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Safe Sunscreen Guide
- All Good/ 2. Kabana/ 3. California Baby/ 4. Goddess Garden/ 5. Think/ 6. Poofy Organics/ 7. Beautycounter/ 8. Badger/ 9. Babo Botanicals
The overzealous use of sunscreen on kids has likely contributed to the widespread vitamin D deficiencies we see in children — linked to cancer, depression, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and obesity.
I believe we should let our kids (and ourselves) experience small amounts of sunlight on our bare skin. But of course there are many times when we need to use sunscreen to prevent burns (or, in my case, to prevent aging skin!).
Is Sunscreen Toxic?
Conventional sunscreen is loaded with chemicals, including parabens, well-established carcinogens, and oxybenzone, an endocrine disruptor that may generate free radicals when exposed to ultraviolet light.
Some researchers even suspect oxybenzone to be the hidden cause of the increase in melanoma, although most studies have found no such link. Still, add this potential risk to the risk of vitamin D deficiencies, and standard sun safety doesn’t feel so safe.
Note: These days, almost all sunscreen is free of PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid), and so this once ubiquitous—and possibly carcinogenic—sunblock ingredient is no longer a concern.
Chemical Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid
I encourage you to choose sunscreens that use only mineral ingredients (more on these below), but if you need an entirely clear option, you should know that not all chemical sunscreens are equally bad. Here is a run-down of most common:
⚠️ Avobenzone is Okay Stuff, and the best of chemical sunscreen options. If you choose to use a chemical sunscreen, choose one with avobenzone as the primary active ingredient.
⚠️Octisalate and octocrylene are also both Okay Stuff, without major health concerns, but slightly worse than avobenzone.
❌ Oxybenzone is the really bad ingredient; it causes cellular damage and endocrine disruption. The good news: even Coppertone is free of oxybenzone now! That’s thanks to consumer demand–way to go, you guys!
❌Homosalate is also very Bad Stuff. The European Commission proposes a concentration limit of 1.4 percent for homosalate. U.S. sunscreens are currently allowed to have up to 15% homosalate. Avoid any sun protection product that has this in it.
It’s worth noting that ALL of these ingredients are absorbed into the body after one use, and can still be detected in the blood weeks after their use, according to studies published by the FDA.
Babo’s spray sunscreen has been a total game-changer for my family, since my kids hate having creams applied. And it’s in a non-aerosol can, and contains nothing concerning.
Safer Natural Sunscreen…Maybe
It was long-believed that the safest way to avoid sunburn was to use a natural sunscreen that contains “barrier” ingredients, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
Because the application of such ingredients leaves skin with a telltale white sheen, nanoparticles (i.e. teeny microscopic particles) of each are typically used in sunscreen.
Recent research, however, calls into question the safety of these ingredients, as nanoparticles are small enough to penetrate cell membranes (normally, our cells recognize foreign material as an invader and block it out).
Most “aloe” gels contain very little, if any, actual aloe vera. This one does, and it offers a soothing solution for sun-exposed skin.
What’s Bigger Than a Nano?
Instead of nanoparticles, some natural sunscreen producers use “micronized” particles — basically, these are just slightly larger than nanoparticles, but still tiny.
To be exact, a nanoparticle is less than 100 nanometers in diameter, so micronized zinc oxide or titanium dioxide must be larger than this.
A particle must be 50 nanometers or less to penetrate a cell membrane, by the way. Theoretically, micronized particles should be safe, although at this point you’re probably feeling skittish about all sunscreen!
Sensible Sunburn Protection
Given all the confusing information on sun safety, as well as sunscreen safety, the ideal scenario would be something like this:
Take your child outside each day for ten or fifteen minutes, and then seek shade. This way, you’ve prevented vitamin D deficiencies as well as sunburn. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, and fortunately there are several brands of sunscreen that you can feel good about using. (More on these below.)
From hats to full body suits, I like Imse Vimse’s line of non-toxic SPF 50 clothing.
