How do I Choose a Good Natural Sunscreen?

How do I Choose a Good Natural Sunscreen?

asian girl with red lipstick holding hand up to the sun with closed eyes

With an increased awareness of the effects of long-term sun exposure and UV damage to the skin the search for a good sunscreen has jumped dramatically in the last two decades. Thousands of sunscreen products are available in Canada; from daily anti-aging moisturizers to SPF 100+ water-proof aerosol sprays. But how many of us know how a sunscreen works? And why should we care?

Sunscreen is a product that you can apply to your skin and it will either absorb UV (ultra-violet) radiation or reflect it. Sunscreen products that absorb UV radiation are called Chemical Absorbers. Sunscreen products that reflect UV radiation are called Physical Filters or Mineral Sunblock.

graphic of chemical vs physical sunscreens

Image from Miiko Skin Co Summer Zinc Cream Guidebook [Click here for free download]

Sunscreen ingredients that absorb UV radiation must do so inside your skin's tissue, while sunscreen ingredients that reflect UV radiation can protect your skin from sun damage without compromising the skin barrier. Historically, these sunscreens are called sunblocks but it's not always the case.

Check out this video on the difference between sunblock and sunscreen. 

When shopping for sunscreen it can be easy to just look for 

  1. Brand recognition
  2. SPF
  3. Packaging (lotion vs. aerosol)

However, determining a purchase based on these three pieces can be problematic – here is why: 

  • Certain popular brands like Coppertone and L’Oreal have been in the sunscreen business for almost a century. They focus on trends not skincare safety. If a brand is selling multiple products (some which are natural and safe, and some which contain oxybenzone) it is a good sign they are not invested in your skin’s safety. 
    • Fun Fact: The Coppertone baby used to be tanned and they had the slogan “Don’t be a paleface, tan, don’t burn with Coppertone” 
  • SPF aka. Sun Protecting Factor is related to the number of extra hours you can spend in the sun without burning. If you normally burn in 10 minutes, an SPF 8 should give you 8x more time in the sun before you burn. SPF is a term related to UVB (ultraviolet B) radiation and doesn’t account for your protection from UVA (ultraviolet A) radiation. This means that SPF can sometimes be misleading to how protected your skin actually is… since it only accounts for protection from one form of the sun’s rays.
  • Aerosol sprays disperse sunscreen onto the skin and into the air upon application. If an aerosol spray promises SPF 30 but you spray it and the wind hits, you might only get an SPF 4 coverage. Additionally, the ingredients are usually not great to be inhaled or for the local marine environment. 

    Ok, so how do I choose a good natural sunscreen? 

    The best place to start is by reading the ingredients. This is one place where there is no marketing trickery and you can get real, accurate information. If the ingredients list is exhaustive and filled with words that sound like propane, butane, and methane it might not even be worth your time. 

    Here is a blog we wrote on How-to-Choose Non-Toxic Skincare Products.

    Did you get through the list? Recognize some but not all the ingredients?

    • Sounds good, now take a peek at the “active ingredient”. This is the ingredient(s) that actually make the sunscreen a sunscreen. Otherwise it would just be a cream. 

    Do you see Oxybenzone and/or Octinoxate? Yes? 

    • Put it back. This is not a good natural sunscreen. [Ref: EWG] For more updated and comprehensive  information on which active ingredients to avoid please check out the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website. Each year they put together more and more research documenting the potential risks of all common ingredients used in the beauty industry on humans and the environment. 

    Do you see Non-Nano Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Dioxide? Yes? 

    • Is it in a lotion form? Yes? 
    • This is your safest choice in our opinion. Please visit this blog for a complete explanation behind our reasoning. 

    But wait… What about the rest of the ingredients? 

    • Can a product have zinc-oxide and still be problematic? Yes!

    The active ingredient in sunscreen is probably only 20-25% of the entire formula, leaving plenty of opportunity for potential irritants and hormone disruptors. This is actually when the brand and the packaging can become helpful tools in your decision making process. 

    • Does this brand have a good reputation for good ingredients? Do they sell other products that are designed for skin wellness? 
    • Is the packaging sustainable? Can I recycle this packaging easily? 

    These are all ways of learning about the brands ethics without having to read their marketing. 

    Still not sure? The Environmental Working Group has a comprehensive database of products. You can type your product name into the database and see the rating. If the brands are not as well known (like us) you can always just search the individual ingredients and see how they rate. 

    Choosing a good natural sunscreen for you and possibly your family can be challenging. 

    There seems to be an increasing number of products everyday, and the brands we trusted in the past do not have the same reputation they used to. 

    On top of that, sunscreen is considered an over-the-counter drug, which means all sunscreens sold in Canada must have a NHP (natural health product number), which can be an expensive and a long process. 

    At Miiko, we think the most rewarding thing you can do is to take time reading and researching ingredients and finding a few trusted resources you can call on in a pinch. 

    Here are a few of ours:

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