I’ve always used a chemical sunscreen because I never liked the look of white paste over my skin from a physical sunscreen, like zinc oxide cream. However, there has been a lot of discussions lately how some of the ingredients used in chemical sunscreens may not be so good for our health, especially long-term. There has also been improvements in all-natural sunscreens with invisible, micronized zinc oxide.
What’s the Difference Between a Chemical Sunscreen vs Physical Sunscreen – How Do They Work?
A chemical sunscreen typically contains three or more chemicals such as octinoxate, homosalate, octocrylene and/or benzophenone (currently, there are 17 FDA-approved chemicals) and is absorbed into the skin where the chemicals absorb and filter ultraviolet (UV) rays. A physical mineral sunscreen or sunblock will contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide and simply acts as a barrier or shade-shield by reflecting UV rays. Physical sunscreens “sit” on surface of the skin and are not absorbed.
Chemical Sunscreen Cons
- Of the 17 FDA-approved chemicals used in sunscreens, 15 are considered endocrine disruptors – interfere with function of hormones.
- They need to be applied 20 minutes before sun exposure for absorbtion by the skin in order to work.
- The chemicals soak into your bloodstream – These chemicals have been detected in blood, urine, and breast milk 2 days after a single application (Krause et. al. 2012).
- The absorption can generate DNA-damaging chemicals – free radicals which may lead to cancer.
- Can cause allergic skin reactions and irritation to those with sensitive skin.
Chemical Sunscreen Pros: Many provide broad spectrum, UVA/UVB protection. Some waterproof/sweatproof forumulas can provide protection for up to 80 minutes without reapplying, however some lose 90% of UV-blocking effectiveness only after 1 hour and need to be reapplied more often. Chemical sunscreens are relatively inexpensive, especially generic brands.
In response to these concerns, specifically to Dr. Arthur W. Perry, MD, FACS, the Endocrine Society has responded with this statement:
“Dr. Perry makes an important point that sunscreens are applied to skin in a formulation that serves as a drug delivery system and that some sunscreens are known to interfere with hormone action. The way in which these chemicals can interact with hormone systems could plausibly increase the risk of various cancers as well as other endocrine disorders.” -Dr. R. Thomas Zoeller, MS, PhD, Endocrine Society Official Representative
Natural Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide Physical Sunscreen Pros
- Broad spectrum protection, blocks both UVA & UVB light (as some chemical sunscreens are).
- Formulas are typically are more natural and have less harmful inactive ingredients such as no endocrine disruptors, estrogen-mimickers, parabans, glycols, other preservatives and emulsifiers that are found in chemical sunscreens.
- Can now be found in micronized formulations – invisible when applied as opposed to the regular zinc oxide white goo-paste (you know, the kind you see on the noses of life guards).
- Good for those with sensitive skin, doesn’t cause irritation.
Physical Mineral Sunscreen Cons: The only con I have found is that if you want a zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide sunscreen that doesn’t leave a white residue when applied to your skin, you will need to purchase a micronized formula (but non-nano, discussed below) which is usually more expensive than a tube of the non-microzined pastes. But I don’t mind paying a little more, especially for a 100% natural physical sunscreen. 100% natural presents another issue with some users. Natural ingredients do not include chemical emulsifiers so some people do not like the way the physical sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide feel when applied. Some may not be as smooth as chemical lotion sunscreens. But I have found one, discussed below, that I find is relatively smooth and does not feel pasty.
Zinc Oxide vs Titanium Dioxide Sunscreens
So should I get a physical sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide or both? I was wondering that myself. What’s the difference, if any? Both are chalky minerals that are crushed into small particles for use in sunscreens. Both reflect UVA and UVB rays, however, zinc oxide is slightly better at blocking long UVA rays.
Because titanium dioxide is more noticeable on the skin (white residue) than zinc oxide, in some products it is crushed into smaller-sized particles, less than 100 nanometers (nm). Why is this a problem? There is some concern about nanoparticles, possibilities of mutation risk when exposed to sunlight on the skin and whether or not such small particles could actually be absorbed through the skin. However, some studies have shown that nano-sized particles do not penetrate the skin. The argument on both sides continues.
