Natural Sunscreen 101: The Basics & Your Choices
Let’s shed some light on the great mass vs. natural sunscreen debate.
Oh, what a daunting and ever-expanding array of choices for sun care products there are. Maybe because I have a few too many freckles for my liking, but I often find myself reaching for a bottle of a well-known brand with SPF 60 on the label. Perhaps, as a child of the 70s—when sun care consisted of little more than zinc, an over-sized t-shirt and my baseball hat—I am prone to believing the higher the SPF, the better. But sun care has come a long way. These days, we know more about how ultraviolet light affects us, more about the chemicals and ingredients used, and we know that natural sunscreen options have definitely improved. It’s time to make a conscious choice when it comes to the sun care products we’re using, and that starts with the two main camps of sunscreen: natural vs. chemical.
How Mass vs. Natural Sunscreens Work
The main difference between natural and chemical sunscreens is in how they work. Natural sunscreens (which are sometimes referred to as “mineral,” “physical,” or “blocking” products) physically block or deflect UV rays (think of the quintessential image of the lifeguard with the zinc-covered nose), whereas chemical products work by being absorbed into the skin.
According to Health Canada, the only active UV filtering ingredients that sunscreens can contain in order to be licensed as Natural Health Products (NHPs) are titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and para-aminobenzoic acid (aka PABA). Sunscreens that contain one or more of a list of 17 UV filtering chemicals—including oxybenzone, avobenzone and homosalate—are classified as drugs.
You can verify whether your sunscreen has been tested by Health Canada for safety, efficacy and manufacturing standards—and that it is approved for sale in Canada—by checking for an 8-digit Natural Product Number (NPN) or Drug Identification Number (DIN) on its packaging.
If you want to dig deeper into those 17 chemical UV filters mentioned above, the Environmental Working Group rates the full list approved by Health Canada on a “safety” scale of 1 to 10. Oxybenzone, one of the most common, gets a hazard score of 8, while Avobenzone gets a score of 2 and is considered the safest.
Whether a sunscreen is regulated as an Natural Health Product or a drug, they have the same basic requirements from Health Canada, which include the following: they must contain a recognized UVA and a UVB absorber or blocker, they must have a minimum Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 15, and they must have a critical wavelength protection of at least 370nm. But what does all that mean?
Zinc oxide is considered the gold standard of natural UVA/UVB protection as it protects from the broad spectrum of UVA and UVB rays. Titanium dioxide and PABA, on the other hand, are considered less effective at combating UVA rays. Because of this, they are typically recommended to be used in combination with zinc oxide. Health Canada’s list of 17 chemicals considered safe are listed on the Sunscreen Monograph page of the Health Canada website, and they have a broad range of UVA/UVB capabilities.
What is SPF?
If it takes 20 minutes for your unprotected skin to start turning red, an SPF of 15 will theoretically prevent it 15 times longer. Health Canada requires an SPF of at least 15, considered to do an excellent job. In fact, as you go higher on the SPF scale, the impact is minimized—SPF 15 filters out about 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 filters 97%, and SPF 50 only 1% more; therefore, choosing the highest SPF you can find isn’t the best way to choose a sunscreen.
Because both UVA and UVB rays contribute to skin cancer, SPF only measures a sunscreen’s ability to prevent UVB rays from damaging the skin, and UVA rays penetrate more deeply. With a higher SPF, you might be tempted to stay out longer without reapplication, and even if you are protected against UVB rays, you are still overloading on UVA rays. And, if you’re using a chemical product, the higher the SPF, the higher the concentration of chemical ingredients in it—and those chemicals are being absorbed into your skin (and bloodstream).
Critical Wavelength Protection:
The amount of UVA protection a sunscreen offers is measured in Critical Wavelength. Although rarely promoted like SPF, a label of “broad-spectrum” guarantees a critical wavelength of >370nm.
What Else to Keep in Mind
Both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have come under fire for containing nanoparticles which allow many natural sunscreens to go on clear rather than white. While further research is being done into the impact of these particles on the environment and on skin application, it is generally accepted that they do not migrate through the skin but could enter the bloodstream through the lungs if the product is aerosolized. For this reason, many natural sunscreens have cream-only versions rather than sprays. You’ll notice that many companies list “non-nano” or state their particle size on the packaging.
PABA, although considered a natural ingredient because it is found in folic acid and in food, is seldom included in natural sunscreens anymore both because it was found to increase sensitivities to allergic reactions, and some research suggests it breaks down in the sun, releasing free radicals that could cause growth of cancerous cells.
Added Ingredients: An average chemical sunscreen contains 26 ingredients other than the active UV filters, most of which I can’t pronounce. Many sunscreens, both physical and chemical, contain added antioxidants such as vitamin E, sunflower oil, green tea, black tea, cocoa butter, and mango butter, to protect your skin against the free radicals caused by the sun.
You’ll notice natural sunscreens are generally free from other nasties—including paraben, phthalates, and sodium lauryl sulfates—and often make claims that might be important to you such as biodegradable, vegan-friendly, reef-safe, gluten free, no animal testing, and no artificial flavours or fragrances.
Wearability: Because natural sunscreens sit on the skin rather than being absorbed, water tends to “bead” on the skin and you might be turned off by the whitish hue they can give your skin or the residual product on your bathing suits. The upside is that these mild deterrents are actually quite reassuring that you are protected. And you can actually apply and then immediately hit the beach as they don’t take the 20 minutes that chemical products need to absorb into the skin.
The Bottom Line
It’s important to get good sun protection. The Canadian Cancer Society says one in every three cancers diagnosed worldwide is a skin cancer, 80-90% of which are caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Canadians born in the 1990s have a two to three times higher lifetime risk of getting skin cancer (1 in 6) than those born in the 1960s (1 in 20). While the best choice is to stay out of direct sun for an extended amount of time—especially in the summer between 10am and 4pm—if you want to enjoy the sun, do it as consciously as possible. Research the risks, the factors, the ingredients, and best application and reapplication procedures, and find the sunscreen or combination of sunscreens that’s best for you and your family’s needs.
Ready to stock up on sunscreen to keep you and your family safe this season? Shop sun care here!