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Have fun in the sun without putting chemicals on your skin, which may harm the environment and your body, by choosing natural sunscreens that rely on mineral and plant-based ingredients rather than chemicals.

What to look for when choosing natural sunscreen

  1. Choose sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as active ingredients: The active ingredients in sunscreens are either chemical- or mineral-based. The mineral sunscreens, which contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, offer broad-spectrum effectiveness, they don’t break down easily in the sun, are well tolerated by skin, and cause few allergic reactions. They’re often contained in sunscreens formulated for babies and are found in most of the Environmental Working Group’s top safe and effective sunscreen picks. They do have some controversies of their own, but the GreenYour natural sunscreen picks contain mineral instead of chemical active ingredients.
  2. Avoid health-endangering chemical ingredients: Though the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the government agency that reviews and monitors sunscreens (they are classified as over-the-counter drugs), has approved 15 chemical sunscreen ingredients, unease about several has surfaced in the past few years. Here are some ingredients you may want to avoid:
    • Benzophenone-3, also known as Oxybenzone: Concerns over this chemical sunscreen ingredient peaked recently when a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which analyzed urine samples from more than 2,500 people ages 6 and older, found the chemical in 96.8 percent of the samples. Environmental Working Group calculated that nearly 600 sunscreens sold in the US contain oxybenzone, which has been linked to skin irritation and allergies. Studies on cells and laboratory animals also show that it may cause hormone disruption. A review done by the European Union in 2006 found there wasn’t sufficient data available to access oxybenzone’s safety in sunscreens.
    • Octinoxate, also called Octyl-methoxycinnamate: Has shown estrogenic effects in test tube experiments. Environmental Working Group contends that similar effects were demonstrated with laboratory animals at concentrations of octyl-methoxycinnamate close to those experienced by sunscreen users.
    • Homosalate: Has shown estrogenic effects in test tube experiments.
    • PABA, Padimate-O, also called octyl dimethyl PABA: A derivative of this once very popular ingredient has the potential to damage DNA, may have estrogenic activity, and can cause allergic reactions in some people. Luckily, it’s not in many sun care products.
  3. Go organic: Because the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) spends only a tiny portion of its budget investigating the chemical composition and toxins in skin care products, sunscreens can tout their use of organic ingredients and still have up to 30 percent synthetic materials, even the ones labeled "organic" or "made with organic ingredients." USDA OrganicThe only way to be sure that the product you are purchasing is, in fact, organic is to look for the USDA Organic Seal on the label. This seal guarantees that every ingredient is organically produced as defined by the National Organics Standards Board, which bans the use of harmful pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetic engineering.
  4. Look for sunscreens that do not contain animal fats or employ animal testing: While you're contemplating green attributes, you may also wish to join the cruelty-free movement. Just keep in mind: a company may claim that they don’t employ animal testing for their products, but without third-party verification, it’s hard to know whether these statements are in fact completely true. Leaping BunnySo stick to those products certified as cruelty-free by looking for products with the Leaping Bunny Logo or the Certified Vegan Logo. You can rest assured that no bunnies (or monkeys or cats for that matter) were harmed in the making of these non-animal-tested products.

Find it! Natural sunscreens

Check out these natural sunscreens containing plant-based compounds and mineral active ingredients.

Before you buy

Keep in mind that if you choose a natural sunscreen concocted with green ingredients instead of an easy-to-find variety, you'll likely be confronted with a higher price tag as chemicals generally come cheaper than botanical, organic-certified ingredients. For example, an 8-ounce bottle of Banana Boat Sunblock Lotion SPF 30 costs just $7.78 while a 2.9-ounce bottle of California Baby SPF 30+ Sunscreen, No Fragrance will set you back $17.99.

Choosing natural sunscreen helps you go green because…

  • They use water- and plant-based ingredients in lieu of combinations of chemicals that are harmful to the environment and may pose various health risks. Aside from the active ingredients listed above, sunscreens can contain DEA, parabens, artificial fragrances, and other potentially harmful chemicals.
  • Many makers of natural sunscreens also follow green business practices, such as using recycled packaging and supporting organic agriculture.

Controversies

Organic labeling

The personal care industry is in turmoil trying to agree upon a set of standards for organic labeling of personal care products. While the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains clearcut standards for organic food, the same can’t be said for body care products. Some companies use the USDA certified organic food standard, which requires 95 percent of the ingredients to be organic. Others use the less stringent California state standard for organic cosmetic products, which requires at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients. And still others label their products organic without meeting any external criterion. Fortunately, the guidelines for labeling a soap as "100% Organic" are strict. Products carrying this label maus contain all organic ingredients.

To clear up this confusion, a nonprofit standard-setting group called NSF International has released a draft set of rules for organic personal care products and a group of 30 cosmetic companies recently devised their own set of specifications called Organic and Sustainable Industry Standards (OASIS). How it all washes out remains to be seen.

Nanoparticles

Mineral sunscreens have a tendency to leave a white sheen on the skin when applied. To avoid this, many manufacturers are making their sunscreens rub on more transparently by downsizing the sunscreen particles through nanotechnology. Nano size is anything measuring less than 100 nanometers (nm). A human hair is about 80,000 nm thick and a pinhead measures around 1 million nm across.[1] You’ll often see the term “micronized” used on sunscreen bottles. Because the FDA hasn’t defined micronized, it may mean nanoparticles and it may not. Nanometers equal one billionth of a meter while microns are one millionth of a meter, so 1,000 nm equals 1 micron.[2]

Some say that nanomaterials produce free radicals and can cause DNA damage to human skin cells, while others assert there is little or no penetration of unbroken skin by these compounds. Even reports by two eco-advocacy groups, Friends of the Earth and Environmental Working Group, arrived at different recommendations about nanoparticles in sunscreens. Another unknown: potential damage to the environment from nanomaterials.

Titanium's toll on the environment

Titanium dioxide is extracted from open mines, some in Georgia and Florida, and a chlorine-based process that releases carcinogenic dioxins into the atmosphere is used to process the titanium dioxide. Waste from this process produces large amounts of dioxin and related compounds. Dioxins are very toxic and posses longevity in the environment. They can accumulate in animals and people and have been found in shellfish in St. Louis Bay, Mississippi, close to a titanium dioxide refinery.

Zinc mining has its eco-impacts too, as evidenced in northwest Alaska at Red Dog Mine, the world’s largest zinc mine. The National Park Service released a study in 2001 showing high levels of lead, zinc, and cadmium in moss and soil along trucking roads. A brand new study done by scientists hired by the mine confirms that mosses, lichens, and perhaps ptarmigan birds have been harmed from the mining dust. A debate is on now as to whether there are health effects to people who eat caribou and other animals who move through the mining area.

Recent research has revealed that the oceans’ fragile coral may be taking some hits from sunscreen as well. A study performed at Italy's Polytechnic University of Marche found that four common sunscreen ingredients can stimulate dormant viruses in the symbiotic algae that live inside coral, causing the coral to die. Worldwide, an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen washes off those that venture into oceans and the researchers postulate that amount could imperil up to 10 percent of coral reefs.[3]

Glossary

  • DEA: Diethanolamine (also related to the additives TEA and MEA) is a suspected carcinogen, used as an emulsifier or foaming agent.[4]
  • parabens: The paraben family of preservatives (which includes methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, and butyl-parabens) can affect the endocrine system, which produces the body's hormones.[4]

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