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Finding a Safe, Natural Sunscreen (and is the Sun Really Dangerous?)

Written by contributor Katie Kimball of Kitchen Stewardship.

As with almost any topic in the field of health and wellness, it seems there is a tangled web of research and opinions when it comes to sun exposure and sunscreens.

• Should we wear SPF 50 sunscreen for our walk from the house to the mailbox, or should we shun all sunscreens in our quest to increase our Vitamin D levels as much as possible?
• Do we buy sun protective clothing to safeguard every inch of our skin from the damaging UV rays, or should the real cause of our cancer fears be the sunscreen ingredients themselves?

I’m going to seek the balance on this controversial topic and try to share with you some brief synopses of the current research on the issue. I lean heavily on the EWG 2010 Sunscreen Guide but realize that multiple sources are necessary, especially when I read articles like this one questioning EWG’s scientific validity. In spite of the rebuttal, I think EWG does a great job organizing a wealth of information.

What is the Difference Between Sunscreen and Sunblock?

Photo by Katie Kimball

Before we get into the topic too deeply, let’s start with terminology. In general, tubes of sun protection use both terms fairly interchangeably, but officially sunscreens use chemical “absorbers” and sunblocks use physical blockers to protect the skin from UV radiation and sunburns.

The ultimate question for any suncream is: Does it protect from both UVA (cancer causing) and UVB (skin damaging/burning) rays? Look for terms like “broad spectrum” coverage or ingredients like avobenzone, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, all of which protect from UVA rays. All sunscreens will protect from UVB rays because you’d notice if it wasn’t working!

How Sunscreen Works

“Sunscreens absorb UV energy and have to be absorbed into the upper layer of skin to really get up to full speed,” says Darrell Rigel, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Langone Medical Center. (source) A chemical reaction takes place between the sunscreen ingredients and the UV rays to “screen” your body from most of the effects of the sun. That’s why the instructions on the sunscreen bottles say to put it on 20 minutes before being exposed to the sun. It needs that time to sink in to your skin before its full SPF is realized. (1, 2, 3)

How Sunblock Works

Photo by August Allen

Sunblock, on the other hand, is called a “physical” block rather than chemical. It sits on the surface of your skin rather than being absorbed into it. Most sources say that sunblocks “reflect and scatter UV light.” (1, 2, 3, 4 and many more)

On the other hand, the founder of Kabana, one of the products I’ve been testing for review, disagrees with that explanation and claims instead:

“Zinc oxide has a broader UV absorption profile than titanium dioxide, which is noteworthy, because much misinformation populates the media about how these chemicals protect us – they do NOT reflect and scatter in the UV spectrum – rather zinc oxide absorbs UV and does so very effectively. The media (and ‘experts’ alike) need to investigate the physical chemistry of these compounds, rather than assume they reflect UV light because they look white in the visible spectrum. They do reflect in the visible, but would look black in the UV.” (source)

Either way, sunblocks use minerals that sit on the surface of the skin (usually zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) rather than chemicals that sink into the skin to protect one from the sun. Mineral sunblocks begin working right away on both UVA and UVB rays, so there’s no need to apply 20 minutes before sun exposure.

The Risks of Chemical Sunscreens

Photo by Katie Kimball

Since chemically-based sunscreens have to be absorbed into your skin just to start working, they have one strike against them already just for entering your system instead of sitting on the surface. Some of the potential health risks of chemical sunscreens include:

  • Hormone disruption; mimics estrogen and raises risk of breast cancer (theoretical but frightening) 1
  • Allergic reactions
  • Bioaccumulation in tissue and organs (found in 97% of Americans’ bloodstreams!)2
  • Also found in mother’s milk, demonstrating its reach even to the unborn
  • Failure to biodegrade in the environment 3

Oxybenzone is the chemical ingredient with the most fingers pointing at it; that’s the one found in 97% of Americans. If I was only avoiding one ingredient, that would probably be the winner – especially for children, whose small bodies make them especially susceptible to endocrine disruptors.

Finding a Safer Chemical Sunscreen

Perhaps you don’t like the ghostly pallor of folks using zinc-based sunscreens. Perhaps you’ve tried them and burned. If you are still hooked on using a chemical sunscreen for whatever reason, there are safer choices. Remember this:

  • Always avoid oxybenzone (B for “bad”) rated 9 at EWG
  • Usually avoid anything with “methoxycinnamate” or octinoxate in the name (no “cinn”amon or “ox”es in sunscreen) rated 6 at EWG
  • Usually avoid Padimate O/PABA (PaBa = pretty bad, allergies, allergies!) rated 6 at EWG
  • Homosalate is okay (homosalate for homosapiens) rated 4 at EWG
  • Octocrylene is okay (octoCrylene gets a “C” grade) rated 3 at EWG
  • Choose Octisalate (octiSalate is Safe) rated 3-4 at EWG
  • Choose Avobenzone (A for “A plus” rating) rated 2 at EWG

Mineral Sunblocks: Nano vs. Micronized Particles

As soon as you learn to look for words like “zinc oxide” and “titanium dioxide” on your sunscreen (sunblock!) bottles, another layer reveals itself. Apparently smaller sized pieces of the minerals protect one better from the UV rays of the sun. They also rub in more effectively. Many sunblocks therefore use “nano particles” of both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

The smaller the particle, unfortunately, the more likely it is that it is absorbed into the skin’s cells, where it could cause unknown problems, including…what else? Cancer. 1, 2, 3 The nano particles may also be more hazardous to the environment and even if swallowed inadvertently while swimming.

