The Scoop on Selecting Safe Sunscreens

Dr. Leah Hassall, ND

Finally, summer and sunshine are here! After what seemed like an eternity of cooler temperatures, people are understandably rushing outside to enjoy every drop of sunshine. In our excitement, we often forget about the need to protect our skin from excessive UV light exposure. Excessive exposure to UVA and UVB light can lead to sun damage and it increases our risk of skin cancers. In most cases, people are aware of the risks of excessive sun damage but they are hesitant to apply sunscreens to themselves or their children because of the unknown risks associated with the chemicals they contain. Given recent events surrounding serious burns associated with some sunscreens, this is understandable. I am often asked for recommendations about “natural sunscreens” and how effective they are, as the amount of information can be overwhelming!

When it comes to chemicals found in consumer products, I direct people to the Environmental Working Group’s website where they publish an annual sunscreen guide. This dedicated group of people have tested more than 880 beach and sport sunscreens since 2007 and found that almost 75% of them offered inferior sun protection or contained harmful chemicals such as oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate. Oxybenzone is used in sunscreens as a chemical UV filter. It is also a known hormone disruptor, meaning that it interacts with human sex hormones (estrogen, testosterone and progesterone) and thyroid hormones by either mimicking them or blocking their action. Oxybenzone is absorbed through the skin and can be detected in urine, blood and breast milk samples. Retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) is included in some sunscreens to slow skin aging, but several studies have demonstrated that vitamin A can actually speed the growth of tumorous cells when used on skin exposed to sunlight.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends avoiding the following chemicals in your sunscreen:

1.Oxybenzone – a hormone disruptor that is absorbed by the skin.
2. Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) – may actually increase the speed of skin cancer growth
3. Added insect repellent – contain harmful chemicals such as DEET that are driven into the skin by sunscreens and may not be necessary.
4. Sprays and powders – the concern here being that sprays and powders aerosolize chemicals in sunscreen to be inhaled.
5. SPF above 50 – SPF (or sun protection factor) – high SPF (higher than SPF 50) do not offer any more additional protection and encourages people to stay out in the sun longer.

I always like to remind people about the importance of wearing protective clothing (hats, long-sleeved shirts, sunglasses and treated fabrics). Although it is simple, it is one of the best ways to avoid sun damage. When it comes to sunscreen, I advise people to find a mineral-based (zinc oxide or titanium oxide). They are made-up of “nanoparticles” that provide sun protection that is as effective as non-mineral sunscreens. I don’t recommend the use of homemade sunscreens as they have not been tested to see if they are actually blocking UVA and UVB light. The Environmental Working Group recommends that when selecting a sunscreen, people should look for:

1.Zinc oxide or titanium oxide
2. Avobenzone – The EWG recommends choosing avobenzone over oxybenzone as a chemical UV filter because of its more favourable toxicity profile. The issue with avobenzone is that it breaks down more quickly than oxybenzone and so if not re-applied regularly can lead to sunburn.
3. Mexoryl SX
4. Creams as opposed to sprays or powders
5. Water-resistant
6. Broad-spectrum protection (UVA and UVB)
7. SPF to suit your needs (15-50)

Is there anything else I can do to avoid sun damage?

Studies on the role of phytonutrients (vitamin E, flavonoids, carotenoids, B-carotene, lycopene and lutein) have shown promise and photoprotectants in clinical, animal and cell culture studies. Phytonutrients are found in colourful fruits and vegetables (tomatoes, carrots, peppers, green leafy vegetables etc.) – just another reason to get at least 7-8 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day!

A note on vitamin D

Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine” vitamin not because we get it from the sun, but because pre-vitamin D is converted into active vitamin D in our skin by UVB light. We also get vitamin D in our diets. North Americans are more likely to have lower levels of vitamin D because we are exposed to less sunlight in Northern latitudes and spend much of our day inside. That being said, there is a balancing act between ensuring that we are getting some sunlight without causing excessive photo damage and/or burns.

The most effective sunscreen is one that you will apply regularly! If you find that the feel or smell of the sunscreen discourages you from apply it, you may need to find a different brand. If you are curious as to how your sunscreen rates, EWG allows you to search for your brand to gets its toxicity rating. It also provides a list of their most recommended sunscreens. You can access the Environmental Working Group website at


Evans, J. A., & Johnson, E. J. (2010). The Role of Phytonutrients in Skin Health. Nutrients2(8), 903-928.

Environmental Working Group Sunscreen Guide. (2017). Retrieved July 06, 2017, from

Hanley, D.A. & K.S. Davison. (2005). Vitamin D Insufficiency in North America. J Nutr. 135(2):332-7.

Smijs, T. G., & Pavel, S. (2011). Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens: focus on their safety and effectiveness. Nanotechnology, Science and Applications4, 95–112.