how to choose a toxin-free sunscreen

*this post has been updated in red below

Sunscreens confuse me. They’re full of toxins…should I bother with it at all? Zinc? (oooh, but the nano-particles?!)…You too? Good. I did some scouting, asked experts and here’s what I found…just in time for Australia Day!!

Picture 15 how to choose a toxin-free sunscreen
photo via bauhaus

A lot of the sunscreens out there do NOT protect us against harmful UV rays, plus they can contain chemicals that affect our hormones, damage our skin, and sometimes increase the risks of skin cancer. Oh, the tedious, messy, modern-life irony of it all! Today’s post is going to try to get to the bottom of the sunscreens that are purposeful AND harmless.

However, my advice, first and foremost, is:

don’t use sunscreen

Covering up with a hat and clothing, and not staying out in the sun too long, is the best tact. No chemicals, no “stuff” and far more economical. But also (and, yes, I know it goes against how we were raised)…

Getting sun, without sunscreen, is actually good. Better than good actually. Recent studies reveal that people who spend more time outdoors without getting sunburnt, actually decrease their risk of developing melanoma. The benefits of Vitamin D exposure (which can only be reaped without sunscreen) actually protect against many types of cancer; including breast, colon, endometrial, esophageal, ovarian, bladder, gallbladder, gastric, pancreatic, prostate, rectal, and renal cancers, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Indeed, more people die of Vitamin D deficiency-based cancers than from melanoma. I’ve written about it previously here.

Get sun every day, but only for 20-40 minutes at a time and, if you’re in Australia, before 10am and after 5pm.

Just don’t get burnt. (In countries with less harsh sunlight, any time of day is fine for sun…and in fact advisable by many doctors these days.)

I get sun every day. BUT I never stay out sunbaking. AND I stay out of the sun in the middle of the day. I personally wear sunscreen ONLY if I’m outside longer than 20 minutes in the middle of the day…the sun here is just too strong. Plus, I generally find that by eating coconut oil – which has an SPF of four – this protects me. You can read more here. So. If you use sunscreen…

non-nano zinc oxide is best

Sunscreens come in two forms:

  • physical sunscreens, containing either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which form a film on top of the skin that reflects or scatters UV light.

These are your best option.

  • chemical sunscreens, which absorb UV rays before they can do damage.

The Environmental Protection Agency‘s graph below features chemical and physical sunscreen ingredients, as well as the type and amount of ray protection that they provide and their class. Note how zinc oxide fares.


don’t want zinc? what next?

If you’re going for a chemical sunscreen, you need to know this:While chemical sunscreens can protect against damage from UV rays, they can also contain a host of nasty chemicals which are all absorbed through the skin and end up circulating your blood stream. Not Good.

1. Always check the label.

There is a long list of problematic chemicals in sunscreen that we should avoid…too many to absorb, so…

Worst offenders? Dioxybenzone and oxybenzone. These two are some of the most powerful free radical generators around as they can disrupt hormone function.

What about PABA? Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) is common in many sunscreens, acting as a dye that absorbs ultraviolet B (UV-B) light in much the same way as oxybenzone. PABA contains a benzene ring in which electrons can shuffle, or resonate, between different locations within the six-sided structure. This electron dance matches that of the lightwaves of UV-B rays, absorbing and blocking UV-B energy by converting the light to heat.

PABA releases free radicals, damages DNA, has estrogenic activity, and causes allergic reactions in some people. You can read more here and here.

Also … octyl methoxycinnamate:  The main chemical used in chemical sunscreens to filter out ultraviolet B light is octyl methoxycinnamate.

  • OMC kills cells in mice even at low doses.
  • OMC’s also particularly toxic when exposed to sunshine….so a double whammy of stupid pain!

Finally Benzophenone: Nicole Bjilsma, a naturopath, acupuncturist and building biologist, recently blogged about BP,  a sunscreen ingredient which prevents sunlight from breaking down the products in the sunscreen. Nicole says it’s a hormone disrupting chemical that interferes with thyroid function and lowers testosterone, and there are serious concerns about its impact on male fertility. You can follow Nicole’s blog here.

2. Check your sunscreen rating on the EWG.

The Environmental Working Group rates sunscreens (amongst other things) based on safety and how well they protect against UV rays. You can download EWG’s handy tipsheet on what chemicals to avoid in the beauty aisle. But, the info is geared towards the US market. Australia has different regulations (SPF limits etc) and the great majority of the ones the EWG recommend are not available on the Australian market.