Bottom Line on Natural Sunscreen
We sell natural sunscreen in our online store, but I still tell my private clients to let their kids get some sun! Of course I’m not a pediatrician, and you should talk to your own about this — but I think it’s unnecessary and potentially harmful to keep children slathered in sunscreen year-round — even if it’s safe, natural sunscreen.
For what it’s worth, my kids are super pale, go outside daily, never wear sunscreen unless we are at the beach or outside all day, and don’t seem to get sunburns. Their grandfather is black, though, so maybe those genes help even if they didn’t present themselves in any obvious way!
(Read more about natural sunscreen in our blog post on nanoparticles of zinc oxide and melanoma.)
Okay, I’m done preaching. Here’s some info on the Good Stuff when it comes to natural sunscreen (plus the Bad and the Sneaky Stuff).
The Good Stuff: Mineral Sunscreen
I haven’t tried this brand myself, so I cannot speak to how easily it goes on or how well it works – but the ingredients are all safe.
I’m partial to All Good’s spray version, but their sport sunscreen is great because it offers 80 minutes of water resistance. Both versions use non-nano zinc oxide to block the sun, and contain no other ingredients of concern. Many of the ingredients are organic in All Good, so bonus points for that!
Babo’s SPF 30 Clear Zinc Sunscreen Lotion uses non-nano, non-micronized, and more-or-less clear zinc oxide (meaning less white sheen).
NEW for Spring 2016: Babo now also makes a spray-on, 100% zinc sunscreen, which does not contain sodium benzoate.
Unlike their lotion, Babo’s SPF 30 Sportstick does NOT contain sodium benzoate. It also utilizes non-nano, non-micronized, clear zinc, and is perfect for lips, ears, faces, and babies. I find myself using it on arms and legs, too, as it is the least white of all the Good Stuff.
California Baby sunscreens contain more synthetic ingredients than most of the other Good Stuff on our list. Still, CA Baby contains just titanium dioxide rather than chemical sunscreen ingredients, and overall I consider it a safe option.
Made Of’s Broad Spectrum Sunscreen uses non-nano zinc oxide instead of chemical sunscreen ingredients. What sets this brand apart is that Made Of tests their products for contamination with heavy metals, parabens, microbes, and more.
For those of you who LOVE Green Goo like I do, here’s another product from one of the country’s oldest herbalists. Solar Goo’s simple recipe includes just seven organic ingredients – including soothing calendula flowers to condition the skin.
Solar Goo goes on relatively clear thanks to a generous infusion of coconut oil. I use this on my face, and it’s also great for small babies.
Badger makes a range of sunscreens, all of which are mineral-based and without any Bad Stuff. I am in particular a fan of their formula for kids in SPF 40, but Badger is one of those brand where you can shop their entire line (sunscreen and otherwise) without any concern.
This is definitely the very best stuff, from a safety perspective.
Kabana’s Green Screen uses non-nano, non-micronized zinc oxide (so yes, it goes on a bit white). While the sunscreen itself may not be totally transparent, Kabana certainly is — they list the actual size of their zinc oxide particles right on their website, and I’ve had a number of great conversations with Kabana’s founder, Erik (he’s surprisingly accessible and obviously sincerely devoted to his mission of producing safe, green skincare).
Kabana Green Screen is available in SPF 20 or SPF 35, and the latter even contains vitamin D to combat what you’ll lose by using sunscreen. I sort of like using a sunscreen that goes on white, too. I wrote about why in a blog post last summer.
I was sent a sample of this sunscreen years ago, and I gave it to my friend, Elleni, who was a new mom. She loved it and has remained loyal to the brand. While it’s very greasy, she said she prefers that over a sticky, chalky zinc-based formula.
While normally I am not a fan of anything you spray on (because of course then you’re inhaling the ingredients), the contents of Goddess Garden are safe enough that I feel comfortable recommending this sunscreen. However, it gets a 3 on Skin Deep, which is higher than most of the products I recommend. Goddess Garden uses micronized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in its formulas. Update: Now Babo and All Good make safe spray sunscreens, I would choose those over Goddess Garden.
