What’s The Deal With ‘Natural’ Sunscreen?

This is no time for a DIY project.
Must shoppers probably don't have any idea what natural sunscreen is in the first place.
paultarasenko via Getty Images
Must shoppers probably don't have any idea what natural sunscreen is in the first place.

What's your number one priority when shopping for sunscreen? According to Consumer Reports, nearly half of shoppers seek out a "natural" sun protection product when deciding what to buy. Some people are even making their own.

But do customers know what "natural" means in the first place? Probably not.

There's a lot of confusion surrounding sunscreens' active ingredients, and even more confusion about which sunscreens are effective and which aren't. "'Natural sunscreen' is not a term that dermatologists use," Dr. Janellen Smith, a dermatologist at UC Irvine Health, told The Huffington Post.

In general, there are no legal standards for the term "natural" as it applies to personal care products. Sunscreens labeled natural are typically mineral-based, containing active ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide that physically deflect or scatter the sun's UV rays. (Of course, these minerals are processed into compounds not found in nature before they're put into the sunscreens, making "natural" a bit of a stretch.)

Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, contain ingredients like avobenzone, ecamsule, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, octyl methoxycinnamate, octyl salicylate and oxybenzone, which absorb the sun's rays and transform them into less damaging low-energy waves.

'Natural' sunscreen has some drawbacks

'Natural' sunscreen works, but only if you use it the right way. The problem with mineral sunscreens is that people tend use them incorrectly -- primarily because they don't use enough -- which makes users more vulnerable to sun damage.

"Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are often thick, white, and goopy compared to chemical sunscreens," Dr. Lauren Ploch, a dermatologist with a private practice in Augusta, Georgia, told The Huffington Post. "People often prefer the 'feel' of chemical sunscreens."

"It will also be less desirable, due to its consistency, so people will tend to put on less rather than more," Smith explained. And of course, less sunscreen means less protection from the sun's harmful rays. The more zinc oxide you put on your skin, the more sun protection you'll have.

“Only 26 percent of natural sunscreens lived up to their SPF claims. In comparison, 58 percent of chemical sunscreens lived up to their SPF claims.”

- Consumer Reports analysis of four years of sunscreen testing data

What's more, a Consumer Reports investigation that analyzed four years of sunscreen testing data found that only 26 percent of natural sunscreens lived up to their SPF claims. In comparison, 58 percent of chemical sunscreens lived up to their SPF claims.

The real danger isn't sunscreen chemicals

While there have been lots of scary news stories linking the ingredients in chemical sunscreens to cancer or hormone disruption, both Smith and Ploch stress that any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen.

"More research needs to be done to assess the safety of these chemical sunscreens," Ploch said. "We do know that skin cancer can be fatal."

Indeed, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with 67,753 cases of melanoma of the skin diagnosed every year.

How to find the best sunscreen for you

Smith recommends looking for a sunscreen labeled "broad spectrum," which means it protects the skin from the sun's harmful UVA and UVB rays.

UVA rays prematurely age your skin and can cause wrinkles and sun spots, according to the Mayo Clinic. UVB rays burn your skin, and both can cause skin cancer over time.

Sunscreen should have an SPF, which stands for sun protection factor, of 30 or greater, and should be water resistant for 40 or 80 minutes of activity. (Once you leave the water, you should reapply.)

How to choose your SPF

While the American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, Smith tells her melanoma patients to use an even higher SPF.

"I tell them the higher the better," she said. "I also tell everyone to remember to reapply it every two hours."

Ploch prefers physical sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to the chemical variety, because when used correctly, zinc oxide provides good protection to UVA and UVB rays and is hypoallergenic.

She also preferred lotions and creams to aerosol. For one thing, she points out there's no way to tell how much sunscreen you're applying with a spray formula. For another, the spray can be breathed in accidentally. "I do not recommend inhaling any sunscreen ingredient through a spray or aerosol product," she warned.

Smith is more of a pragmatist.

"Find a sunscreen that you actually like putting on your skin," she recommended. "There is nothing worse than a bottle of sunscreen sitting on your shelf that makes you cringe every time you think of putting it on."

Whatever you do, don't make your own

Homemade sunscreen recipes may seem healthy, but it's hard to say whether they'll be effective.

"There are a number of recipes online for natural sunscreens, but this worries me," Smith said. "They have not been tested for their sun protection factor."

The bottom line: Please use sunscreen. Always. Every day. No exceptions.

"It is quite clear now that sunscreens play a major role in protecting people from the ravages of skin cancer," Smith said. "Even if you chose to avoid certain ingredients, there is a sunscreen for you out there, so use it."

And remember: Sunscreen shouldn't be the only tool in your sun-protection arsenal. You should:

  • Actively stay out of the sun during peak hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Seek shade when possible.
  • Wear sun-protective clothing.
  • Protect easily forgotten areas (scalp, ears, eyelids, lips and tops of feet).
  • Visit a board-certified dermatologist for yearly skin checkups.
  • Never, ever go near a tanning bed (but you knew that).
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