I love spending time outside with my family. It’s a great way to reduce stress and, believe it or not, sunlight is good for you—in moderation and with the right protection. Your body needs vitamin D and spending 15 to 20 minutes outside each day—without sunscreen— is the best way to get it. That said, if you’re going to be outdoors for a longer period of time, it’s important to use safe sun protection, including non-toxic sunscreen products and natural sunscreen alternatives.
There are many kinds of sunscreen available and it may seem overwhelming to decide which one to buy. I’m going to break down what you need to know about sun exposure, sunscreen, cancer-causing ingredients in sunscreen, and the difference between natural sunscreen and organic sunscreen. I’ve included tips on how to shop for non-toxic sunscreen, plus the best natural sunscreen products available.
The next time you’re relaxing by the pool or enjoying a backyard barbecue, you can feel confident that you have your family’s sun protection needs covered!
Before we get too deep into different kinds of sunscreen and what to look for, I want to explain a few important sunscreen basics.
You can also learn more by reading the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) “8 Little-Known Facts About Sunscreen.”
Here are the sunscreen basics:
Exposure to sunshine helps your body make vitamin D, a key vitamin that your body needs. You can also get vitamin D from certain foods. Vitamin D found in food is a fat-soluble vitamin that is available in two forms: vitamin D2 and vitamin D3.
While spending some time each day outside without sun protection allows your body to absorb some sunshine, it is important to use sunscreen and other natural sunscreen alternatives if you will be outside longer than 15 to 20 minutes. 
The sun produces ultraviolet radiation in the form of two types of ultraviolet rays, known as UV rays. These are UVA rays and UVB rays. Both kinds of rays can impact skin aging, eye damage, and skin cancer. UVA rays are less intense than UVB rays, but they account for 95 percent of the sun’s radiation that reaches the earth and we are exposed to more of them over the course of a lifetime. UVA rays are the rays that cause tanning and they deeply penetrate the skin and play a role in skin aging.
If you’re a fan of tanning or visiting the tanning salon, take note: The sunlamps used in most tanning salons emit UVA rays that are 12 times as powerful as those emitted by the sun. People who use tanning beds are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma, two forms of skin cancer.
UVB rays generally affect the top layer of the skin, or epidermis, and are the rays that cause sunburn. These rays are integral in the development of skin cancer and they also play a role in photoaging (skin aging) due to UV light exposure. 
As you can see, protection against UVA and UVB rays is very important in helping to guard against skin cancer.
Sunscreen products will usually have an SPF label. SPF stands for “sun protection factor.” An SPF is how long it will take for UVB rays to redden the skin when using sunscreen. So, for example, if you use an SPF 20 sunscreen it will take 20 times longer for your skin to redden than if you didn’t use the sunscreen. To learn more about SPF and UVA/UVB rays, visit the Skin Cancer Foundation website.
Some products feature labels that claim broad-spectrum protection, multi-spectrum protection, or UVA/UVB protection. However, there is no standardization or consensus on the meanings of these terms, so these phrases serve as a marketing tool rather than as helpful information.
As of summer, 2019, there are 16 active ingredients approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in sunscreen products. Some of these ingredients are chemical and some are physical or mineral-based. UV filters in most sunscreens are chemical-based.
Most sunscreens combine chemical and physical ingredients. Physical sunscreen ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
However, it’s important to know that not all of these ingredients are necessarily safe and it’s a good idea to know which sunscreens to avoid. According to a report by the EWG, of all of these ingredients, the only two that the FDA can say for sure are safe are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. The others require further research. 
That said, I recommend avoiding titanium dioxide because, when inhaled, it is a carcinogen.
Many of the chemical sunscreen ingredients mimic hormones and can also cause allergic skin reactions. The most concerning of these ingredients is oxybenzone. Not only is this ingredient harmful, but it has also been shown to cause damage to coral reefs. Both the EWG and I recommend not using sunscreen products that contain oxybenzone. [4, 5]
Types of Sunscreen
There are a variety of different types of sunscreen available. These include not only conventional, natural, and organic options, but also different forms of application. There are a few basic types of sunscreen application available: 
- Creams: Often used on the face and have moisturizing properties.
- Lotions: Thinner and good for full-body coverage.
- Gel: Useful for hairy areas such as the chest.
- Stick: Good for applying sunscreen around the eyes.
- Sunscreen sprays: Easy to apply, but difficult to tell how much you’ve applied plus it can be a health-risk to inhale these sprays.
