Healthy sun protection is key this summer! Swap toxic chemical sunscreen full of harmful ingredients for safe + natural sunscreen, aka mineral sunscreen (it's waterproof!). Find the best natural sunscreen brands, the ratings and reviews, along with application tips (for lotions and spray) and tricks, for face and body, kids and baby, sensitive skin and healthy tanning.
UPDATE: This post originally appeared in the Summer of 2016. We've updated it to reflect new information about natural sunscreen in 2022 and share our new favorite natural sunscreen brand.
Welcome back to our Test Drive series, where we try a handful of brands in a category of natural products and compare the real-life results. Today we’re taking natural sunscreens for a test drive!
We are moving into the hottest months of the season so this review if perfect timing to help you plan your summer ahead!
Are Common Sunscreens Toxic?
The short answer is, yes. However, it depends 100% on the ingredients they contain. Sunscreens are a group of skin care products that are designed to protect the skin from damage caused by ultraviolet light. They work by absorbing or reflecting some of the UV rays that can cause skin damage. The effectiveness of sunscreens is determined by how well they block the UV rays that contribute to the formation of the harmful free radicals in the skin. Lately, one of the biggest concerns about using sunscreen is whether or not they are in fact toxic to the skin. Up until a few years ago, most of us believed the best way to protect ourselves from the sun was to lather on the sunscreen (or stay inside, womp womp). We'd slather ourselves head to toe in sun block and head out to the beach/pool/deck and soak up some rays. All the while naively believing we were being ‘safe'. After all we all know that the sun causes cancer and skin damage and sunscreen prevents that, right? Turns out it's not quite that simple. In fact, many of the commercial sunscreen brands on the market today are composed of a variety of ingredients that may be toxic to our bodies, especially in high doses.
Why is Sunscreen Bad For You?
After doing a lot of research and reading, we've since completely changed our sun care approach.
Be forewarned, the following is pretty text heavy (that's why we created a handy cheat sheet you can bring with you to the store to help simplify things), but it's ESSENTIAL to understanding sunscreen and how you can best protect your skin from the sun. You ready? Let's get into it!
Does Sunscreen Prevent Cancer?
Most of us would say, absolutely! However, there is actually no reliable evidence that sunscreen prevents cancer. Rates of melanoma – the most deadly form of skin cancer – have tripled over the past 35 years, a time in which more people are using sunscreen more than ever before (source).
Of course, it is very important to note that excessive exposure to sunlight CAN cause cancer (and some studies have found that regular sunscreen use lowers the risk of certain cancers), BUT researchers have also NOT found strong evidence that sunscreen prevents basal cell carcinoma.
In fact, today’s sunscreens do not fully protect skin from all types of UV damage, like UVA rays, which penetrate deeper into the skin and are harder to block with FDA-approved sunscreen ingredients.
So more important than wearing sunscreen is limiting your sun exposure. However…
Does the Body Need Sun Exposure?
Yes! Our bodies do need sun exposure… without sunscreen or covering up! Why? Because this is the only reliable way for your body to produce Vitamin D naturally. The body needs to be exposed to direct sunlight on bare skin.
Vitamin D is so crucial to our health. This vitamin helps to strengthen bones and the immune system and reduces risk of breast, colon, kidney and ovarian cancers, among other ills. Also, if you have thyroid issues, hormonal imbalances, and even digestion troubles, you're likely are deficient in Vitamin D.
Exposure to sunlight has also been shown to help protect against depression, memory loss and cognitive decline.
So, the takeaway here is to make sure you get a few minutes, every day, in the sun with no sunscreen, no protective clothing and no shade (source).
I know this sounds counterintuitive, but it's not about getting tan or sunbathing for hours. Instead, spend half the amount of time it takes for your skin to get pink in direct sunlight–usually this is between 5-15 minutes, depending on your skin type–and then protect your skin from the sun thereafter.
Note: Always wear sunglasses to protect your eyes. And talk to your doctor to make sure this is okay for your skin type first. Supplements can also help with Vitamin D deficiencies.
Are The Active Ingredients in Most Sunscreens Toxic?
Like many store-bought skincare products, most conventional sunscreens are full of toxic chemicals that have been linked to reproductive problems, tissue damage, asthma, allergies and other negative side effects (source).
There are two main types of active ingredients in sunscreen: filters and UV absorbers. Filters can be silica, titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide. These act as physical barriers that block UV rays from reaching the skin. Inorganic filters are the most common type of filter in sunscreen, but some organic filters (such as micronized zinc oxide) also exist. UV absorbers can be chemical compounds that absorb UV rays or minerals that reflect or scatter UV rays.