Beautycounter’s sun protection products includes a lot of ingredients, including phenoxyethanol (the stick sunscreen does not contain phenoxyethanol). Overall, as is the case with many Beautycounter products, these sunscreens seem safe to me, but they do contain more ingredients than some of the other brands recommended here. On product that I am obsessed with it Beautycounter’s facial sunscreen lotion — I have been using this for years and have not found anything that comes close in terms of performance. There is zero white sheen to this, and it feels legitimately moisturizing instead of chalky.
Thinkbaby sunscreen is a top brand in EWG’s datatbase; it doesn’t contain synthetic sun-blocking ingredients, parabens, phthalates, or anything else toxic.
Note: Choosing a lower SPF sunscreen, while increasing the risk of sunburn, may combat vitamin D deficiencies, as will delaying application for ten minutes or so after going outside.
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The Bad Stuff
Almost all conventional baby sunscreens should be avoided, but below are some of the very worst.
Even the fragrance-free version of Huggies Little Swimmers is toxic, containing a host of parabens; the ones with the higher SPFs are especially bad (and are more likely to contribute to vitamin D deficiencies if overused).
Stay away from all varieties of Coppertone–it has homosalate and synthetic fragrance.
The generic baby sunblocks by Walgreens and CVS also contain parabens, as do those made by No-Ad.
La Roche-Posay sunscreen has a lot of fans — many of you have asked about this one. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of the ingredients–lots of synthetics, including PEG chemicals and four kinds of chemical sunscreens.
Rite Aid’s private label sunscreen has retinyl palmitate (linked to cancer) and the aforementioned endocrine disruptor oxybenzone.
Retinyl palmitate is also found in most of Neutrogena’s sunscreen formulations (which also contain synthetic fragrance—AKA phthalates—and oxybenzone). In addition, Neutrogena’s sunscreen was recalled after it was found to be contaminated with carcinogenic benzene.
The Sneaky Stuff
Alba Botanica’s spray sunscreen smells so good, but contains chemical sunblock ingredients, including avobenzone.
Blue Lizard contains chemical sunscreen ingredients in addition to zinc oxide. It also contains PEG chemicals, among other ingredients I don’t love.
Avalon Organics Baby was the first brand of sunscreen I used on Felix (we went to Mexico when he was six months old, and I was definitely worried about sunburn there). Now that I’ve exhaustively researched all sunscreen ingredients, I know that while “no parabens” is great, nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and neurotoxic benzyl alcohol are not.
EWG gives BabyGanics Cover-Up Baby Sunscreen the low score of a 2. This is surprising since the product is loaded with bad ingredients such as octinoxate, phenoxyethanol, polysorbate-60, and lauryl PEG/PPG-18/18 methicone. BabyGanics Mineral Sunscreen Stick is a good bet, although it still contains a few ingredients of low concern, and probably utilizes micronized particles of zinc oxide and titanium oxide since it only specifies that it’s non-nano.
Aveeno has done a brilliant job marketing itself as natural. Unfortunately, most of their sunscreens contain oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate, and synthetic fragrance blends (often made up of dozens of chemicals). Aveeno sunscreen was also recalled after it was found to be contaminated with carcinogenic benzene in this study.
Raw Elements sunscreen is contaminated with carcinogenic benzene, per a 2021 study.
Seventh Generation Wee Baby Sunscreen contains nanoparticles of zinc oxide.
Sun Bum was found to be contaminated with benzene, an established carcinogen.
Kiss My Face makes a range of sunscreens, and some are better than others. The worst of them (such as the aerosol versions) contain chemical sunblockers like endocrine-disrupting octinoxate. Even their mineral formulas contain phenoxyethanol.
Not only does Supergoop! sunscreen contain chemical sun-blocking agents – even in their “mineral” formulas – but it also contains sketchy preservatives like BHT.
You know I love me some TJ’s, but Trader Joe’s spray sunscreen is total Sneaky Stuff. It contains 15% homosalate, one of the worst chemical sunscreen ingredients.
Whole Foods spray sunscreen is really more Okay Stuff than Sneaky; all three of the chemical sunscreens it contains are of relatively low concern, but only pure mineral sunscreens are making it into our Good Stuff list.
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