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Navigating the Sunscreen Aisle: Natural vs. Chemical

Today officially marks the start of summer, but one thing’s for sure: We’ve already been able to feel the sun’s effects during hot days. Sunscreen is a must this time of year, and it’s important to be educated about the different kinds of sunscreen on the market so you can be sure you’re protecting your skin in the best way.

Buying natural- or mineral-based sunscreens has become increasingly common in recent years, and here’s why: People are becoming more aware about its efficacy, safety and that it stays on top of the skin to reflect UVA and UVB rays without the use of chemicals. In contrast, many chemical-based sunscreens are easily absorbed into the skin, with the very real potential of causing hormone disruption and allergic reactions. Plus, many of the latter sunscreens only protect against UVB rays (which cause sunburn) and not UVA rays (which can lead to premature aging and cancer).

So how do you know what to look for? Let’s get specific when it comes to ingredients: Mineral sunscreens are typically made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as an active ingredient, with a 15-20% concentration. Chemical sunscreens usually include two to six of these actives: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has analyzed the toxicity of the above chemicals and has found oxybenzone to be the most concerning. Unfortunately, its presence is very widespread across the United States, as the CDC has reported that nearly 97% of Americans have oxybenzone in their bodies. In addition, this particular chemical was added to roughly 65% of the non-mineral sunscreens in EWG’s database.

What about inactive ingredients? They do, after all, make up 50-70% of a sunscreen’s formula. The preservative known as methylisothiazolinone has been linked to skin sensitivity and allergies, which is cause for concern due to the nature of sunscreen being applied repeatedly to large areas of the skin. And while mineral sunscreens are certainly less harmful to our bodies, some include plant-based ingredients not approved by the FDA in order to appear to offer a higher SPF value. Our best advice: Read ingredient labels carefully and look for ingredient names you recognize as being beneficial to your skin.

Speaking of SPF values, SPF 30 is the choice recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology, a value that protects against 97% of UVB rays. For those with fair skin, SPF 50 is even better, though nothing higher is necessary. Protection doesn’t double when the value does (SPF 15 sunscreen provides 93% protection), and no sunscreen can block 100% of UV rays.

Who knew sunscreen could be so complicated? We want to help you understand the ins and out of the market so you can make an informed choice for yourself.