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Selecting Chemical Free Sunscreen

There have been few things on my journey to greener living more difficult to comprehend than sunscreen. The rules seem to change every summer when it comes to safer sunscreen ingredients and brands so here is the latest information on how to keep your family protected from the sun’s harmful rays, but also keep them safe from chemical filled sunscreen.

Photo credit: Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail

First we have to act like scientists and understand two key ingredients of organic (mineral) based sunscreens. There should only be two ingredients listed in the active ingredients of mineral based sunscreen: zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. The safest of these two options is zinc oxide. Why? Because unlike titanium dioxide, it is a blocking agent for all UVA and UVB rays.

Zinc oxide is a powdered mineral that sits on top of the skin, scattering and absorbing UVA & UVB rays. Zinc oxide is also a counter skin irritant which is great for people with sensitive skin (why you find zinc oxide in diaper rash creams). Titanium dioxide is safe and effective for protection against UVB (and some UVA) rays, however, titanium dioxide should always be used in combination with zinc oxide to attain true broad spectrum protection.

Three ingredients you don’t want to find on a sunscreen ingredient list are

  1. retinyl palmitate (synthetic Vitamin A)
  2. scent or fragrance
  3. oxybenzone

Scientists worry about retinyl palmitate because investigations have viewed this chemical as a possible photocarcinogen, meaning that it may speed up the development of skin tumors and lesions on sun-exposed skin. The word fragrance being listed within sunscreen ingredients opens the door for parabens or synthetic chemicals to enter your body through the skin and avoiding this is actually a great rule to follow for all body products.  Oxybenzone is an endocrine disruptor which can affect the nervous system and has been linked to cancer in several studies.

One more thing you want to avoid with mineral based sunscreens are nanoparticles or nano materials. The nanoparticle controversy stems from potential health risks caused by nanoparticles if they were to enter the human body. When a substance is so small that it is measured in nanometers (1 to 100 billionths of a meter)  the surface area to volume ratio is so great that the actual properties of the substance may change. Our friend Lori at Groovy Green Livin summarizes this in her article Best-non-whitening-safe-sunscreens:

“Part of the problem when looking for a non-whitening safe sunscreen is that sunscreens without nanoparticles (safer) tend to leave the classic white, thick film on our skin. Manufacturers continue to work on developing sunscreens that work, but without the white. The process of micronization and the creation of nanoparticles are used to reduce the white residue. But the safety of nanoparticles is still unclear so your best bet is to avoid them. Thankfully there are some good nano-free options without the white film.”

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t so bad. Understanding mineral based sunscreens is an evolving and huge market this time of year. The jump in zinc oxide sunscreen brands over the last two years has been amazing to watch but it’s important to remember sunscreen alone won’t protect you when in the sun all day. Shade, sun-protectant clothing, sun glasses, and avoiding rays during peak hours is still the best way to avoid sun damage and exposure to your skin.

If you are looking for brand recommendations, we have used Badger Broad Spectrum SPF 30 for many years. The great thing about Badger is how this organic sunscreen has penetrated the main stream markets and is readily available at traditional drug, health food or many local online stores. My clan is used to the white resin (zinc) that is left behind after application, but this might be an issue for teens or adults that don’t appreciate the streak marks.

For more recommendations you can’t beat the the 2013 Safer Sunscreen Cheat Sheet written by Safe Mama. She does an amazing job rating many of the top mineral based brands and ensures there is a safe option for anyone to use.

So remember the rules when you purchase that tube of sunscreen and yes, like most organic products, the price tag will be a little steeper but it’s worth it to avoid direct chemicals onto your skin. Vitamin D is good for everyone, but sunburns are not. Keep it all in perspective and play on because after all, that is what summer is all about!




Suzanne is a green living activist and blogger over from Mommy Footprint. Her passion for raising her children in suburbia & a not-so-secret desire to own chickens keeps her balanced with realistic Eco living goals. Sharing knowledge about the environment, our food system, and ways to avoid landfill waste is her passion. Suzanne loves life in the tri-cities with her husband and four children. Follow her journey on Twitter @mommyfootprint.

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