It seems as if the whole area of suncream is problematic, both from a health and environmental point of view. Whether it’s concerns over cancer-causing chemicals in the products themselves or how they contribute to coral reef bleaching it’s a minefield. Here’s some info to help you navigate the area along with some brands that are less harmful both ecologically and personally.
Sunscreen / Sunblocks
When it comes to sun protection there are two types of products; sunscreens and sun blocks. Sunscreens are usually made up of a mix of chemicals that reflect or scatter the light away from the skin and absorb the UV rays so that our skin doesn’t. Sunblocks use inorganic chemicals, including minerals such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, to act as a physical sunblock. They reflect UV rays, similar to how white paint reflects light. In the past sunblock were very noticeable on the skin but now inorganic particles can be made much smaller and so aren’t as visible.
Another type of radiation, called UVA radiation, penetrates deeper into the skin and can cause premature wrinkling, age spots and can also heighten the risk for some skin cancers. Sunscreen lotions labelled as ‘broad-spectrum’ block against both UVA and UVB, but currently there is no standard for listing UVA blocking power. Inorganic chemicals that deflect sunlight will deflect both UVA and UVB rays.
Some of the chemicals in sunscreen have recently come under fire for possibly being carcinogenic (cancer-causing) or otherwise harmful, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy group based in Washington D.C. Scientists found that oxybenzone absorbs into the skin and is present in urine long after sunscreen is applied, so some researchers have suggested not using sunscreens containing this chemical on children. Also in a preliminary study last year, large quantities of nano-particles of titanium dioxide was shown to cause genetic damage in mice. See below for information on which brands clearly don’t use nano-particles.
Research carried out in 2008 found that organic ultraviolet filters in sunscreen lead to bleaching of corals in areas of high leisure activity and in 2015 a team reported that oxybenzone is toxic to the symbiotic algae that live within corals, which provides their color and performs other vital duties, and also stunts the growth of corals. Sunblock formulas with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide below 100 nanometers can be ingested by corals and are to be avoided. The HEL list is a list of chemicals that are known pollutants in many different environments (freshwater streams, river, beaches, and ocean systems) or wildlife (e.g., corals, fish, birds, marine mammals, sea turtles). All of them pose a threat to Ecosystem Health.
So how do you avoid unhealthy, coral bleaching sunscreen? Well until such time as there is a widespread certification for ‘coral friendly’ sunscreen you’re going to have to check the list of ingredients in your preferred product and check it against the HEL list referred to above. During my research I came across a coral reef safe facial suncream from the Beauty Kitchen, made from 100% derived natural ingredients and free from nano mineral particles. Alba sunscreen, available from Down to Earth in D2, also states that it is coral reef friendly.
Before I list the ‘greener’ brands of sunscreen it’s worth referring to the post ‘Why I’m Giving up Non-toxic Sunscreen‘ by Eco cult. In the post she argues that research into the harmful effects of oxybenzone indicated that you’d need to apply 200 years worth of sunscreen to reach the exposure levels required to possibly put yourself at risk of cancer. She argues that using non-toxic sunscreens that, in her experience don’t work, puts you at immediate risk of cancer, whereas normal exposure to oxybenzone may or may not. Personally I have used non-toxic sunscreen by Green People, Beauty Kitchen and Jason and found that they all worked very well as long as you apply them regularly, as is required with all sunscreens. I will qualify that remark by saying that I’ve only tested these products in Ireland and the UK and they may not stand up in countries closer to the Equator.
Non-toxic Sunscreen Brands
Alba sunscreen is biodegradeable and coral reef safe, made from vegetarian ingredients and free of cruelty, synthetic fragrances, parabens, phylates, gluten, artificial colours, sulphates and nano-minerals. It is . They do cream and spray based products and offer mineral based sunscreen or ones without mineral ingredients. Their products are currently available from Down to Earth in Dublin 2.
Aloe Pura is a brand of sunscreens and suncare products that you see frequently in health food stores. I have really struggled to find a website for the company, which concerns me. The Holland and Barrett website states that Aloe Pura Aloe Vera Sun Lotion is produced from organic and certified Aloe Vera gel and that it is free from free from parabens, paraffin/petroleum, lanolin and salicylates. No independent certification for these claims could be found online.
