Why is it always so confusing to understand how sunscreens really work—and which offers the best protection? Add to that the desire to cut down on the chemicals we put on our bodies, and an already difficult choice feels nearly impossible. Some of the barriers to clarity have to do with changing FDA guidelines, and new supposedly “better” ingredients. Fortunately, it’s much simpler than you think to find an “organic” or highly natural sunscreen that protects your skin from harmful, cancer-causing rays—while cutting down on irritation and inflammation that often comes from added chemicals.
In order to protect from all of the sun’s damaging effects, you need to shield UVB and UVA rays; the former causes sunburn and the latter wrinkles, but both increase your risk of skin cancer. According to renowned Connecticut Dermatologist and Cosmetic Surgeon Dr. Lisa Donofrio, SPF 15 blocks approximately 93 percent of all incoming UVB rays only. SPF 30 blocks 97 percent, and SPF 50 blocks 98 percent of them. So, contrary to popular belief, higher SPFs don’t translate into massive amounts of extra protection. Thirty or 50 is the highest you need to go.
However, the SPF has nothing to do with blocking the harmful UVA rays, which is why you need a “broad-spectrum” sunscreen, meaning it guards against both types. The good news? You don’t need any extra chemicals to achieve that Holy Grail. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—natural minerals—block both UVA and UVB rays when they’re the active (or only) ingredients (look for at least a five percent concentration of them). Why then do you find so many sunscreens with ingredients like avobenzone, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) oxybenzone and parabens? Because, traditionally, purely natural, “organic” sunscreens with just zinc or titanium, were pasty and harder to rub in; people didn’t like looking like a ghost while trying to be sun-smart. So chemicals that mimicked the properties of zinc and titanium were developed to help with transparency and an easier application. In fact, “Most of what is in the bottle are things to extend shelf life and make the lotion feel slippery and smooth,” says Dr. Donofrio. But they also are more likely to irritate, particularly for those of us with sensitive skin.
Fortunately, science has improved and made it possible for natural minerals like zinc oxide to be “micronized” (aka, the particles are made smaller and, therefore, less white). You might also find the word “ceramides” on a good, chemical-free sunscreen, which is simply micronized wax-like substances naturally found in the skin that help with water-resistance. That’s right, we also need to think about how sunscreen works when we’re wet and, perhaps surprisingly, it has nothing to do with actual sunscreen ingredients. Things like oils and waxes—natural ingredients—can make a sunscreen water-resistant. To claim water resistance by FDA standards, the SPF level must stay effective at least 40 minutes in the water. A very water-resistant sunscreen must hold for 80 minutes of swimming. But, again, the most natural, pure-mineral sunscreens that contain only zinc oxide or titanium dioxide—or some combination of the two, along with natural oils—are capable of achieving that. Just make sure it clearly says so on the bottle.
If you aren’t swimming or sweating a lot, then you can go with straight zinc oxide, minus even the natural oils or waxes. Health food or alternative drug and grocery stores like Pharmaca or Whole Foods have plenty to check out, but if you’re in a hurry and want to grab something fast, check out CeraVe’s “Invisible Zinc” Broad Spectrum, SPF 50 Face Lotion. You can also find Think Sport’s line of chemical-free sunscreens that are broad-spectrum and water-resistant at REI or online.
Want to get really natural? “Make your own zinc oxide,” says Dr. Donofrio. Just follow the instructions here, which combine zinc oxide powder with ingredients like coconut oil and beeswax.