Natural vs. Chemical Sunscreen, Part 1: Safety, Origin, and Efficacy

The title of this post alone suggests this inquiry is not a fair fight. Most of us would choose a so-called “natural” product over a chemical one. But when it comes to sunscreen, there is a lot more to it. For this post, let’s assume that a “natural” sunscreen is, in fact, “natural” as you and I think that term means, and drop the quotation marks. As detailed in my last post on this issue, the minerals, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, comprise a natural sunscreen and block UV, while a chemical sunscreen contains chemical ingredients, and perhaps one of the two mineral ingredients, in order to absorb UV.

Natural and Safest – Are They Synonymous?  And Does Either Matter When Compared to Efficacy?

I recently read Hillary Peterson’s article, “Does 100% Natural Skincare Really Exist? Should You Care?,” and it struck a nerve. In Peterson’s article, she discusses beauty products (not sunscreen) and toward the end of it, she focuses on whether consumers should care about a skincare product’s naturality. She argues that we should give more weight to a product’s safety (i.e., it will cause no harm) rather than its derivation from organic or synthetic active ingredients.

This is a huge issue when it comes to skincare. And in the context of sunscreen, we should take Ms. Peterson’s point even further by including efficacy in the discussion, as this is paramount to skincare. Sunscreen, unlike a beauty product, can be life-saving. Sunscreen prevents carcinogenic activity; sunscreen must be effective, or people suffer; must be safer to use than not to use, or people suffer; and, depending upon your preferences, should limit chemicals to avoid increased risk that the chemicals do more harm than UV, or people suffer.

My Inner Voice

Staring at busy sunscreen shelves, I tend to have the following internal dialogue:

Should I pick a 100% mineral or a chemical sunscreen? If it is natural, is it safe for me? If it contains chemicals, is it as safe for me as a natural one? Okay, so chemical ingredients may, or may not, pose some risks, but do these chemicals provide better protection from the sun than minerals? If so, what’s the greater evil – the use of chemicals or the sun damage that results from inferior protection? And if it’s described as natural, can I assume that it’s completely harmless?

Does this resonate with you?

These are loaded questions with varied answers. Bottom line, it’s up to you. How do you rank safety, origin, and efficacy?

Conflicting Opinions on Definition of Safety

Defining safety is a particularly compelling and controversial issue with sunscreen because when we use sunscreen, the most important purpose for doing so is to reduce health risks. Some argue that there is a trade off if we regularly expose ourselves to potentially toxic chemical ingredients in sunscreen, namely oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate (a vitamin A derivative added to some sunscreens for anti-aging effects). While we may lessen our risk for skin cancer, we may increase our risk for other health problems, including other forms of cancer.

Efficacy is No. 1

In my opinion, a sunscreen’s efficacy is the key factor (in contrast to other personal care products, where safety or origin may be key if efficacy is a non-factor). If a sunscreen underperforms, the immediate consequence can be pain or illness, and the long term consequence runs the spectrum from a pre-cancerous lesion, called an actinic keratosis, to death, should a late-stage melanoma develop. To the extent an effective sunscreen might pose other health risks, there are ways to mitigate this (for example, spraying aerosol sunscreen onto your hand and applying it to your face, rather than directly inhaling it as you squeeze your eyes shut and spray away).

But for many, the decision is not so clear. Comparing product reviews from Consumer Reports with those from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) highlights the stark differences in values. Both organizations test and review natural and chemical sunscreen annually, providing recommendations to the public. While Consumer Reports discusses safety issues with chemical sunscreen, it appears that efficacy is its top criteria.  EWG looks more at chemical risks of sunscreen, recommending natural over chemical (although it does provide a separate, secondary list of “62 Better Non-Mineral Options“).

I will go into more depth on these recommendations in Part 2, posting soon.

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Categories: Sun Protection

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