What is Natural Sunscreen and What are Its Benefits?
Last Updated: July 20, 2022
From reef-safe sunscreen to broad spectrum protection, our natural sunscreen guide breaks down the top terms to know and common ingredients to avoid.
- What is Natural Sunscreen and What are Its Benefits?
- What is a natural sunscreen?
- Why should I use natural sunscreen?
- What are sunscreen ingredients to avoid?
- Natural sunscreen terms and meanings
- Shop beach day essentials at Grove
- Natural sunscreen checklist: What to look for before buying
- 6 tips for using natural sunscreen
- Read more from Grove
We all know that sunscreen helps prevent sunburns, skin damage, and skin cancer, but it can feel like you need a chemistry degree just to suss out which product to choose. What is a natural sunscreen? What’s the difference between natural and conventional sunscreen? And how do you know if the sunscreen you’ve chosen is safe and doing its job of preventing sun damage? We’ve got you covered.
What is a natural sunscreen?
Natural sunscreen is also known as mineral or physical sunscreen because it uses zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or a combination of the two to block and reflect the sun’s harmful rays away from your skin.
Many certified natural organic sunscreen products are also free of other potentially harmful chemicals like parabens and phthalates. Most sunscreens on the drugstore shelves are chemical sunscreens — this means that they use chemicals like oxybenzone and avobenzone to absorb UV rays. FDA research shows that after a single application, the chemicals in sunscreen can be detected in the body at potentially harmful levels. Here is a list of 12 chemical ingredients the American Academy of Dermatology Association has called out as potentially unsafe.
Why should I use natural sunscreen?
Healthier for you
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the only two active sunscreen ingredients (of the 16 currently allowed in the U.S.) that are generally recognized as safe and effective by the FDA.
Oxybenzone — a chemical sunscreen ingredient that’s made from petroleum and used in 70 percent of sunscreens — and octinoxate are believed to be endocrine disruptors. This means they may mimic and interfere with your hormones. According to the FDA, chemical sunscreen ingredients like oxybenzone can be absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream.
Healthier for the ocean
Scientists have estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in oceans around the world each year. Much of that sunscreen contains oxybenzone and octinoxate, which contribute to coral bleaching. Even in small doses, oxybenzone has been shown to quickly bleach coral and slow its growth.
While reef-safe sunscreen is vital when you are snorkeling and lounging on the beach, the sunblock you wear at the pool or on a hike matters too. Sunscreen washed off in the shower can flow through water treatment systems into local waterways or the ocean.
Healthier for sensitive skin
Chemical sunscreen absorbs the UV rays, which creates heat that can irritate your skin. The chemicals themselves can also sting or burn when applied.
Sunscreens made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide also offer instant protection, unlike chemical sunscreens that need to absorb into your skin for 15 to 30 minutes before they can provide full protection.
What are sunscreen ingredients to avoid?
“Choosing a sunscreen with a mineral active ingredient is the most important thing you can do, but also check out the inactive ingredients,” says Badger director of sales Iris Piedmont-Fleischmann. “A lot of junk can hide in this lower part of the label.”
- Octinoxate (A.K.A. octyl methoxycinnamate)
- Retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, or retinol
- Mineral oil
- PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid)
Natural sunscreen terms and meanings
"Mineral," "physical," and "natural" are often used interchangeably to describe sunscreen that uses minerals — zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide — to reflect or physically block the sun’s UV rays from penetrating your skin.
The sun radiates two types of harmful UV light: UVA and UVB. UVA rays can cause age spots and wrinkling, and UVB rays are responsible for sunburns. Broad-spectrum sunscreen helps protect skin cells from both.
Common sunscreen chemicals — oxybenzone and octinoxate — contribute to coral bleaching. Reef-safe sunscreen is formulated without these harmful chemicals.
Did you know?
Should you always buy a broad-spectrum sunscreen?
Sunscreens that aren’t labeled as broad-spectrum often only protect against UVB rays and leave your skin vulnerable to lasting damage.
Natural sunscreen checklist: What to look for before buying
Here’s what to look for when buying natural sunscreen:
1. Zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as the only active ingredients
2. Broad spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection
3. No questionable ingredients like parabens (see “list of ingredients to avoid” above)
4. Water resistant (if you will be sweating or swimming)
Is higher SPF better?
Not necessarily. Sun protection factor (SPF) represents how well the sunscreen protects against UVB rays. There is currently no rating for UVA protection. When applied correctly, SPF 15 sunscreen blocks 93 percent of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks almost 97 percent of UVB radiation, and SPF 50 blocks only a single percent more. SPF 100 blocks around 99 percent, which sounds great on the surface, but it may tempt people to stay in the sun too long and actually get more sun exposure than they would have if they had reapplied more frequently with a lower SPF, according to the Environmental Working Group.
The bottom line: The American Academy of Dermatology Association and the Skin Cancer Foundation recommend using sunscreens that are SFP 30 or higher. Properly applying — and reapplying! — your sunscreen is more important than a high SPF.
Did you know?
Which SPF lasts longest?
SPF 30 and SPF 60 last the same amount of time. Rather than signifying how long you can safely be in the sun, the SPF number is actually related to the amount of solar exposure you are protected from. UV rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the summer, which means you will get more solar exposure and have a higher chance of getting a sunburn in the afternoon than you would in the morning.
6 tips for using natural sunscreen
No sunscreen is effective if you don’t use it correctly. Follow these tips to get the best protection possible.
1. Use at least an ounce of sunscreen
Adults should use at least a shot glass full of sunscreen when minimally dressed to evenly cover the body, from the tops of the feet to the hairline. A half teaspoon or so should be used to cover your face, neck, and chest. If you apply less, you get less coverage and less protection. Using just half the required amount of an SPF 30 sunscreen only provides an effective SPF of 5.5, according to Piedmont-Fleischmann.
Birchby recommends applying your sunscreen in layers and working in sections. To achieve the recommended amount, start with a little bit at a time and allow it to absorb and set before applying another sheer layer. Sunscreen lotions, gels, and sticks are the easiest and safest to apply properly. And it sounds like a no-brainer, but it bears repeating: Follow the instructions on the specific product for the best results.
2. Don’t be lazy with sun protection
Don’t forget often-missed spots like your lips, the tops of your ears and feet, and your eyelids. And make sure you wear sunscreen even on cloudy days or indoors — UV rays pass through clouds and glass.
3. Reapply at least every two hours and after sweating, swimming, or wiping skin with a towel or shirt
People more prone to sunburn may need to reapply more frequently, especially when the forecasted UV index is high.
4. Pick the sunscreen that’s best for your skin and the day’s activities
A moisturizer with sunscreen is great for the commute to work, but a hike or a run calls for a water-resistant sunscreen with more protection from the sun’s harmful rays.
5. Always use water-resistant formulas for swimming and other water activities
The bottle will tell you if the sunscreen is water resistant for 40 or 80 minutes. Be sure to reapply on time!
6. Practice sun safety
Applying sunscreen properly is important, but so is seeking out shade, wearing sun protective clothing (like a hat and/or UPF clothing), and following the daily UV forecast so you can avoid peak hours and safely enjoy the outdoors when UV radiation exposure is lower.
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