You might also see the term “micronized” on a sunblock using zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. This is a smaller form of the minerals, but not as small as “nano”. If the ingredients weren’t “micronized” – simply the process of grinding them smaller – they would be gritty like sand, rather ineffective at protecting your skin, and pure opaque white if it was possible to apply correctly. Micronized minerals are not small enough to get through the cell walls and are nothing to worry about.

Not all sunscreens disclose on the labels whether they use nano or micronized minerals. A good rule of thumb: If your zinc or titanium sunscreen goes on clear, it is nanosized.

Is the Sun Really Dangerous?

Photo by Katie Kimball

The final layer in the sun protection issue is that of Vitamin D. We need to make Vitamin D in our skin with the help of the sun, and even an SPF of 8 blocks 90% of the Vitamin D available to us to help boost our immunity, among other things. Check out the extended version of this post with more information on sunscreen and Vitamin D over at Kitchen Stewardship. You might also be interested in my natural sunscreen review, sun protective clothing review (coming Thursday) and related giveaways this week.

The bottom line for me in all of this is that we need some sunshine every day, unprotected, for Vitamin D, but we have to balance that time in the sun with the risk of sunburn for our particular skin type. For our family, I’m determined to have some options for safe sunscreen for those times when we’re in the sun in the middle of day and can’t seek shade. I’m also determined to only use sunscreen when necessary and try to balance sun and shade, sun protective hats with basking in the Vitamin-D enriched rays.

Read more on the subject at:

What’s your take on the sun and sunscreens? How easily do you get a nasty sunburn?

Reading Time:

5 minutes





  1. Kara

    I think I fall somewhere in the middle. I burn easily, so I’m definitely pro sunblock, but I also like to make use of clothing, hats and shade to avoid the burn. Vitamin D is important to me as well, so I save “small” outside trips (like getting the mail) for getting sun exposure free of the blockers. I wish this discussion would have had the chance to happen back in May before all of the summer activities set in! I would have loved to read everyone’s opinions pre-summer.

  2. Nikki Moore

    I have very fair skin and always ‘screen up when I know I’m going to be in the sun for an extended period of time. But I don’t use it every day. I figure this is a happy medium for me — I’m using a vaguely ‘safe’ sunscreen (according to EWG) but I’m not using it every day. And I still get my Vitamin D. 🙂

    Somewhere in the blogosphere, just a week or two ago, I read how some people believe high/healthy levels of omega-3’s can all but stop sunburn from happening. Apparently, people in the Mediterranean don’t burn…because their diets are rich in these types of oils. I had never heard this before. Does anyone have any thoughts? These people took their supplements and ate lots of salmon and apparently didn’t burn, even after hours in the sun. Does your skin need to burn to be damaged by UVA/UVB rays?? I mean, even if you aren’t burned, maybe you’re still exposing yourself unsafely? Of course every example was anecdotal, but it’s an interesting idea. Does anyone have any thoughts, real science, or know anything else about this?

    • Kathryn

      Three of my family members have had skin cancer, and one died of it, so everyone in my family has made a mission of educating ourselves about sun protection.
      I’m not familiar with the study you mention, but a person’s concentration of melatonin (skin pigment) is usually the biggest determinant of whether they burn in the sun. People of Mediterranean descent have good levels of melatonin, so they have natural resistance to sunburn (as opposed to, say, people of Scandinavian descent).
      And no, your skin does not need to burn to be damaged; people who always tan also get spots, wrinkles, and other superficial skin damage (my FIL, who’s of Mediterranean descent, is an excellent example of this). Perhaps most importantly, your skin does not need to burn for you to get skin cancer. Most skin cancer (particularly the malignant kind) is caused by UVA rays, which don’t cause sunburn. This is why doctors recommend that even people with dark skin use broad-spectrum sunscreen.

      • Nikki Moore

        Thanks. I do need to trust my instincts, I think, when I hear something that sounds fishy. Your answer is very sensible to me. I wasn’t quite going to stop using sunscreen but maybe a little part of me was hopeful. 🙂 Thanks so much for your input!

    • Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Kathryn answered very well, but there is some evidence of the proper balance of omega 3:6 being a factor in sun protection, so increasing 3s would have the same effect as decreasing 6s. UVA rays are tricky, because we don’t see the damage, but it’s still there. Ultimately, no one wants too much sun. It’s such a balance to strike! 🙂 Katie

      • Nikki Moore

        Thanks Katie…that makes sense about the proper ratio. We need balance in ALL things, even our omega fatty acids ratio! 🙂

  3. Kara Fleck

    I’m pretty fair skinned and burn easily, so does my husband. What I can’t figure out is how we got these children who seem to tan within minutes of being outdoors? 🙂

    I’ve been reading up on sunscreen this Summer and following along on your blog, too. Thanks for doing so much research and “footwork” for us. It has been good reading and a reminder for me that, as you say, balance is key.

