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Sunscreen has been around for less than a century. Many sources will tell you it was invented in 1938 by a Swiss chemistry student, Franz Greiter, when he was looking to protect his skin while hiking. While other sources will tell you it was an Australian by the name of Milton Blake in 1932 (1,2).
The original sunscreen formulation was smelly and sticky, containing various chemicals like petroleum. These acted as a barrier to stop UVB rays — the rays that cause our skin to burn.
It wasn’t until the 70s that scientists figured out how to protect from UVA rays — the rays that do cellular damage and cause premature aging.
Over the past 80 years, scientists have been able to reinvent sunscreen into what we know it today.
There are two kinds of sunscreens; organic (chemical) sunscreens containing chemical filters and inorganic (mineral) sunscreens with physical filters.
Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays, and they typically come in cream or aerosol formulas.
Physical sunscreens usually come in creams, sticks, and balms. They sit on the skin and reflect UV rays (3).
Because mineral sunscreens have only really become popular in recent years, it’s safe to say that the sunscreen your mom used on you as a kid was more than likely a traditional chemical sunscreen. But what we know now is some of the chemicals these sunscreens contain are not as safe or non-toxic as we once were made to believe.
In 1999 the FDA asked sunscreen companies to research and report the absorption of chemicals their sunscreens contained, yet no company submitted their findings. For two decades, we used sunscreen without knowing the absorption or safety of the ingredients (3).
In 2019 the FDA conducted its own research into this matter and discovered several questionable ingredients in the formulations. They then further learned that these ingredients could absorb into the skin very quickly (4). These ingredients were:
Oxybenzone, known as benzophenone-3
Avobenzone, also a benzophenone
Octinoxate, known as octyl methoxycinnamate
Oxybenzone, homosalate, and octocrylene are known hormone disruptors. What’s more alarming is that these ingredients have shown up in breast milk and have also been associated with reduced testosterone in adolescent boys (5).
While not one for fear-mongering, let me point out that the FDA has not officially declared these chemicals unsafe. Much more research is needed before they can do that. However, there is enough evidence linking these chemicals to adverse outcomes, which is the main point I want to highlight.
The other serious issue we need to consider is the coral reef damage from chemicals in sunscreens. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are toxic to our coral reefs. As a result, in 2021, these chemicals were banned for sale in sunscreens in Hawai’i (6).
Chemical compounds in sunscreen products can cause abrupt and complete bleaching of hard corals, even at extremely low concentrations (13).
This brings us to why I don’t trust sunscreen companies. Many brands have now omitted oxybenzone and octinoxate from their formulas. Great. However, if you read the label of conventional sunscreens, you’ll see that many of them now contain active ingredients homosalate, octocrylene, and avobenzone.
As any unsuspecting consumer would, I assumed that after everything that’s happened, companies would find safe alternatives to use in their formulas. But after reading several studies, I discovered that avobenzone is no different from oxybenzone. The possible health implications and coral reef damage are similar. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, avobenzone is an endocrine disruptor and can reduce coral resilience (7). Homosalate and octocrylene are also not reef-friendly.
A couple of years ago, several sunscreens were removed from the shelves (11). These were chemical sunscreens that contained benzene, which the National Cancer Institute says exposure can increase the risk of developing leukemia and other blood disorders (8).
Regardless of the risks, chemical sunscreens are still more popular than their mineral counterparts partly because there weren’t as many options available in mineral versions for many years. And also because available mineral sunscreens were often thick and left a white cast that many found undesirable.
Thanks to advancements and improvements in science and ingredient formulations, we’re seeing mineral sunscreens that blend better, feel lighter, and don’t leave any white residue on the skin.
You’d think our awareness of chemicals would cause brands to avoid certain ingredients in the products they manufacture. Yet, as I’ve just shown you, we’re still seeing a considerable amount of products come to market that still contain controversial ingredients.
I wanted to use a product as an example, not to show any disrespect, but to show facts. I came across a new product on the market the other day; the №38 SPF Mister by Habit (9).
It’s an SPF misting spray. I was naturally curious about this product as I was hoping it would be an innovation in safe sunscreen.
