Choosing a Safe Sunscreen
With so many options, how do you choose the best, safest sunscreen for your travels and everyday life?
BJ & I are not picky about a lot of things—you really can’t be, living on the road for the better part of a decade! The one thing we are vigilant about, though, is safe sunscreen–safe for us, safe for others, safe for animals & the planet. With over a decade of experience in the natural bodycare world, I would love to share my sunscreen insights with you.
The takeaway: Use mineral-based sunscreens in lotion (not spray) form.
You’ll know they are mineral-based because the active ingredients will only be zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. Read below to find out why this is important and to get our personal recommendations.
Sunscreens can work in one of two ways: they can provide an actual physical barrier (like mineral sunscreens do) by reflecting UV rays, or they provide a chemical barrier by soaking into your skin, absorbing UV rays, converting the rays into heat, and releasing them from the body. We’re not trying to scare you with the word “chemical,” but there are actual downsides to using these particular ingredients.
Consider this from the Environmental Working Group (EWG):
The ingredients oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and avobenzone are all systemically absorbed into the body after one use, according to studies published by the FDA, which also found that they could be detected on the skin and in the blood weeks after no longer being used. Previous studies detected many sunscreen ingredients in breast milk and urine samples. In addition, it’s possible for sunscreen users to inhale ingredients in sunscreen sprays and ingest some of the ingredients they apply to their lips, so the ingredients must not be harmful to the lungs or internal organs.
You can read more about the dangers of these ingredients on the EWG site.
Octocrylene, in particular, has been under scrutiny lately as it can break down into a carcinogen in the body.
The Safety of Others
This is where we humbly request that our guests not bring spray or aerosol sunscreen on their journey. As we may be reapplying in close quarters (in a safari vehicle or on a boat excursion), we want to keep all of our guests (including you!) safe. In addition to potential inhalation issues, we want to protect the well-being of our scent-sensitive guests, guides, and drivers.
Again from the EWG:
Sunscreen sprays pose an inhalation risk and may not coat the skin enough to ensure proper protection. The number of sunscreen sprays on the U.S. market has been increasing, and more than a quarter of the sunscreens in this year’s guide are in spray form.
The FDA proposed that all spray and powdered sunscreens be tested to ensure they cannot be inhaled deep into the lungs, where they could do irreversible damage. In pilot testing, the agency found that three of 14 sprays would not meet its proposed standard but did not say which products consumers should avoid. EWG recommends that consumers avoid all spray and powder sunscreen products.
Safety for Animals & the Planet
It is crucial to use non-toxic sunscreen, particularly on an ocean adventure like in the Galapagos. Many beach destinations have banned certain chemical sunscreen ingredients out of concern for the local environment, as the smallest amounts have been known to contribute to the death of coral reefs.
“Corals would normally bleach when the temperatures are above 31 Celsius [81.7 Fahrenheit] so it’s really warm water,” says Dr. Craig A. Downs, Ph.D., executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory “[Oxybenzone] will cause corals to bleach at 78 degrees, and that’s non-bleaching temperature.” (Source)
The following passage from a Travel & Leisure article is also quite jarring:
In 2015, it was estimated that around 14,000 tons of sunscreen are ending up in the world’s coral reefs per year and causing irreparable damage….
And it turns out that we aren’t just seeing the devastating damage in our oceans, but tasting it, as well. While Dr. Downs was on a working visit at the Bahamas, he was talking to a government employee at dinner who shared how much he liked the coconut flavor of the local fish they were dining on.
“We asked the chef what kind of seasoning he put in it, and he said, ‘just salt.’ The coconut was some recombinant fragrance of sunscreen. That is a chemical fragrance. It’s a nasty, long-lasting fragrance that will accumulate in organisms and so we were tasting it in the fish,” Dr. Downs explained.
It’s still important to use non-toxic sunscreens even if your vacation is inland! Your sunscreen doesn’t magically disappear at the end of the day–your shower introduces it into environment:
“When you leave the beach and suds up at home, whatever’s washing down the drain will end up in the water, too. This is because water treatment plants don’t filter out the chemicals or microplastics found in our personal care products.” (Source)
How do I choose a mineral sunscreen?
First things first: think of sunscreen as a last resort, Make sure you’re wearing protective clothing (long sleeves, even a rashguard or swim shirt when swimming), a hat, or even using a parasol or umbrella for sun protection. (Seriously, y’all, we have to normalize the use of parasols in the U.S.–are you in?) However, we know there are still times when we still need sunscreen.
The term “reef-safe” or “reef-friendly” is not regulated, so don’t believe everything you read on the front of the label. Heck, there is a brand literally called “Reef Safe” that is not, in fact, reef safe.
The easiest thing to do is to make sure the active ingredients are zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, and that’s it. If you want to make sure you’re doing the best you can for yourself and the environment, the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory specifically advises avoiding these ingredients:
- 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
- Any nanoparticles or “nano-sized” zinc or titanium (if it doesn’t explicitly say “micro-sized” or “non-nano” and it can rub in, it’s probably nano-sized)
- Any form of microplastic, such as “exfoliating beads”
Sunscreens We Personally Recommend
- Australian Gold Botanical Line (30 or 50 SPF) (Also sold at Target)
- Thinksport sunscreen
- Reef Repair sunscreen
- Badger Clear Zinc (also available in a tin if you are avoiding plastic!)
- Banana Boat Simply Protect (“Kids” products can often have ‘cleaner’ ingredients)
Daily Use (Face)
- Bare Republic Mineral Sunscreen (Matte finish)
- ACURE Radically Rejuvenating SPF 30 Day Cream
- Mychelle “Sun Shield”
And, of course, don’t forget your mineral sunscreen lip balm!
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