVA filters, which is an 18% increase since 2007 (source). Wahoo!
Mineral vs. Synthetic
EWG also noted the rise of mineral-only sunscreens in this year’s Sunscreen Guide. They rate these products more favorably than their non-mineral alternatives because they’re less likely to contain oxybenzone (a harmful chemical we’ll chat more about later). They’re also stable in sunlight and have a good balance of UVA and UVB protection.
Mineral sunscreens aren’t always free and clear, though—we still have to be aware of the potential challenges they present. So, let’s chat about how to choose a natural sunscreen that feels great and keeps your incredible epidermis out of harm’s way!
How to select a safer natural sunscreen.
When it comes to choosing any personal care product, it’s important to be your own health advocate. Knowledge is power, so you’ve taken a great first step just by reading this post (don’t forget to bookmark it so you can refer back later!).
Here’s what you’ve gotta keep in mind: There are chemicals in many personal care products, sunscreen included, that have been linked with cancer, birth defects and a variety of other health issues. And it doesn’t stop there—some of the ingredients are harmful not only to us, but to the environment, too.
I know you want to protect yourself, your family and the environment. So, here are a few red flags to look out for:
Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate or “retinol”)
This ingredient has been linked to the faster growth of skin tumors when applied and exposed to sunlight. And guess where it’s found? That’s right, in sunscreen! It may also lead to vitamin A toxicity. Yes, even though it’s good for you, there’s still such a thing as too much. Luckily, EWG does report that the number of sunscreens containing this problematic ingredient has dropped by more than half since 2010. That said, I still suggest keeping an eye out for it until companies stop using it or can prove it’s safe. You can read more about Vitamin A in sunscreen here.
This toxic chemical, which EWG found in almost 65 percent of non-mineral products it evaluated this year, is perhaps the most troubling sunscreen ingredient. It comes with a whole host of environmental and health concerns, including hormone disruption (source) and coral reef damage. The good news is, there are plenty of companies that don’t use oxybenzone—and you can join EWG in asking other companies to do the same.
Powder or spray sunscreens
As convenient as these products are, they pose a couple of challenges. First, the coverage you get is not always as consistent—it’s much easier to miss a spot. Second, you’re more likely to inhale them than you are a lotion. Needless to say, the chemicals we’ve been chatting about are not edible. Until companies can do more to assure as that sprays and powders are safe, keep this information in mind when you’re buying and applying.
Remember what I said before about mineral sunscreens? They’re a great choice, but they’re not perfect. Here’s the deal: Old-school mineral sunscreens were often known for their white, chalky look (SO not cute!). To remedy this, many brands have started using nanoparticles. The problem is, these babies are not well-regulated and vary greatly in their size, shape and so on—all factors that may impact the protection power of the sunscreen. Their effect on the environment is also not well understood. EWG goes into more detail about nanoparticles here, but the short story is that more research needs to be done to make sure they’re totally safe.
Your perfect natural sunscreen
222 products met EWG’s criteria for their Best Beach and Sport Sunscreens category this year. Here are some that stand out to me (all brands listed are cruelty-free, but make sure to do your research if you’re looking for a 100% vegan product!):
- Alba Botanica (multiple recommended, including non-mineral options*)
- Beautycounter (multiple options)
- Goddess Garden (multiple options)
- Badger (multiple options)
- COOLA (multiple recommended, including non-mineral options*)
- JASON Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 30 (plus four non-mineral options*)
- Juice Beauty Sport Sunscreen, SPF 30
*Approximately two-thirds of the non-mineral sunscreens EWG analyzed contain oxybenzone. These recommendations are among the 23 oxybenzone-free non-mineral sunscreens that EWG is able to recommend.
And here are some of the products featured in the Best Moisturizers with SPF category:
- Andalou Naturals Daily Defense Facial Lotion, SPF 18
- Drunk Elephant Umbra (both Sheer and Tinte) Physical Daily Defense, SPF 30
- MyChelle (multiple options)
- W3LL PEOPLE (multiple options)
How to have a healthy relationship with the sun
Applying natural sunscreen regularly when you’re out in the sun is important, but it’s not the answer to complete sun protection. You also need healthy sun habits!
Here are five ways to stay safe while you’re enjoying those radical rays.
1. Get your D. Spend 5-15 minutes in the sun (sans sunscreen) a few times per week to meet your vitamin D needs.
2. Buy safer sunscreen. Check labels for toxic chemicals and use EWG’s guide to choose the best natural sunscreen for you. Look for broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) coverage and a SPF of 15-50.
3. Use sunscreen responsibly. Apply the recommended amount (usually 1.5 oz) 30 minutes before sun exposure. Re-apply according to the SPF or more often if you’re sweating or swimming.
4. Cover up! The best protection from the sun is complete protection. Cover up with a hat, long sleeves, a shady tree or an umbrella to give yourself a break from those rays. And don’t forget sunglasses—your eyes need protection, too!
5. Always be prepared. Carry sun protection and sunscreen with you at all times. You never know when you or someone you’re with will need it!
Here’s the bottom line: Sunscreen and sun protection are still imperfect sciences. Some companies are making progress, and some have work to do. And when it comes to choosing the best possible protection for you, your family and the environment—a little awareness (check—you got that from this article!) and common sense go a long way.
Now, go have a blast this summer, sweetheart—you deserve it!
Your turn: What are your tips for safe fun in the sun? Do you have a favorite natural sunscreen? Let me know in the comments below!
Peace & fun in the sun,
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