There’s a disclaimer on the product page: “Nº38 was designed to be clean by ‘Clean at Sephora’ standards.” Fine. Now let’s see their ingredients:
Active Ingredients: Avobenzone 2.9% Homosalate 9.8% Octisalate 4.9% Octocrylene 9.5%
Inactive Ingredients: Alcohol Denat., Bisabolol, Butyloctyl Salicylate, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Capryloyl Glycerin/Sebacic Acid Copolymer, Cucumis Sativus (Cucumber) Fruit Extract, Dicaprylyl Ether, Diheptyl Succinate, Diisooctyl Succinate, Ethyl Ferulat, Isononyl Isononanoate, PVP
I don’t see anything in the inactive ingredients that cause extreme concern. But as I’ve just explained, all of the active ingredients in this formula are not reef safe, and they’re also considered questionable for our health. If their customers plan a trip to the ocean this summer, they should avoid using this mist.
I’m confused about what qualifies as “Clean at Sephora,” as the active ingredients in this formula are what many would consider “not clean.”
Clean beauty is an unregulated industry, and many brands rely on this lack of regulation. An example of what can happen is a company will promote an environmental campaign or they’ll advertise their new “green” formula. As consumers, we assume they’re a responsible company. But what we don’t see is that the company invests in fossil fuels, their manufacturing plants pollute local waterways, and they use forced labor. This is known as greenwashing, which is illegal, but I’ll talk about it in a later article.
I could have blindly trusted the “Clean at Sephora” standards and not researched №38 SPF’s ingredients. I also could have assumed that Sephora was filtering out any problematic ingredients for me. But they don’t appear to be doing that.
While it is a step in the right direction, the standards still lack some transparency, which remains a massive issue in the beauty industry.
The bottom line is, don’t believe everything you read, folks.
So with all of the information we now have, is mineral sunscreen the safest sunscreen in 2022? The key ingredient in mineral sunscreens is usually zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These act as a barrier and reflect the UV rays.
As mentioned previously, mineral sunscreens can sometimes leave a white cast on the face due to the zinc oxide particles reflecting light, creating an opaque layer on the skin. But this is becoming less of an issue as brands are constantly improving the formulations of their products.
There have been some studies noting that skin can absorb the nanoparticles of zinc oxide, which has been considered a possible health hazard (10). Brands are now using non-nano zinc oxide particles in their formulations to counteract this. “Non-nano” means the particles are not as tiny as nanoparticles. So they’re too large for the skin to absorb.
If you’re looking for recommendations, you’re in the right place. Mineral sunscreens will be your safest option when it comes to sun and skin protection. They’re also reef-safe, which is a critical reason to choose mineral sunscreens over chemical sunscreens. Here are two of my favorites:
This mineral sunscreen has 18.9% non-nano zinc oxide particles as the UV filter and is broad-spectrum, meaning that it protects against all UV rays. It has a sun protection factor of 30, and also contains macroalgae, which protects from blue light from screens and devices.
Earth Harbor is a skincare company, so this is more than just a sunscreen. It’s a moisturizer and sunscreen duo. Because of ingredients like vegetable glycerin, plant-based skin conditioners and hydrators, jojoba esters, and a few other notable antioxidant-rich ingredients, you can use it in lieu of your moisturizer and it’ll keep skin protected, soft, and supple all day long.
Or, if you’re after some extra hydration, you can layer it over your moisturizer. It blends right in, leave no greasy residue — and zero white cast. This is because it has a sheer mineral matrix, which is essentially a plant-based coating that helps the zinc oxide particles disappear. Though, remember, the zinc oxide won’t absorb because it is non-nano.
It comes in a handy travel-friendly 1 oz. glass bottle with a pump top. Easily recycle the glass bottle in curbside recycling, and send the top away for processing through Earth Harbor’s mail-back program partnership with PACT collective.
This water resistant formula contains 25% non-nano zinc oxide, and organic ingredients of coconut oil, beeswax, calendula flowers, and jojoba seed oil to keep skin feeling soft and hydrated throughout the day.
The container is 100% plastic-free, made from aluminum, one of the most recyclable materials on Earth. This sunscreen butter is perfect for all skin types, including dry and even the most sensitive skin.
When protecting our skin from external elements, it’s imperative to consider the internal health risks and environmental damage associated with using specific ingredients.
These days we’re spoiled for choice, and there’s no need to choose sunscreens that contain questionable ingredients. Not when there are so many products that are truly clean and safe.
There’s a way we can look out for our personal and environmental health, and all it takes is a little curiosity, research, and desire to make small changes in the products we use.
Live. Laugh. Wear Mineral Sunscreen.