As originally written for, June 1 2017

Sunscreen is a pretty unique product! Unlike the other creams and lotions out there, we have to apply thick coats of sunscreen, over a large area of our body, and reapply frequently.

And, since sunscreen is also generally something we want to stay on our skin, you’ll find “penetration enhancing” ingredients. On one hand, sunscreen will now stick to our skin. But on the other, now chemical ingredients are even more easily absorbed into the body. For example, did you know that after applying, chemicals from sunscreen can be found in our blood, breast milk and urine?  So, it might be becoming pretty clear why opting for safe ingredients is important when choosing a sunscreen!

Heart-shaped Sunscreen on a Leg

While there’s no perfect sunscreen, some are better than others. At the end of the day, regardless of the choice you make, being an informed consumer is a great tool to protect yourself and your family. This article will give you a quick guide to sunscreen,  based on results from 2016 analysis done by the Environmental Working Group. 

Don’t Depend on Sunscreen alone!

Chairs and Umbrellas on a Beach

Before we begin, I want to emphasize that the safest sun practice is NOT to depend on sunscreen alone. As part of a multi-layered sun protection strategy, sunscreen can be a great addition! However, when used alone, it’s interestingly associated with more sunburns, and a higher risk of skin cancer.

Let’s take a step back and explore that statement a little bit.

Although the sunscreen industry is now worth billions of dollars, skin cancer rates have tripled over the last three decades. Hmm… so, we’re using more sunscreen, but also getting more skin cancer? Despite the claims that we see on many sunscreen labels, most scientists and public health agencies have found very little evidence that they prevent skin cancer.

Yes, they do protect us from harmful UV rays. At the same time, when we slather ourselves with sunscreen, we might mistakenly believe it’s now safe to spend hours in direct sunlight!  

As a result, people who rely on sunscreen tend to burn, and burns are linked to cancer. In 2011 the Stanford University dermatologists came to the conclusion that people who relied on only sunscreen had more sunburns compared to infrequent users who used hats and clothing to protect themselves, based on CDC national survey data. And, in a study on children in Sweden, there was a link to more sunburns with more sunscreen use.

So what does this mean?

Sunscreen can be a great addition to your sun protection routine, just make sure you’re not depending on it solely. Always wear proper clothing, seek shade, avoid spending hours in direct sunlight, and spend less time in the sun mid-day when the sun’s UV-rays are the strongest.

#1. Bigger isn’t always better.

As consumers, we generally assume that the higher the SPF, the better the protection. In theory, one application of SPF 100 would allow us to sit in the sun 100 times longer before we burn! For example, someone who normally burns in 30 minutes could stay out for 50 hours. Clearly, that doesn’t sound realistic! In fact, there is little difference between sun protection levels after SPF 30.

High SPF values can give us the false sense of safety when we apply these sunscreens. And, as a result, people who apply higher SPF sunscreen tend to stay out in the sun for longer… and re-apply less frequently.

Considering all of this, in 2011 the FDA determined that high SPF claims were misleading and proposed a cap at SPF 50, although this still hasn’t been brought to action. In contrast, sunscreens in Europe are already capped at SPF 50.

In addition to poorer sun protection than we are led to believe, high SPF’s are generally geared at blocking high-energy UVB rays, which are the primary cause of sunburn and non-melanoma skin cancer. Unfortunately, these high SPF sunscreens tend to have lower protection against lower-energy UVA rays that penetrate deeper and are associated with higher risks of melanoma cancer. 

Take home point?  

Opting for sunscreens with SPF’s of 15-30 can do an excellent job protecting even the most sensitive skin when applied properly. SPF’s values higher than 50 won’t help that much more.

#2. Broad spectrum is your friend!

As I’ve alluded to above, protecting against both UVB and UVA rays is an important skin protection tactic. While UVB rays, (the rays that cause skin redness and damage the DNA of the top skin layers) make up only about 3-5% of the UV rays, these again are the rays that many sunscreens are geared to protect against. From a sunscreen manufacturers perspective, if the sunscreen prevents a burn it’s doing it’s job.

Unfortunately, the more abundant UVA rays can be just as damaging without causing any change to your skin redness. These rays penetrate deeper and cause a different, and potentially more destructive kind of DNA damage than UVB rays. As a result, most experts agree that broader spectrum protection is key.

Really, higher SPF ratings only indicate UVB protection. The higher the SPF often means the lower the UVA protection. Instead, the ideal sunscreen should have a similar level of UVA and UVB protection.

Mineral based sunscreens tend to do this job very well compared to most chemical sunscreens.

Point to remember: “Look for labels that read “broad-spectrum” over “high SPF.”

#3. Mineral bath or chemical bath: which sounds better?

The sun-protective ingredients in sunscreens can come in two forms – mineral or chemical. At the moment, chemical based sunscreens dominate the sunscreen market. Unfortunately, they also have an alarming number of questionable active ingredients that have been classified as unsafe for human use. For example:  

  • oxybenzone is a popular chemical filter found in 70% of the chemical sunscreens surveyed by the EWG in 2016. This chemical is a known allergen, endocrine disruptor, and environmental contaminant. In addition to oxybenzone, many other chemical filters appear to have similar concerns.
  • Another ingredient of concern, although not as common nowadays, is Retinyl Parmate, a form of vitamin A demonstrated to react with sunlight to cause tumors and lesions in animal studies.

If sunscreens weren’t a product that required copious amounts to applied and re-applied, or if they didn’t have penetration enhancers, perhaps these ingredients wouldn’t be as much of a concern. But since they are, safe ingredients are an important consideration when you choosing a sunscreen.

