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Sun Protection: Scrutinize Sunscreen Ingredients, Not SPF Numbers

To select a safe and healthy sunscreen, scrutinize sunscreen ingredients, not SPF numbers. Physical sunblocks offer UVB protection equivalent to chemical sunscreens and superior protection against UVA rays and beyond. Some chemicals in sunscreens can be toxic to reproductive systems, cause allergic reactions and accelerate skin aging.

We’re told that higher SPF ratings associated with chemical sunscreens are our assurance of better protection against the UVB or burning rays of the sun. Thus, the best way to protect our children and ourselves from sunburn must be from using chemical sunscreens.

While we all agree that sun protection is important, exposing children to certain chemicals in sunscreen can be more hazardous to their health than sun exposure.

Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays, lowering energy levels and releasing energy as heat. SPF 15 blocks 93.3% of UVB rays, and some UVA. SPF 30 blocks 96.6% of UVB, some UVA, but the concentration of the active agents is doubled. An SPF 45 product absorbs 98% of UVB rays and some UVA. In other words, the numbers don’t tell the story you expect.

The difference between SPF 15 and SPF 30 is not twice as much protection, but twice as much ingredient concentration—and into the higher numbers, UV filtering goes up by increasingly smaller increments, while ingredient concentration rises significantly. This explains why 15% of the population will break out from some ingredient in a sunscreen product. And that’s just the beginning of the problems with chemicals.

In addition to causing skin irritation or allergic and contact dermatitis, the ingredients listed below present other very serious problems—especially at large concentration:

  • Octocrylene: Reproductive hazards; generates free radicals that accelerate aging.
  • Oxybenzone: Contact dermatitis; generates free radicals; possible photocarcinogen; “believed to be a contributing factor in the recent rise of melanoma cases with sunscreen users.”
  • Octinoxate: Developmental and reproductive toxicity.
  • Avobenzone: Increases UVA protection to 380 nm, but a degradation time of 30 minutes means it needs to be stabilized. It’s often used in conjunction with photostabilizers like octocrylene, a known skin allergen and reproductive hazard.

The solution

  1. Use a non-nano zinc oxide-only sunscreen. Find a thorough list of non-nano zinc oxide sunscreens safe for kids here: sunscreen
  2. Zinc oxide is photostable, protects in the UVB/UVA range and even beyond, and is anti-inflammatory. For adults who don’t want the ghostly look, tinted brands do exist that don’t show and provide good coverage.
  3. Take astaxanthin internally. It increases the amount of time you can stay in the sun without burning, and this study shows that it helps prevent UVA-induced wrinkling. Applying astaxanthin topically also helps reduce UVA damage.
  4. Wear a hat and protective clothing, and shelter under shade whenever possible.
  5. Stay cool. Heat induces DNA damage, inflammation and accelerates skin aging. Misting to cool off with green tea helps reduce heat, and the polyphenols and catechins in green tea help attenuate UVB rays.

A researcher’s perspective

Following a 15-year study of approximately 5,000 Danish men with an average age of 19, Dr. Niels Jorgenson found that only 25% of them had good-quality sperm. In addition to chemicals in kitchens, bathrooms and the environment, he blames cosmetics and sunscreens.

"We are advised to protect ourselves with these sunblocks, but it seems when you go to the laboratory and test some of these chemicals they can interfere with the sperm function,” Jorgensen said. “If I was to advise my own family, I would say don’t use it,” he added.

While I’m a strong advocate of sunscreen use, I agree with Dr. Jorgenson’s assessment of chemical sunscreens. They are not good for men, children—or anyone, for that matter, who cares about skin health. However, thanks to several good mineral-based sunblocks, it’s easy to avoid chemical sunscreens.

The take-away

Ditch the chemicals, don’t stress over SPF numbers, and never put chemical-based sunscreen on your children—not even the yet-to-be-born ones.