Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Effects of Chemical vs. Natural Sunscreen on Humans

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Is organic sunscreen all it’s cracked up to be? Photo: Manda Sunscreen


The Inertia

Editor’s Note: This is the first of our three-part series about current debates in sunscreen. Check back for part two where we take a harder look at the environmental impacts of natural vs. organic sunscreen.

Sunscreen is so hot right now. No, I mean, literally, it’s actually burning into the epidermis layer of my face as I write this. Why? Because I love the outdoors. I love to surf, hike, skate, bike. Even indoor activities like reading and writing become more enjoyable when you take them outside. But, the effects of constant sun exposure can get gnarly.

I am very, very white; socially and physically. But for the sake of this discussion, lets focus on the physical aspect of my whiteness. I was the kid who had a mom constantly around to slather sunscreen on my face and body. And thank goodness for this, because skin cancer is the most prevalent cancer in the U.S. (estimates say 1 in 5 Americans will be diagnosed with it at some point in their life.)

I now live alone and take care of myself. Thus, I have become my skin’s sole protector. Something I pride myself on. I put on sunscreen constantly, almost habitually. I put it on for morning sessions, for evening sessions, for pool parties and even for Sunday morning patio brunches.

Recently, I attended an event for Bethany Hamilton, wherein Mrs. Hamilton stated at the end of her speech (this is not an exact quote, just my memory), “Lastly, make sure that you wear organic, natural sunscreen.”

I never have given much thought to the sunscreen I buy. I normally just get one that is high SPF, broad spectrum, and easy on the wallet. But organic? Natural? What’s the difference? Isn’t all sunscreen, on some level, made in a chemical lab?

So, I did some research on the difference between chemical and organic sunscreen and here is the result.

To begin, one must understand that there is no denotative, FDA stipulation for what makes a sunscreen “organic” or “natural.” Instead, think of organic and non-organic as meant to connote two different, yet still chemical, formulas for sunscreen.

Okay, first is the organic.

So-called organic sunscreen is called this because it either uses one or both of the ingredients titanium oxide and zinc oxide. This version of sunscreen reflects the suns rays, both UVA and UVB (to protect against both is what “broad spectrum” means). And most brands that claim to be organic and natural will list titanium and zinc oxide as their first ingredients. These types of sunscreen normally tend to be thicker, stay on the skin longer, and will turn the face of users a shade or two whiter after application. However, because these “chemical-free” sunscreens sit on top of the skin and act as a mirror, they are not absorbed into the skin and thus, have been found to be less water-resistant (not great news for surfers). Also, note that neither titanium nor zinc oxide come out of the ground ready to be used as sunscreen. The metals still have to be processed in a lab, which calls their “naturalness” into question.

Chemical sunscreen can be made from a slew of ingredients, most prevalent are: avobenzone, ecamsule, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, octyl methoxycinnamate, octyl salicylate and oxybenzone. These sunscreens absorb the sun’s rays and transform them so they do not damage the skin.

The problem that most people find with chemical sunscreen stems from the ingredient oxybenzone. Some claim that oxybenzone can cause cancer and hormone disruption in humans and toxic effects on coral reefs. Oxybenzone has been used in sunscreen ever since sunscreen was invented, but is it hurting us and the environment?

There is yet to be any conclusive evidence to prove that oxybenzone or other chemicals in popular sunscreens are harmful to humans, even amidst new studies. But, it is a proven fact that not wearing any sunscreen will lead to the contraction of skin cancers and other health problems. There is significant evidence, however, that chemical sunscreens adversely affect coral reefs, though which will be discussed in a forthcoming article on sunscreen debates.

Keep in mind, The FDA says your sunscreen should have three things: sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more, “broad spectrum” protection, and water resistance. 

So, which to choose? Let’s end with a quick pros and cons list.

“Chemical-free,” “Organic,” “Natural,” Sunscreen:

Pros: Can last up to 8 hours– if it is not washed off skin. Has not been linked to health problems in users. It is free of most “chemical” products.

Cons: It is noticeable on the face. It is less water-resistant. It can cost significantly more than its chemical competitors.

Brands to check out: Manda, Vertra, Zinka 

“Chemical,” “Traditional,” “Your Average,” Sunscreen:

Pros: Absorbs into the skin and stays on well in water. Does not show significantly on skin. Performs better than natural sunscreens in lab tests. It is relatively inexpensive.

Cons: Has been claimed to be linked to negative health effects. Causes destruction of coral reefs. Needs to be re-applied at least every two hours.

Brands to check out: Neutrogena, Hawaiian Tropic, Ocean Potion

There you have it. The decision is yours, whether you want natural or chemical sunscreen is a personal choice. But what is clear is that you need to wear sunscreen if you plan to be engaged in outdoor activity for an extended amount of time.



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