Safe Sunscreen

Which Type is Best for You?

Spring in in full swing! Consistently warmer weather means we’ll all be spending more and more time outdoors, which means more and more time spent in the sun. This also means we’ll be slathering on more and more sunscreen to protect our skin from sunburns and premature aging, and to prevent skin cancer. But, not all sunscreens are created equal, and because we’re using a lot of it to keep our skin healthy, we don’t want it to also come with harmful side effects. While dermatologists agree that the best sunscreen is a sunscreen you will actually use, here are some tips to understand what types of sunscreen are considered the safest, and which type is best for you.

Types of Sunscreen

Sunscreen falls into two categories: Chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreen is absorbed by the skin and then absorbs UV rays. It turns them into heat, then releases them from the body. Chemical sunscreens are easier to rub into the skin and do not leave a white residue. Common chemical sunscreen ingredients are avobenzone, octinoxate, oxybenzone, homosalate and octisalate. Physical sunscreen sits on top of the skin and physically prevents the sun’s UV rays from penetrating the skin. Main ingredients are the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, and while they can be visible as a white or opaque layer on the skin, newer formulations are lighter, less chalky and easier to spread.

What is “Broad-Spectrum” or “Full-Spectrum” Sunscreen?

The sun emits two types of ultraviolet light that can damage your skin: UVA, or long wavelength, which penetrates deep into the skin and causes premature aging, and UVB, or short wavelength, which penetrates the surface of the skin and causes sunburn. The best sunscreens, labeled as “broad-spectrum” or “full-spectrum,” protect the skin from both types of UV light.

What is “Reef-Safe” or “Reef-Friendly” Sunscreen?

Reef-safe sunscreen contains no chemicals or other particles that are known to harm coral reefs. Ingredients like octinoxate, oxybenzone, and octocrylene have been shown to damage and potentially kill coral reefs. Mineral sunscreens, which are made from larger particles than chemical sunscreens, are generally more reef-safe, as the particles are too large to be absorbed by the ocean’s flora.

The FDA’s Stance on Safe Sunscreen

A proposed order issued by the Food and Drug Administration in September 2021 proposed GRASE status – generally recognized as safe and effective - for sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Sunscreens containing aminobenzoic acid and trolamine salicylate were not granted GRASE status because of data showing safety issues. Sunscreens containing cinoxate, dioxybenzone, ensulizole, homosalate, meradimate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, padimate O, sulisobenzone, oxybenzone, and avobenzone were also not granted GRASE status because of inadequate data to support a safety finding. The FDA has call for more research on these chemical ingredients.

Why Are Mineral Sunscreens Considered Safe?

The FDA has currently only granted GRASE status to two sunscreen ingredients, both of which are mineral ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Because mineral sunscreens are not actually absorbed by the skin, and because they don’t contain harsh, synthetic chemicals, they are less likely to cause allergic reactions. And because mineral sunscreen does not sink into pores and clog them, it is better for acne-prone skin. The sun’s rays actually bounce off these types of sunscreens, which also makes them better for those with heat-activated skin conditions like eczema, rosacea and melasma.

Why Are Some Chemical Sunscreens Considered Unsafe?

Chemical sunscreens are absorbed by the skin and can cause a wide variety of issues, from mild skin irritation to more serious issues such as the disruption of the endocrine system, which regulates our hormone production. Some chemical sunscreens also pose risks to developing fetuses when pregnant women are exposed. Research has shown that sunscreen ingredients that can cause health concerns are absorbed into the body after just one use, and can be detected in the blood weeks after use. For some perspective, the European Commission, which regulates sunscreen like other cosmetic products, established safe concentration limits at 2.2 percent for oxybenzone and 1.4 percent for homosalate. In the United States, concentrations of up to 6 and 15 percent, respectively, are currently legal, which far exceeds the European Commission’s recommendations for safe concentrations.

A Few Words on Oxybenzone

While more research is needed on many chemical sunscreen ingredients, oxybenzone, which is found in many sunscreen brands, has been shown to disrupt hormones, especially in children, and cause skin reactions. It has also been banned by many tourist destinations – like Hawaii - because it can bleach and damage coral reefs.

Learn About the Ingredients in Your Sunscreen

The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit advocacy group, publishes a yearly guide to sunscreens and their ingredients with up-to-date research on their safety and efficacy. Visit the EWG’s website for information on the best and safest sunscreens for adults and children, for daily use or use during sporting activities.