The many things I have learned about how to choose a safe sunscreen that protect us from the sun’s rays, yet without the ingredients to harm us. SPF, sun filters, nano particles, blue light, propellant chemicals.. do you know what all of these terms mean and how they factor into the choice of sunscreen?
For years I knew that some sunscreens are not as healthy as others: there are questionable ingredients in sunscreens, and many terms associated with sunscreens are confusing. But I didn’t have the time to research them, because life has been crazy: I was trying to cure my fibromyalgia, then fighting insomnia and anxiety, I spent significant amount of time optimizing my foods and fermenting, then another year detoxing myself from the inside. At that point, my health was finally in a good place, and I felt I had the time to start detoxing my products at home. In addition, also to dig into learning about ingredient labels and the science behind them.
So here I am sharing everything I have learned about choosing a safe sunscreen. Read on to find out my most favourite brand of sunscreens.
SPF (Sun Protection Factor)
One surprising fact I learned about SPF is that it only indicates protection against UVB rays, not UVA rays. UVB rays cause skin burning, but also stimulate vitamin D production in the body. UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin than UVB rays, causing skin aging and damage.
To protect ourselves from the sun, it’s important to look for “broad spectrum” protection in sunscreen that can protect us from both UVA and UVB. If the sunscreen doesn’t have “broad spectrum” protection, but only a high SPF number, what we will get is a false sense of protection: our skin won’t feel sunburned, but still getting the damage from UVA.
Contrary to what many may assume, a high SPF number doesn’t provide significantly more protection either. For example, SPF30 blocks 97% UVB, while SPF50 blocks 98% UVB. The difference is merely 1%, not 40% by jumping from SPF 30 to 50.
So what SPF number is good in sunscreen? Personally I believe SPF 30 is the way to go after considering multiple factors. One is that the extra protection with higher SPF is marginal. In addition, we don’t need to block off all UVB, they are beneficial in the production of vitamin D. Lastly, SPF 30 seems to be a good middle ground for both protection and performance of mineral sunscreens (more on mineral sunscreen later, for now, just know that it’s the safest broad spectrum sunscreen). When mineral sunscreens are made at SPF level greater than 30, the way they feel on our skin becomes increasingly unpleasant.
Sun Filters (Chemical vs. Mineral)
There are 2 kinds of sun filters used in sunscreens on the market: chemical filters and mineral filters.
The most commonly used chemical filters are: oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and avobenzone. Chemical filters absorb sun ray then scatter into heat, therefore increase the chance to cause skin irritation. Several chemical filters are known hormone disruptors, such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, and homosalate (Source). Oxybenzone and octinoxate have also been banned in Hawaii due to their harmful impact to coral reefs. Chemical filters do not always provide broad spectrum protection – depends on the specific chemical filters used, some sunscreen works well against UVB but not UVA.
Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are commonly used mineral filters. Mineral filters form a physical layer on top of the skin, deflecting sun rays away from skin. Mineral sunscreens are safer choices, also providing broad spectrum protection.
As I read more about UV filters, I realized that understanding these ingredients is more complicated than only considering the 2 types. Some ingredients simply don’t have enough safety data, and some may degrade under sun exposure, leading to other health risks. In short, the best safe active ingredient and UV filter is zinc oxide, specifically non-nano zinc.
Nano particles are made so small by the use of nano-technology, as a result are easier to penetrate into our skin and get into the blood stream. There is not sufficient evidence to-date to draw definitive conclusions, but several studies on nanomaterials used in cosmetic and personal care products have suggested possible adverse health and ecological impacts. Therefore, it’s best to go with non-nano zinc oxide in the sunscreen.
One ray that is becoming top of mind as we spend more and more time in front of computers, smart phones and tablets is blue light. Blue light is actually everywhere. It is the shorter wavelength from the sun, when scattered in the atmosphere, making the sky blue.
Blue light’s skin-aging effects can potentially be as much of a concern as those caused by UVA & UVB. The latest research suggests it may damage skin proteins and lipids, leading to potential loss of skin elasticity, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. Some sunscreens on the market are formulated for additional protection against blue light.
Many sunscreen mist products are contained in aerosol spray cans. Aerosol spray uses a pressurized gas as propellant to release the sunscreen out of the can. The risk of propellant chemicals is that they can pose health risk when inhaled, as well as being harmful to the environment when released into the air. It’s best to avoid aerosol sunscreen mists. If you must use a spray sunscreen, opt for an air-pressured one instead of aerosol.
Other Questionable Ingredients
In addition, look out for and avoid PEGs, mineral oils, synthetic fragrance, cyclic silicones that are commonly found in sunscreens.
