Apologies for the sheer length of this post. If you’re still reading at the end, give yourself a massive pat on the back.
I’ve been meaning to talk about sunscreen for quite some time. My initial plan had me posting this back in May sometime. The truth is that when I started investigating sun protection in skincare ages ago, I felt like I’d opened some hideous Pandora’s box of horrors and have spent the last few weeks trying to shove it all back in. There is SO much information (and often conflicting or impenetrable information) out there, that I found it really hard to get at the important stuff and make up my mind. I think I’ve done so. Made up my mind, that is. Hopefully what follows will help to simplify and/or clarify some of the suncare struggles you might also have been experiencing.
I should mention here that the EWG (Environmental Working Group) was invaluable to my research. They’ve got heaps of information on their website and really helped to demystify things for me. Well worth a look if you want to read up in more detail. All of my recommendations are backed up by their extensive research.
To begin at the beginning, there are two different types of sunscreen: those that use chemicals for UV protection and those that use minerals to create a physical barrier that blocks the UV light. Chemical or mineral – choice number 1.
With my natural leanings, chemical sunscreens sound less appealing straight away. But I went away to better understand what they are and how they work. To kick things off, the following is a list of the ingredients you might find in a chemical sunscreen: Benzophenones (dixoybenzone, oxybenzone), PABA and PABA esters (ethyl dihydroxy propyl PAB, glyceryl PABA, p-aminobenzoic acid, padimate-O or octyl dimethyl PABA), Cinnamates (cinoxate, ethylhexyl p-methoxycinnamate, octocrylene, octyl methoxycinnamate), Salicylates (ethylhexyl salicylate, homosalate, octyl salicylate), Digalloyl trioleate, Menthyl anthranilate, or Avobenzone. These substances will be absorbed into your skin, where they will, in turn, absorb harmful UVB and UVA rays.
The most frequently-used ingredients are oxybenzone, octisalate, octinoxate and avobenzone. Of these, oxybenzone, the most common, is also the most controversial. Studies have shown it can trigger allergic reactions and even act as a hormone disruptor. According to Wikipedia, ‘hormone disruptors are chemicals that interfere with endocrine (or hormone) systems…[and]…can cause cancerous tumours, birth defects and other developmental disorders. Here are some less-than-appealing figures from the EWG: studies by Calafat (2008) and Wolff (2009) detected oxybenzone in 96% of the US population, while a recent study in Europe found four common sunscreen chemicals in breast milk. Remember that link to developmental disorders?? So far, so not very reassuring.
Mineral (Physical) sunscreens
As mentioned, these sunscreens use minerals to form a protective barrier on the surface of the skin, which then reflects UVA and UVB rays. Mineral formulations will contain tiny particles of either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. The EWG notes that although most studies demonstrate that these particles do not penetrate the skin (where they could enter the bloodstream), this research is continuing particularly in relation to smaller ‘nano’ particles. However, on balance, they regard mineral sunscreens as the better choice because they are not so readily absorbed into the skin and offer much better UVA protection.
There is, however, one important consideration when choosing a mineral sunscreen: the type of product you’re buying. The studies that indicate the active ingredients are not penetrating the skin in cream formulations, also show that they can enter the body if inhaled. For this reason, the lower toxicity rating given by the EWG only applies to mineral sun lotions and creams. It doesn’t recommend using mineral sunscreens sold as sprays or in loose powder formulations, which also has implications for mineral make-up. For more interesting advice on this see here and here.
A quick note about combined products; i.e. formulations that use both chemical and mineral UV filters. Studies indicate that uncoated titanium dioxide and zinc oxide can break down avobenzone. This has two implications: firstly, avoid products that contains both of these ingredients (these formulations are actually banned in some countries); secondly, be careful how you layer your products. If your sunscreen contains avobenzone, don’t apply make-up containing a mineral filter over the top. You could make your sunscreen ineffective or even more harmful.
SPF, UVA and UVB
Lots has been written about SPF and most people are familiar with the idea that it’s a measurement of how long you could (not should) stay in the sun after applying. However, I learned some quite interesting and shocking things during the course of my research. For instance, did you know that many of the ingredients in chemical sunscreens only work against UVB rays and therefore some chemical sunscreens provide negligible protection against UVA? Most of us apply sunscreen for two key reasons: to avoid burning when exposed to the sun in the short term, and to try and dminish the ageing effects of UVA damage on the skin in the longer term. This means that some sun products are really failing us but we won’t necessarily notice for a good long while.
The SPF rating on a sunscreen relates to its ability to protect against UVB radiation, which burns the skin. There is no formal classification for UVA protection (UVA rays accelerate ageing and can also cause damage in the dermis which could lead to skin cancer). Some products use the star rating system for UVA protection but I think the system is still really unclear. In short, don’t assume your product contains UVA protection unless it’s explicitly stated on the packaging. It’s worth knowing that Boots don’t stock products that don’t have UVA protection as stipulated by European standards.