    Great article!

  4. Marci@OvercomingBusy

    We are pretty good at choosing products in our home that are chemical free or chemical “lite” – for lack of a better term. But, I never thought of our sunscreen. I need to go check ours! Thanks for the info.

  5. Cara @ Health Home and Happiness

    Greta article! I looked into this before my first was born, and the ingredients in even ‘natural’ sunscreens were more hazardous than I was comfortable with. We just use hats/sun shirts/staying in the shade. It’s more modest anyway, which I’m also a fan of 🙂 My kids wear either ‘rash guard’ shirts with swim trunks, or long sleeve button up shirts that are light colored when they’re outside.

    I did use sunscreen on my first one once, when we went on a hike and there was no way to stay in the shade and she would have roasted in the Ergo with long sleeves/hat/pants. But that’s all in 3-1/2 years of parenting 🙂

  6. Kay

    after reviewing the EWG’s guide, I purchased Loving Naturals. It goes on a little white, but then dissipates. Following procedure, I apply before we leave the house for the pool. By the time my 2yr old son gets in the water, it’s dry. Thankfully, this does not ‘melt’ into his eyes once in the water. I had been using Aveeno baby until reading the EWG guide. Aveeno had been getting into his eyes once he was in the water, even after the 20 min application. I love Loving Naturals! It rated tops with EWG and my son is not phased by it. Doctors don’t know everything and parents should go with their instincts. If I can’t pronounce it, we don’t buy it.

  7. Kathryn

    I think one thing to keep in mind is that your likelihood of getting skin cancer from repeated, unprotected sun exposure is probably tremendously higher than your risk of getting cancer from regular use of sunscreen containing nanoparticles.

  8. Lisa@MomsGreen ShoppingList

    Great article!
    We try to avoid the sun during the hottest parts of the day and for the times when it’s unavoidable I invested in one of EWG’s highest rated sunscreens for my daughter. I do think that we need a certain amount of sunshine in our lives, it’s good for the soul, so we usually sit out, unprotected, very early in the morning or very late in the afternoon.

  9. Nina

    I burn pretty easily and my son even more so. I really liked the convenience of those spray on sunscreens. In fact some day care centers will only put those on children here. But I don’t like oxybenzone and even with frequent re-application – which make you sticky, we were still getting burnt when we went to the shore and had longer days in the sun. last year and this I’ve made an effort to get only zinc or tit.dioxide and we haven’t burnt. it is really hard to find it here in utah. not even the natural food stores carry it. cvs carries it in other states but there isn’t a cvs here. so as long as I can I’m going to stick with this. I also try to let us get sun so unless we are out in water, playing in sun all day I don’t even usually put on sunscreen.

  10. Rebekah

    Thank you very much for all the information. However, what I feel like this post is lacking in is a clear list of what sunscreens you would recommend. Honestly, it is much easier for me to remember a brand name rather than all the ingredients you say I should stay away from.

  11. Sandra Lee

    Katie, This has been on my mind lately because the whole issue is so confusing. So thanks for presenting it clearly. Being sensitive to chemicals and fragrance, I avoid sunscreen and sunblocks altogether. But I do worry at times because I live in a sunny climate and am exposed to quite a bit of sun, plus I need the Vitamin D. So I’m very grateful for the information you have provided here. All the best to you.

  12. Sofia's Ideas

    We have slowly weaned ourselves off of sunscreen/sunblock over the last 5 or 6 years. Now we don’t use any at all, unless we are going to be at the beach ALL day long. So far, so good – no sunburns to report either! 🙂

  13. Camaron

    I’ve heard really good things about using coconut oil as a sun blocker. Has anyone else heard anything about this?

    • Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship

      I’ve seen coconut oil mentioned as an SPF 4 and up to an SPF 15. I dabbled with it last summer, but I admit I never really put it to a big sun test because I didn’t quite trust it. I think next summer I’ll dabble some more! 😉 Some also say that consuming coconut oil helps build a defense.
      🙂 Katie

  14. Amy @ Homestead Revival

    Excellent article!! I also use the Skin Deep website to help me navigate a same sun product, by this article will help me to know what category I really want for my family: Sunblock v. sunscreen. And thanks for clarifying the nano particles. I’ve been wondering about that in terms of sunscreens.

    We use sunblock sparingly, like Katie mentioned, only during the very hottest part of the day. The rest of the time we try to enjoy the sun for reasonable periods of time. Seems to be working pretty good for us.
    Thanks for all the research!

  15. sara davis

    Sun Putty!…I love the stuff!

    Keeps my skin nourished and protected, naturally, without synthetics or ineffective “filler” ingredients…EWG Top-rated safe, natural moisturizing sunscreen…

  16. danika anderson

    Try Sun Putty….great natural sunscreen; helps my skin a lot.

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