Conclusion: For now, I would avoid sunscreens with nano titanium dioxide particles less than 100nm. I have chosen one with only zinc oxide (also non-nano >100nm). Zinc oxide has broader broad-spectrum protection (better UVA) and less whitish-tint when applied – which is why it not necessary to have nano-sized particles vs titanium dioxide.
Natural Sunscreens which Meet EWG’s Criteria
Primary Chemicals and Ingredients to Avoid in Chemical Sunscreens
If you still want to use chemicals sunscreens, purchase those that do not have oxybenzone in the ingredient list. Out of all the chemical sunscreens, it is one of the worst. It scores an 8 out of 10 on the Environmental Working Group Hazard Score Scale. It is an estrogen mimicker when absorbed, associated with endometriosis in women, alters sperm production and is rated high for allergic skin reactions.
Chemical sunscreens are most dangerous to pregnant women (can affect the developing fetus) and children who nurse on breast milk. If you have skin allergies, it is best to avoid these chemical ingredients as well: para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), dioxybenzone and or sulisobenzone.
Also avoid sunscreens that contain vitamin A (sometimes listed as retinyl palmitate) which actually increases your exposure to damaging UV rays. Vitamin A is fine for use in lotions and creams, but not in sunscreens where sunlight can trigger carcinogenic activity.
You can see a current list of safe suncreens as rated by the Environmental Working Group including beach and sports sunscreens, moisturizers, lip balms and make-up with SPF.
If you want to read more, here is a journal reference that discusses chemical sunscreens and health: Krause M, Klit A, Blomberg Jensen M, Søeborg T, Frederiksen H, Schlumpf M, Lichtensteiger W, Skakkebaek NE and KT Drzewiecki. 2012. Sunscreens: are they beneficial for health? An overview of endocrine disrupting properties of UV-filters. International Journal of Andrology: Jun;35(3):424-36.
My Favorite All Natural Zinc Oxide Sunscreen
I spent a few hours reading reviews of different types of physical sunscreens. Some of the complaints were as mentioned above: not feeling smooth and uniform when applied, came out of the container separated, greasy, was too thick and hard to apply, etc..
Well I finally decided on a product called MelanSol SPF-20. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Certified 100% all-natural sunscreen
- SPF 20 with broad spectrum UVA/UVB protection containing 12% non-nano zinc oxide
- Water resistant for 40 minutes
- Contains antioxidants Bio-Melanin, Green Tea, Natural Vitamin E
- No chemical ingredients, synthetic preservatives, BPA-free
- Excellent for sensitive skin, hypo-allergenic, dermatologist-tested
MelanSol comes in SPF (Sun Protection Factor)-10, SPF-20 and SPF-30. SPF-10 is recommended by MelanSol for people who never burn, always tan, with medium to dark skin tones who will be spending short periods of time in the sun.
Their SPF-30 is recommended for those with very sensitive, fair skin that burns easily who will be spending long periods of time in the sun. For example, mountain climbers used MelanSol SPF-30 when hiking to the the top of Mt. Everest and received no sunburn on their lips, hands or face. You should know, however, that their SPF-30 product is made with nano titanium dioxide.
I chose MelanSol SPF-20 which is for those who’s skin easily burns and who will be spending a few hours out in the sun being active, playing sports, taking hikes, surfing, etc.. I have been using MelanSol for several months now and have been completely satisfied with the product. It’s texture is a little different (somewhat thicker) than regular chemical sunscreen lotions, but I haven’t minded the difference.
I have noticed that it helps to shake the tube before using, to mix the ingredients if the tube has been sitting for awhile (I rather have to shake it than have synthetic emulsifiers!). I love the fact that when I rub it on my skin, I know that I am not absorbing endocrine-disrupting chemicals and other harmful chemicals that can affect my health. I have not been sunburned yet while using the product and it doesn’t irritate my skin or clog my pores.
Questions: Are you thinking about switching to an all-natural, non-chemical sunscreen? Have you tried any zinc oxide sunscreens? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.