My Favourite Safe Sunscreens
It has been quite a learning process, but eventually I found the best safe sunscreen that met all of my expectations and even exceeded some! Beautycounter’s Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Lotion is my family’s go-to sunscreen right now. My kids love how it feels when applied on their skin, to the point they refuse to use other brand of mineral sunscreens.
We even tested 3 brands of safe mineral sunscreens side-by-side when we went camping last summer (as pictured below, from left to right: badger, green beaver, beautycounter). All of them were able to protect us against the sun, but Beautycounter’s sunscreen was easier to apply, felt a lot more pleasant and smelled better. Notice the Beautycounter’s sunscreen in the picture called “protect all over sunscreen”? That was the previous formulation I used last summer. The new formulation, Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, has the same smell and feel, same safety profile, but more anti-oxidants from California poppy and protection against blue light.
Beautycounter is my favorite clean beauty brand. They actually has 4 sunscreen products, all are very good:
- Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Lotion (travel-size here): My family’s go-to sunscreen lotion. Can be used all over the body and face.
- Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Stick: Convenient face stick making it easy to apply on children, also suitable for re-application over makeup. Pocket-size that’s easy to carry around in the purse.
- Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Mist (travel-size here): Convenient mist sunscreen spray on white to guide the application, ensuring there is no spot missed.
- Dew Skin Moisturizing Coverage: I love this product for the summer months, combining moisturizer, tinted coverage and SPF. It’s perfect for busy moms, great for accidental sun, and gives the skin a dewy look.
Now being the nerd I am, I surely had to dig into all the details of these sunscreen products. Here are my honest review, findings, and considerations.
No more ghosty white face
This has to be the biggest differentiator of the Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Lotion to other safe mineral sunscreens! Mineral sunscreens are notorious for leaving white streaks and a white face, because they don’t spread very easily. I was pleasantly surprised by the innovation of Beautycounter’s sunscreen lotion. Besides, no safety measures were sacrificed: this sunscreen lotion contains non-nano zinc oxide as UV filter, and only clean ingredients otherwise.
I was pretty stoked to see my favourite sunscreen lotion won Allure’s Best of Beauty Awards 2018 in the organic and natural category. Allure describes it as: “Beautycounter Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30 protects with zinc oxide (the industry standard in nonchemical sun protection) and sinks in without leaving a chalky pallor (everyone else’s standard).”
Essential oil in the formulation: good or bad?
One of the reasons I really love my Beautycounter sunscreens is for the citrus essential oil scents. However, this is probably also the most controversial topic regarding Beautycounter’s sunscreens, given the rest of the ingredients are so clean.
You may have heard that some citrus essentials oil can cause photosensitivity. So I had to look into this whole deal. From what I learned, not all citrus essential oils cause photosensitivity, and also depends on the way they are produced, steam distilled vs. cold pressed. If the essential oils are steam distilled, they don’t cause photosensitivity. I was told that Beautycounter use steam distilled essential oils in the sunscreen formulation, but yet to be validated. If that indeed is the case, then there is no concerns here.
In addition, even those citrus essential oils associated with photosensitivity can be used safely with sun exposure if they are properly diluted. Beautycounter follows the guidelines for safe usage of essential oils by International Fragrance Association, who indeed has dilution standard for citrus essential oils. The essential oils in Beautycounter’s sunscreen products is at a very low level of less than 1%. Here is what Beautycounter says in a product document:
Lastly, the citrus essential oils are formulated in a sunscreen containing zinc oxide as a UV barrier, which means that UVA/UVB rays do not penetrate the skin, so there is little concerns for UV lights to act upon them.
After evaluating all my findings, I am personally comfortable using Beautycounter’s sunscreen products with citrus essential oils on myself and my kids, and feeling confident to recommend to others. I am super appreciative for how well thought-out and designed these products are.
Air-Powered Sunscreen Mist
This Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Mist was a Beauty Innovator Awards 2018 finalist. The following graph shows how the non aerosol technology works. Really cool, isn’t it!?
I totally did not expect Beautycounter to come up with a sunscreen mist to overcome the challenges of a mist product. I had to read the product documentation to be convinced that the Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Mist is such an innovation! The following is the explanation from Beautycounter:
I really love many Beautycounter’s products for their high quality and performance, while I feel confident in their safety to use the products on myself and my kids. Beautycounter has The Never List banning 1500+ harmful or questionable ingredients, and the most stringent screening and testing policy. Beautycounter is also a certified B-corporation (what’s B-Corp?). They are transparent about their practices; they empower consumers with information; and they advocate for better regulations at the government level.
You can check out my other related blog posts:
- Why I Joined Beautycounter: More Than Being a Consultant, It’s a Movement
- My Favourite Safer Skincare for Sensitive Dry Skin