Nneka Leiba, a research analyst at EWG who works on their cosmetics and sunscreen databases suggests:

Pay attention to where a questionable chemical falls in the ingredient list. Active ingredients are cause for more concern because they can constitute a significant proportion of the product. “It’s like food. What you see first is the highest percentage.”

so what brands to buy?

Me, I don’t use sunscreen on my face. I use Wot not on my body. But to be honest, this is only when I’m out in the middle of the day.

Here’s what some of my toxin-free friends use:

Nicole Bjilsma says: Finding a sunscreen was more challenging than I thought it would be! After an extensive search of sunscreen products, I found one that I would be happy to put on my kids: 

Banana Boat Mineral Protect Sensitive

however it is thick and greasy to apply. Here is a link to my article on sunscreens.

Narelle Chenery, Director of Research and Development at Miessence shares: We make one! It’s called

Reflect Outdoor Balm. SPF 15,

(although it is actually SPF 27, we can’t claim it as such because it’s not classified as a primary sunscreen).

You can find it here.

Jess Ainscough, writer, blogger at Wellness Warrior and certified holistic health coach says: I eat a clean, plant-based diet with lots of carrot juice to build up an internal sunscreen, and then apply organic coconut oil to my skin for added protection. Since cleaning up my diet to this extreme, I never seem to get burnt! However, if you’re after an organic sunscreen off the shelf, I recommend

Wotnot or Soleo.

I recommend you also check out Jess’ recent blog post on the best natural body care brands.

Jo Immig, ecologist, freelance writer and researcher, also currently the coordinator of the National Toxics Network, says: I try to avoid using them if I can – long sleeves etc. If I have to I use

Wotnot or Soleo 

They are physical blockers (zinc) but don’t go too white, and haven’t got nanotechnology in them.

Sue Dengate, psychologist and Australian of the Year finalist 2009 and force behind Food Intolerance Network, says: I prefer to avoid unnecessary chemicals on my skin so my first choice for sun protection is to cover up with broad brimmed hats and long sleeves. If I have to wear sunscreen, I prefer a blocker rather than a chemical UV absorber. I want to avoid nanoparticles so I look for a sunscreen that is rated safe by* I want a fragrance free sunscreen due to personal intolerance and because endocrine disruptor chemicals called phthalates in many synthetic fragrances may be linked to cancer and even weight gain. And finally, I want to avoid paraben preservatives such as PABA (para amino benzoic acid). I would prefer totally preservative free but that seems impossible so my next choice is

Invisible Zinc’s Junior low irritant sunscreen with micronised zinc

* Dec 2013: Sadly, Friends of the Earth are not prepared to recommend any sunscreen at the moment, as all those sent for testing of nanoparticles came back unsafe. You can read more here

so, what about nano technology?

There is a lot of debate about nano particles and what they do. The fear is that they’re so small they seep in through our skin cells, but the jury is still out on the damage they may do. The Therapeutic Goods Act (TGA) from 2009 says:

  • The potential for nanoparticles in sunscreens to cause adverse effects depends primarily upon the ability of the nanoparticles to reach viable skin cells; and
  • To date, the current weight of evidence suggests that nanoparticles do not reach viable skin cells; rather, they remain on the surface of the skin and in the outer layer of the skin that is composed of non-viable cells.

However, Australia’s Cancer Council says on it’s website that while it takes into account the TGA findings, it’s sunscreens do not contain any nanoparticles.

*updated July 2012. Thanks to a reader who directed us to this article, which states that at least 10 Australian sunscreen brands claiming to be ‘nano-free’ have inadvertently been using nano-materials in their products, causing at least one to be recalled. 

Thomas Faunce, professor of law and medicine at the ANU and an advocate of nano-technology innovation, says “There are significant concerns in relation to the way nano-particles damage cellular tissue. I don’t think there has been enough studies to conclusively say they’re safe in all applications to human beings.”

and if all else fails: a bonus home remedy for sunburn

I DO NOT advocate burning. In fact – as Jo will attest – I abhor it. But, if you get caught out, a home remedy for soothing painful sunburn is right in your kitchen cupboard – apple cider vinegar. Soak a cotton ball or small sponge in apple cider vinegar and dab it on the burned spot, or make a compress for larger areas. If severely burned, repeat two to three times a day. If you are sunburnt head-to-toe, it’s best to take a bath in the stuff – simply add 2 cups of apple cider vinegar to the tuba and soak for at least 15 minutes. Apple cider vinegar applied to skin effectively neutralizes the burn, relieves pain, and prevents blistering and peeling.
Note: you may smell like a pickle, but a little coconut oil will remove most of the odor, plus add moisture to your skin. I’ve blogged on the benefits of coconut oil before. You can read more about that here

Hope that helps…feel free to add your own advice or tips….




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