Do Natural Sunscreens Work Better Than Chemical Sunscreens?
Mineral-based sunscreens aren’t only better for the environment–they’re effective in protecting your skin against the sun, too.
Written by: Ashtyn Douglas
In 2018, the state of Hawaii banned the sale and use of chemical sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate–toxic chemicals which have been found to be incredibly deadly to both fish and coral reef. Key West, along with various island nations, quickly followed suit, and as a result of new legislation, consumers (like yourself) are starting to ditch their chemical sunscreens for natural–or mineral-based–ones containing ingredients that don’t wreak unnecessary havoc on the oceans around us.
But when it comes to sun protection, do mineral sunscreens protect your skin from harmful UV rays like their chemically-made kin? Thankfully, they do, thanks to a certain ingredient called zinc oxide. And according to some scientists, they may even be safer for you and your family.
“If I am talking to someone and they ask me if our product works, I usually explain that zinc sunscreens have come along long way from the ‘80s—so get the ‘80s lifeguard image out of your head,” says Ryan Kell, founder of Sea & Summit, who came up with the idea of creating a natural sunscreen while working as a California lifeguard and a Channel Islands marine protection guide. “Zinc oxide actually completely blocks all the different rays from the sun and reflects them off your skin.”
According to Kell and dermatologists worldwide, zinc oxide is a natural particle that works like a natural armor that sits on top of the skin’s surface and prevents broad spectrum UV rays (both UVB and UVA) from penetrating the user’s skin. Aside from its sun-reflecting properties, zinc has also been found to be anti-inflammatory, helps mild skin irritations and possesses some antiseptic attributes.
“This is why mineral sunscreens are actually cooler—because they reflect the sun’s photons,” explains Dr. Craig Downs, one of the world’s leading scientists on sunscreen research. “Chemical sunscreens will absorb the energy of the photon and dissipate that energy as heat—the heat is released onto you, so you feel hotter.”
“Chemical sunscreens have evidence of being endocrine disruptors, or developmental disruptors,” says Downs. In 2019, Downs and his team published a paper accusing oxybenzone of causing a birth defect known as Hirschsprung’s Disease. “Women that are in their first trimester who are exposed to high levels of oxybenzone have an increased risked of giving their baby Hirschsprung’s Disease, and the only way to fix it is through emergency surgery once the baby is born.”
And oxybenzone isn’t the only offending chemical found in most sunscreens. Just last month, Dr. Downs published a paper on sunscreen products containing octocrylene, which degrades into a mutagen carcinogen called benzophenone–a sibling chemical, if you will, to oxybenzone. “Benzophenone is recognized by the FDA and International Agency for Research on Cancer as a carcinogen, under California Proposition 65” says Downs, noting in his research that as a product ages, the concentration of benzophenone ramps up. “If you use an octocrylene product you are most likely being exposed to benzophenone–and it’s even more proficient at being absorbed into the skin and into your body than octocrylene.”
According to the Environmental Working Group, the FDA has conducted studies showing that most of the aforementioned chemicals listed above are absorbed into the body after a single use and could even be detected on the skin and in the blood weeks after usage. At this point, among all the ingredients found in sunscreens, the FDA has only given the GRASE designation (“generally recognized as safe and effective”) to zinc oxide and titanium oxide.
“For pregnant women and for children, and women who want to be pregnant again, I would recommend them using only mineral sunscreens, because all the chemical sunscreens you use you’re going to absorb into your body,” says Downs. “I won’t let my children swim in public swimming pools because we’ve measured the concentrations of oxybenzone and octocrylene in those swimming pools and they’re in the parts per thousand. There are some outdoor swimming pools that have to close down once every three weeks because the sunscreen kills the filtration systems of the swimming pool.”
For Dr. Downs, mineral sunscreens are the way the way to go, but of course, not all zinc oxides are created equal. If zinc oxide isn’t formulated correctly, it can break down into zinc ions, losing its crystalline structure and therefore its blocking abilities. And if a sunscreen contains zinc oxide nano-particles, it can still be toxic to developing coral. That’s why Downs’ organization, Haereticus Environmental Laboratory–and brands like Sea & Summit Sunscreen–advocate for consumers to use non-nano zinc oxide sun protectants.
Once you find a good non-nano zinc-oxide mineral sunscreen, Downs recommends taking supplemental steps for extra sun protection. “I think wearing a sun shirt is going to be one of the most effective conservation efforts an individual can do,” says Downs. “A surfer wearing a rashguard can cover up 50% of their body instead of using sunscreen. Wear the sunscreen on the back of your neck, wear it on your face, your wrist, places where your clothing is not going to protect you. And wear a good mineral sunscreen.”