Chemical sunscreens containing UV absorbers (meaning those sunscreens that rely on oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and/or octinoxate as their active ingredients) penetrate the skin, going directly into your bloodstream (not to mention breast milk and urine) and can cause a host of problems because of their ability to mimic hormones and irritate the skin.
The most worrisome is oxybenzone, which is found in nearly 75 percent of the non-mineral sunscreens in EWG’s 2018 sunscreen database. Oxybenzone is a synthetic chemical. It has been shown to act as an endocrine disruptor and can cause hormone disruption and cell damage when applied to the skin. When exposed to sunlight, it has been shown to create free radicals that can damage skin cells. This can cause wrinkles, blemishes, and other damage to the skin over time. When used on the body, this chemical can also be absorbed into the body and can cause issues with fertility and development of children. Avoid it at all costs!
Are Mineral Sunscreens the Safest Sunscreens?
Yes, mineral sunscreen are the safest type of natural sunscreen. They are safer for your body and for the environment. Fortunately, there are many more natural sunscreen alternatives, aka “mineral” sunscreens, which are made with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as their active ingredients. As mentioned above, these are considered ‘filter' sunscreens. These active ingredients act as physical barriers that block UV rays from reaching the skin.
Now the one downside is that they're also harder to rub into your skin, and often times leave users with a white coating on the skin. If you need a good visual. Think about the lifeguard with the white stripe on his nose. That's mineral sunscreen. These minerals sit on top of the skin, rather than penetrating the skin, which is why it makes them safer.
Some brands are starting to attempt a solution for white-paint look but using nano-particles in their formulas to help with this problem, but nano-particles have their own slew of concerns (source).
Are Conventional Sunscreen Contributing to the Collapse of Coral Reefs?
Sadly, yes. There have been multiple studies showing that oxybenzone and octinoxate (the chemicals mentioned above) are toxic to the symbiotic algae that live within corals, which are responsible for performing vital duties, and also provide their color. The toxins have also been correlated with stunting the growth of corals, leaching them of their nutrients and coral bleaching. (source)
This also disrupts the development of fish and other wildlife. Even a small drop is enough to damage delicate corals, so with an estimated amount of about 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotions ending up in coral reefs around the world each year, that is A LOT of disruption to the ocean's ecosystem! (source)
Reef-safe sunscreen alternatives include mineral sunblocks with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Note: they must be “non-nano” in size to be considered reef-safe.
In recent years (May 1, 2018), Hawaii became the first state passing a bill banning the sale of sunscreen containing chemicals believed to harm coral reefs. (In fact, it's the first law of its type in the world!)
Which brings us to…
What are the Additional Concerns with Sunscreen Formulations?
Not only do the main protective components in sunscreen have health and environmental concerns, there are a few other things to be wary of. In addition to only using natural, mineral sunscreen, please keep in mind:
- High SPF sunscreens (SPF of 50+) are not better. Not only are sunscreens with SPFs of 50 or higher not better at reducing skin damage and skin cancer risk (source), but the actual SPF level is often inaccurate and misleading. On top of that, a sunscreen's SPF rating has little to do with the product’s ability to shield the skin from UVA rays. Meaning sunscreen is not 100% effective at preventing skin cancer. People are also more likely to misuse high SPF sunscreens (i.e. not applying often enough), and these products often pose a greater risk to our health because of the ingredients used. So stick to SPF values in the range of 30 to 50 for the safest protection.
- Sunscreens with Vitamin A Increase Your Risk of Cancer. Many popular sunscreens contain retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, like Neutrogena. In fact, nearly 16 percent of the beach and sport sunscreens, 14 percent of moisturizers with SPF, and 10 percent of all SPF-rated lip products in EWG’s 2016 sunscreen database contained Vitamin A. But, unfortunately, studies show that vitamin A may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight. So by wearing sunscreens with Vitamin A in them, you're actually INCREASING your risk for skin cancer.
- Be wary of spray sunscreens. We'll be the first to admit that we love a good spray sunscreen. For whatever reason, it just feels so much easier to apply. But unfortunately, spray sunscreens pose an inhalation risk and may not provide a thick and even coating on skin (as in, most people don't properly apply spray sunscreens, resulting in uneven application and an increased risk of burning). (source)
- Avoid sunscreen containing bug spray. Bug spray can reduce the effectiveness of the sunscreen. It is best to use them seperately. Also bear in mind that the re-application times will happen at different frequencies. (source)
Should Natural Sunscreen Be Your Last Resort for Sun Protection?