In contrast, mineral-based sunscreens are stable in sunlight, have broad-spectrum protection, have very few health concerns, are safer for the environment and often contain much less harmful filler ingredients. These include Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide options, but have come a long way since back when we used to see the white lifeguard nose band.

These products can now blend in better, due to new nanoparticle technology. These molecules can now be as small as one-twentieth the width of a human hair. While I know, that sounds kind of scary, there’s no need to be alarmed! The FDA and European Union studied and concluded that nanoparticles don’t penetrate the skin.

Mineral-based sunscreens are rated very favorably by scientists, public health agencies and the EWG, especially compared to chemical based sunscreens.

So, when it’s an option, opt for mineral based sunscreens over ones that are chemical based!

#4. Check out the fill!

Again, since we generally slather ourselves repetitively with sunscreens that are great at absorbing into our skin, safe ingredients should be important when we chose our sunscreens.  

As June is Clean Beauty month at Healthoholics, you may have already read all about dangerous personal care ingredients to be concerned with (if not – check out the Top 3 Personal Care Product Misconceptions, and 7 Ingredients To Avoid).

Sunscreens are no different!

Inactive ingredients make up anywhere from half to nearly all of sunscreen products. One ingredient in particular is a cause for concern: methylisothiazolinone, or MI, a preservative that was recently named “allergen of the year” by the American Contact Dermatitis Society in 2013, is still surprisingly found in some of our sunscreens. In March 2015, the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety concluded that no concentration of MI could be considered safe in leave-on cosmetic products.

Other ingredients to look for that are known allergens, environmental hazards or endocrine disruptors include parabens, phthalates, PEG’s (polyethylene glycols), propylene glycol, phenoxyethanol and sodium laurel sulphates.

An easy rule when you’re reading the label of your sunscreen, if you don’t recognize an ingredient with a long chemical name, it’s probably better to keep it off of your skin. Again, with something we apply, reapply frequently and absorb deeply… safe and eco-friendly ingredients are important!

#4. Use creams instead of sprays!

Despite the fact sprays dominate the sunscreen market, they pose an inhalation risk and may not provide a thick and even coat of protection. Although mineral based sunscreens don’t migrate through the skin, inhaled nanoparticles can enter the bloodstream through the lungs and may cause lung damage. More research is needed to negate these concerns. Until then, it might be worthwhile to avoid these products and opt for creams instead. 

#5. Check out your resources.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts together a yearly list of the best sunscreen choices based on effectiveness and safety.

Their scientists review over 1400 sunscreens and rank them on a hazard sale of 0-10:

  • (0-2) is low-hazard
  • (3-6) is moderate hazard
  • (7-10) is high hazard

This list is a great, evidence based, resource to keep in your back pocket when you decide which sunscreen is right for you and your family!

Fellow Healthoholics, you’ll be pleased to know we carry a number of the natural sunscreens on this list!   

You can find the Environmental Working Group’s complete 2016 list at:


  1. Cadet J, Douki T, Ravanat JL, Di Mascio P. (2009) Sensitized formation of oxidatively generated damage to cellular DNA by UVA radiation. Photochem Photobiol Sci 8(7):903-11.
  2. EU SCCS (Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety). 2012. Opinion on ZnO (nano form), 18 September 2012. European Union.
  3. Environmental Working Group. (2016) EWG’s sunscreen guide: a decade of progress, but safety and marketing conerns remain.
  4. Godar DE, Landry RJ, Lucas AD. (2009) Increased UVA exposures and decreased cutaneous Vitamin D(3) levels may be responsible for the increasing incidence of melanoma. Med Hypotheses 72(4): 434-43.
  5. Linos E, Keiser E, Fu T, Colditz G, Chen S, Tang JY. (2011) Hat, shade, long sleeves, or sunscreen? Rethinking US sun protection messages based on their relative effectiveness. Cancer Causes Control 22: 1067–1071.
  6. National Cancer Institute. (2016 )SEER Stat Fact Sheets: Melanoma of the Skin. Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results. And SEER Cancer Statistics Review 1975-2013,
  7. Osterwalder U, Herzog B. (2010) The long way towards the ideal sunscreen—where we stand and what still needs to be done. Photochem Photobiol Sci 9:470-81.
  8. Rodvall YE, Wahlgren CF, Ullén HT, Wiklund KE. (2010) Factors related to being sunburnt in 7-year-old children in Sweden. Eur. J. Cancer. 46(3):566-572.
  9. Sadrieh N, Wokovich AM, Gopee NV, Zheng J, Haines D, Parmiter D, et al. (2010) Lack of Significant Dermal Penetration of Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) from Sunscreen Formulations containing Nano- and Sub-Micron-Size TiO2 Particles. Toxicol Sci.
  10. Warshaw, E.M., Maibach, H.I., Taylor, J.S., Sasseville, D., DeKoven, J.G., Zirwas, M.J., et. al.(2015) North American contact dermatitis group patch test results: 2011–2012. Dermatitis, 26(1):49-59.
Jen Novakovich

Jen Novakovich is the owner of The Eco Well, a local cosmetic business that produces eco-friendly skincare products. Jen speaks at public education engagements across the country on clean cosmetics and DIY clean beauty.

Jen also provides consulting for cosmetic businesses and natural health stores on claims, formulations and ingredients. She is a passionate science communicator, formulator, and environmentalist, and aims to empower her community so they can make more informed purchases in the cosmetic isle. You can meet Jen at our "Clean Beauty Night" on June 26th at Healthoholics, where she'll be sharing some information on Essential Oils and DIY beauty.