Beauty Kitchen are based in Scotland and aim to make 100% effective, natural and affordable products that only contain 100% pure essential oils plus naturally derived ingredients. Their products are also cruelty free and some are labelled ‘vegan friendly’ even their seahorse plankton face cream! You can buy from their website or via Holland and Barrett stores.
Louth based Biofresh offer cruelty and paraben-free suncare products that contain certified natural and organic ingredients. You can buy through their website or in their salons in Drogheda, Co Louth and Swords, Co Dublin. There is no evidence of independent certification on their website.
UK Green People offer a range of natural and organic suncare products that are free from cruelty, SLS, parabens, lanolin, perfumes, propylene glycol, artificial synthetic fragrances, Colourants, petrochemicals, PABA-sunscreen, Urea, PEG’s, DEA and TEA. They say their products are suitable for all skin types, particularly sensitive skin and possibly those prone to eczema and psoriasis. Their product pages are very informative and list each of the certifications that apply to them. These certificates include ones from the Organic Soil Association, the Organic Food Federation, the Vegan Society, the Good Shopping Guide and EcoCert. The company also donates 10% of their net profit to ‘green’ health and environmental charities. Their Irish website states that their packaging is recyclable, are fully biodegradable and when burned release only Carbon Dioxide and water.
The company JASÖN® have been running since 1959 and offer both mineral and non-mineral sunscreens that are free of cruelty, mineral oils, lanolin, petrolatum and nanoparticles. Where palm oil or palm derived products are used in their products the company states that they are obtained from sources that support organic and/or sustainable palm practices. Their products do not contain meat or any products obtained from killing animals. They state that their skincare is classed as natural, although some individual products are 100% organic and certified as such by the USDA in the USA. The BUAV bunny is visible on the UK website.
Founded in 1987 and located in Germany Lavera make 100% certified natural suncare products with plant ingredients, using organic where possible. Their products are all free from cruelty, parabens, SLS, silicone, paraffin, GMO ingredients, synthetic preservatives, synthetic emulsifiers, synthetic fragrances, synthetic colours. Most of their products are gluten-free and vegan. Each product page helpfully lists all the ingredients contained in each product. The company is certified by NaTrue. Interestingly the American version of the Lavera website says it’s an ‘organic’ skincare company, while the German one simply states ‘natural’ skincare using organic ingredients. Their website states that since the enactment of the EU Regulation on Cosmetic Products in 2013, particles between 1 and 100 nm must be declared under the term ‘nano’ in the ingredient list of sun protection products, e.g. ‘titanium dioxide (nano)’. It goes on to state that ‘lavera sun protection products comply 100% with EU regulations and the Regulation on Cosmetic Products and meet their requirements regarding the use of nano-particles. Considering this and the fact that the list of ingredients in their sun cream only lists titanium dioxide I’m going to conclude that they don’t use nano particles.
Moogoo is a family owned Australian company making mineral-based suncare products from natural ingredients, which they list on each product. They claim to be one of the greenish skincare companies around and have a video showing what they do on their website! No evidence of certification was available on their website.
Set up in 1972 French brand Phyt’s offer 100% natural mineral-based sunscreens made with organic ingredients. You can buy their products online or from the beauty salon Virginia Claire in Harold’s Cross, Dublin 6W. They list all of the ingredients on their website and the company are signed up to a quality charter by Cosmebio, a self-regulating Professional Association for Natural, Ecological and Organic cosmetics. Their organic ingredients are also certified by EcoCert and Agriculture Biologic. According to their website the Zinc Oxide and Titanium minerals in their sun care products are non-nano.
German brand Weleda is one of the oldest skincare companies, having begun in 1921. Their products are non-toxic, paraben-free, synthetic fragrance-free, SLS-free and GMO-free and are certified as natural by NaTrue. They state that approximately three-quarters of their plant ingredients come from organic or biodynamic farming and from certified wild collection. They are also engaged in fair trade farming agreements with their suppliers and have a network of them across Europe. They clearly state that the titanium oxide in their sunscreen lotion is non-nano.
Lush do a solid cocoa butter-based 30spf sunblock that you’re meant to apply in the shower, although some people just apply it like regular sunblock. The block comes in three sections and each section is said to cover on body entirely. As with all Lush products it contains natural ingredients and what Lush call ‘safe synthetics’. I’ve heard it’s greasy when first applied but socks in to leave a barrier. It costs €11.95 for 100g and comes in a sealed plastic bag. They also do a powder sun-screen that provides 15spf.