The short answer is yes but it really depends on many factors such as what activities you are doing in the sun and for how long. According to the EWG, because of the negative side effects associated with sunscreen, you're better off to sit in the shade or wear protective clothing than to sit in the sun with sunscreen on your skin but in reality that won't always be possible.
Our advice is to plan ahead. Be sun smart and try to avoid being in direct sunlight during peak hours (usually from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and check the UV Index before going in the sun to prevent overexposure. If you can't avoid sun during peak hours, do your best to cover your skin and eyes with protective gear and if that isn't possible then opt for a mineral natural sunscreen!
So, as you can see, sunscreen is so much more complicated than we thought!
REVIEW: Comparing The Best Natural Sunscreen Brands
Alright, now onto the fun part: the reviews! To put some of the best natural sunscreen to the test, we tried out five of the leading safe sunscreens on the market. Check out the results below.
**Note: All of the mineral sunscreens below are made without parabens, sulfates, petrochemicals, phthalates, dyes and synthetic fragrance.
- Raw Elements Eco Formula Lotion, 30+ SPF ($18.99): Rated a 1 by the EWG, this Certified Organic sunscreen is made with non-nano Zinc Oxide (23%) as the active ingredient. It's biodegradable, water resistant (80+ minutes) and is made with just 10 other safe ingredients. When we applied this ultra-thick sunscreen, we noticed there was a gray cast to the color, which actually made it blend in more easily on our skin than a pure white sunscreen. It took some serious rubbing, but eventually there was no white coating left on our skin. It did smell a bit medicinal, though.
- Block Island Organics Natural Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 30 ($19.99): Rated a 1 by the EWG, this USA-made sunscreen is made with non-nano Zinc Oxide (22%) as the active ingredient. It's extremely lightweight, vegan, eco-friendly and was by far the best application we found amongst all brands–it rubbed into our skin easily, didn't leave a white cast and was easy to apply, as it was thinner in consistency. Though the ingredient list isn't as short as Badger's, you can rest easy that there's a reason for each and every ingredient in this sunscreen and they're all rated a 3 or less by the EWG. Learn more about BIO here.
- Badger All Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30, Unscented ($17.99): Rated a 1 by the EWG, this Certified Organic sunscreen is made with non-nano Zinc Oxide (18.75%) as the active ingredient. Out favorite feature is that it's made with just four other ingredients–Sunflower Oil, Beeswax, Seabuckthorn and Vitamin E–so it's ultra-moisturizing and soothing. It also comes in a BPA-free tube from #2 recyclable plastic, so it's biodegradable, and it's not tested on animals. Badger sunscreen also has no added fragrance (even essential oils) for those with sensitivities or aversions to scents, and it's water resistant for at least 40 minutes. It's a pretty thick consistency, but it's much easier to rub in than the Honest sunscreen, though it doesn't absorb quite as easily as Block Island. Even still, we would definitely buy this sunscreen again!
- Honest Mineral Sunscreen Spray, SPF 30 ($29.99): Rated a 3 by the EWG, this sunscreen is made with non-nano Zinc Oxide (12%) as the active ingredient, plus 12 other ingredients. In theory, it's easy to apply because it's a spray (which we know we warned against, but thought it would be good to still review a mineral spray sunscreen for those who just don't want to give up that feature) and it's non-greasy. But honestly, we wouldn't use this again because of how difficult it was to spread and absorb. It truly sat on top of our skin (which is better for safety) leaving a bright white ash everywhere we applied. No matter how hard we tried, we could not get the white tint to go away. Not exactly the bronzed beach goddess look we're going for. But it is water resistant for 80 minutes, so there's that. **PLEASE NOTE: it appears that since this article was posted this product is no longer available (maybe due to the reasons we mentioned above!). We will continue to find a suitable replacement for this review and update when possible.
- Beautycounter's Protect All Over Sunscreen SPF 30 ($32.00): This super lightweight, water-resistant sunscreen is formulated with non-nano zinc oxide, but unlike most of the other mineral sunscreens we've tried, Beautycounter's Sunscreen blends seamlessly into your skin without leaving any white streaks. It's amazing how great the coverage is (especially since it's rated a 1 by the EWG), protecting you against both UVA and UVB rays. It's also made with aloe to hydrate skin, and antioxidant-rich green tea and blood orange extracts to fight free radicals. Triple whammy! The light citrusy scent smells incredible, too!
THE BEST NATURAL SUNSCREEN WINNER: BEAUTYCOUNTER'S PROTECT ALL OVER SUNSCREEN
Have you tried any of these natural sunscreens? I’d love to hear about your results. Share in the comments below!
Until next time!