Some sunscreen products are also blended with insect repellent. Keep in mind that many if not most of these products are not non-toxic. I recommend using separate, non-toxic sunscreen (ideally natural and organic) and insect repellent products.
There are also some cosmetic skincare products that contain sunscreen, including makeup, moisturizers, and after-shave. Check the ingredients on these products first before applying them to your skin.
Natural Sunscreen Alternatives
In addition to wearing sunscreen, there are some key natural sunscreen alternatives you can use to help improve your body’s protection from UV rays. These include:
- Wear a hat and sunglasses, plus clothing made from sun-protective fabric.
- Stay in the shade.
- Be mindful of the time of day; only go outside in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky and the rays aren’t as intense.
- Watch how long you stay outside. If you will be outside for longer than 20 minutes, be sure to wear sunscreen and take other measures to protect your skin.
- Check the UV index to find out how strong the UV rays are. A low range of 0 to 2 is safe; anything above a 2 requires more protective measures.
How to Shop for Non-Toxic Sunscreen
Considering that so many conventional chemical sunscreens contain unsafe active ingredients you may be wondering, “Which sunscreens are safe?”
Just like shopping for food, it’s important to read the labels on sunscreen products and pay attention to the ingredients. You will be slathering this product all over your skin or your child’s skin, so you want to know what’s in it.
So, what are the bad ingredients in sunscreen?
Luckily, the Environmental Working Group provides more easy tips to keep in mind when comparing sunscreen products. This will help you to avoid harmful ingredients in sunscreen and find a non-toxic sunscreen to meet your needs. Below are their recommendations. [7, 8]
Avoid these sunscreen ingredients:
Octinoxate (Octyl methoxycinnamate)
Vitamin A (may also be listed as retinol or retinyl palmitate)
Instead, look for these safer sunscreen ingredients with low toxicity:
3 percent avobenzone (note the low percentage)
So, which sunscreens are chemical free? Find out more in the next section!
What Is a Natural Sunscreen?
A natural sunscreen product is one that is a chemical-free sunscreen. A word of caution when shopping for natural sunscreens: The term “natural” is not regulated so, as always, be sure to check the product ingredients. Also, note that a natural sunscreen may not necessarily be organic.
If you have sensitive skin and are susceptible to allergic reactions caused by conventional sunscreens, a natural hypoallergenic sunscreen may be for you. You may also want to find a product that is fragrance-free if you are sensitive to chemical fragrances. To be honest, I recommend avoiding chemical fragrances regardless.
Mineral sunscreens that contain zinc oxide are natural sunscreens.
Other natural sunscreen ingredients may include shea butter, sunflower oil, vitamin E, coconut oil, or carrot seed oil for skin moisturizing and anti-aging effects.
If you’re sensitive to chemical fragrance, or you would just like a naturally scented sunscreen, some natural sunscreen products also contain lavender essential oil.
Opting for a natural sunscreen can help ensure that you are purchasing a non-toxic sunscreen.
6 Best Natural Sunscreens
Ideal non-toxic sunscreen products are mineral-based and made with organic ingredients. Below I have put together a list of the best natural and best organic sunscreen products as of summer, 2019.
Best Sport Sunscreen
Badger Clear Sport 40
Best Natural Sunscreen for Babies
(Note: Check with your healthcare provider before applying sunscreen to babies under 6 months old.)
Badger Baby Broad Spectrum SPF 30 (98 percent organic ingredients)
Best Sunscreen Stick
Babo Sport Stick, by Babo Botanicals (good for kids)
Best Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin
Alba Botanica Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen 35 (also fragrance-free)
Best All-Natural Sunscreen for General Use
Goddess Garden Everyday Natural Lotion SPF 30
Badger Certified Natural Broad Spectrum Sunscreen, SPF 30
- Getting outside for about 15 minutes each day without sun protection is key to helping your body produce vitamin D. However, if you will be outside for more than 15 to 20 minutes, take precautions to protect your skin and eyes from UV rays.
- Most sunscreens contain a combination of chemical and physical, or mineral, ingredients.
- Avoid sunscreen products that contain oxybenzone.
- Zinc oxide is a sunscreen ingredient that the FDA considers safe and not requiring further research, and one I support.
- A natural, organic sunscreen that is mineral-based is the ideal form of non-toxic sunscreen protection.
- For adequate protection, it’s also important to incorporate natural sunscreen alternatives such as wearing a hat and limiting time outdoors in addition to wearing sunscreen.
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