Shade cream is 25spf product I heard about in the Zero Waste FB group. It is made of 4 100% natural ingredients; shea butter, coconut oil, beeswax, and non-nano zinc oxide. It is free from Parabens, Alcohol, Methylchlorolsothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone, Retinyl palmitrate, Oxybenzone, Phthalates, Artificial perfumes, Petrochemicals and colourants. It is said to be suitable for sensitive skins and isn’t tested on animals. It is a UK brand and although there aren’t currently any stockists in Ireland but quite a few e-tailers seem to stock it and you can buy it via Amazon.co.uk or directly from their website. I thought this blog post by the maker in response to a bad review on Amazon was very information and worth reading before your purchase. Love companies as transparent as this!
UK company Odylique offer a cruelty-free Spf 30 sunscreen made from faitrade and organic ingredients. It is also free of synthetic UV filters, preservatives, silicones, fragrance and colour. All of the ingredients in this sunscreen are natural with 76% certified as organic. It is also suitable for Vegans. It comes in plastic packaging that has been made in Europe and is, according to the company, recyclable. The company also use packaging made from recycled plastic for some of it’s products and the packing peanuts they use are biodegradable. They also support a range of charities and are accredited as an ethical company by The Ethical Company Organisation.
Amazinc! Mineral Lotion uses only mineral filters and natural ingredients in their vegan sun screen and it comes in an 100% recyclable aluminium bottle ensures, which is light and spill proof. The ingredients in the product include Almond Oil, Jojoba Oil, Olive Oil, Olive Squalene, Mineral Shield LIGHT (Zinc oxide – NON NANO, Magnesium oxide), Triticum Vulgare Germ Oil, Hydrogenated Almond Oil, Rosmarinus Officialis Leaf Oil, and Tocopherol. It’s available to buy from Irish e-tailer Green Outlook.
You’ll find a lot of recipes online for homemade sunscreen if you’re interested. I’ve done a little digging on the purported spf ratings of natural oils and it seems that the evidence is very sketchy. I can’t find any research that definitively states that sunblocking performance of natural oils and unless something is independently tested I don’t trust its efficacy. If I do trial something myself I’ll post a review but for now I’m not comfortable share something that could put someone at risk of cancer.
Alternatives to Suncream
Using sunscreen is imperfect. You can miss spots, you can fail to reapply frequently enough. They can be sticky, and messy, and smelly and cause irritation on sensitive skins. And then there’s the permanent damage they cause to car paint work! Yikes.
For this and other reasons some people are moving away from sunscreen towards a more holistic approach to sun protection, choosing instead to avoid exposure in the first place. This may mean not sitting in direct sunlight or dressing in long-sleeved tops, trousers and hats instead of lathering on sunscreen with shorts and singlets.
We can already buy swimwear with spf rating in Irish department stores, particularly for kids, and I’d imagine it’s only time before we start to follow the lead of American and Australia with spf rated clothing but for now covering up in normal clothes is the easiest way to move towards a more sustainable form of sun protection.
Self Tanning Products
If you’ve done a very successful job of protecting your skin from the sun you may want to artificially add a tint of tan. Tan Organic are an Irish company that uses natural and organic ingredients to make their self tanning products. They are also the only eco-certified self- tanning brand in the world and were recently listed as 9th best ethical cosmetic brand by the very well-respected Good Shopping Guide. Their website states that they source ingredients from ethically run producers, that they never test on animals and that their products are cruelty free. Their products are certified by EcoCert, The Ethical Company Organisation & PETA. They use glass packaging and a biodegradable PLA made from extracts of corn and they state that they recycle, reuse, and reduce their waste wherever and whenever they can. They also give back to the community through their charity support program.
I’ve just learned about studies that show that lemon eucalyptus oil is as good as if not better than Deet. I generally like to reference original studies and not environmental websites that I’m unfamiliar with. This is because I prefer to read the research papers myself if at all possible to avoid misinterpretation. You’d be surprised just how often people misrepresent facts to say that they want! This time the link i’m using it to a website that support environmental journalism but only because they link to the two original research papers cited in the article. I also heard this information collaborated in a podcast interview with the very well respected entomologist Dr. Dina Fonseca, professor of entomology in the school of public health at Rutgers University.