If you focus only on SPF, you could end up doing more damage to your skin that if you’d used no protection at all. Here’s how: say you’re wearing a sunscreen with an SPF50 so you end up staying out in the sun for 4 or 5 times as long as you would have done were you wearing no sunscreen at all. If that same ‘high protection’ has low UVA protection, you’ve spent a considerable amount of time exposing yourself to damaging UVA radiation. You didn’t burn, but plenty of damage has been done. The EWG analysis suggests that people using chemical sunscreens are exposed to approximately 20% more UVA radiation than those using mineral protection. Ouch.
Mineral ingredients provide UVB and UVA protection. Titanium dioxide protects you against UVB and short wave UVA radiation (but not long wave UVA which can still cause damage). Zinc oxide is even better, protecting you from UVB and most UVA rays , plus it’s known for its antimicrobial and healing properties.
The best thing you can really do for your skin is get enough sunshine but not too much more. The recommendation is 10-15mins of gentle exposure per day, on any unprotected skin. But you should limit your exposure to strong sunlight at peak times (11am-3pm) even if you’re wearing sunscreen, by retreating to the shade or wearing a big old hat.
Summary of pros and cons
|Chemical sunscreens – PROS
||Mineral sunscreens – PROS
- More pleasant formulations to use (lighter, etc)
- No ‘white mask’ or ashy effect on the skin
- No problems with combining products (i.e. mineral sunscreen AND make-up is ok)
- Zinc oxide provides very good UVB AND UVA protection
- Chemicals are not absorbed into the skin but form a protective barrier (less risk of allergic response or irritation
- Cooler on the skin – UV rays are reflected, not absorbed into the skin
- Do not break down in sunlight offering more sustained protection
|Chemical sunscreens – CONS
||Mineral sunscreens – CONS
- Contains chemicals that do penetrate the skin and can get into the bloodstream
- Some of these chemicals have been shown to be hormone disruptors or to trigger allergic reactions
- Many chemical ingredients provide inadequate UVA protection
- Break down in sunlight so more regular application is required
- Formulations can be heavier or greasier
- Some formulations may leave an ashy white tint on the skin
- Still some debate about whether the smaller ‘nano’ particles can be absorbed into the skin
- Powder or spray formulations may be toxic if inhaled
So after ALL that (I’m exhausted…how are you guys doing?), I’ve reached my conclusion and recommendations. Based on the research, I’m going to try and choose liquid-based mineral formulations for my sun protection. Where possible, I’m also going to try and choose products that use zinc oxide as the main active ingredient because of it’s added benefits and extra UVA protection. I don’t expect everyone to necessarily make the same choice as me. Studies are, after all, not gospel and may in time be disproved or invalidated by other later studies. I just think it’s important with sunscreen to make an informed choice, whatever conclusions you reach.
And here’s where it gets tricky. Because I now know ALL of the above, have decided to use mineral sunscreens and yet it’s hard to deny that a lot of mineral formulations just don’t feel as nice as chemical ones. It’s getting better though. Modern techniques allow for a much smaller particle size and mineral formulas are getting lighter, clearer and less like toothpaste! I’ve been experimenting with a few products recently, the results of which are below:
Trilogy Vital Moisturising Cream SPF15 (Active ingredient: titanium dioxide)
This is quite a rich formulation and acts as a stand-alone moisturiser if you’ve got dry skin, saving you the time to layer on more products. It leaves a noticeable sheen on the skin after use but this wasn’t whitening. In fact, the first time I used it a friend commented that I looked ‘glowy’ and I’m 99.9% sure that was a compliment (because she’s a friend and a very lovely person)! A nice base for powder-based make-up because of its more tactile feel on the skin. Bit more expensive, but the cream has benefits beyond sun protection boasting evening primrose, marula and organic rosehip oil to soothe and enrich the skin. I really liked this for light protection.
Ingredients: Aqua (Purified Spring Water), Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Oil, Zinc Oxide, Glycerin, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Rosa Canina (Rosehip) Seed Oil, Cetearyl Wheat Straw Glycosides & Cetearyl Al, Tocopheryl Acetate, Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera) Leaf, Oenothera Biennis (Evening Primrose) Oil, Sclerocarya Birrea (Marula Seed) Oil, Sodium Stearoyl Glutamate, Cetearyl Alcohol, Glyceryl Stearate, Tricontanyl PVP, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil, Daucus Carota Sativa (Carrot) Oil, Ormenis Multicaulis (Chamomile Flower) Oil, citrus aurantium amara (bitter orange) flower, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extrac, Xanthan Gum, Glyceryl Isostearate, Polyhydroxystearic Acid, Phenoxyethanol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Salicylic Acid, Parfum, Citral, Geraniol, Citronellol, Limonene, Linalool, *Components of Natural Essential Oils
Available on the Trilogy website (Trilogy – WHY do you not show prices clearly??) for, I think, £27.50 but you can find it cheaper if you shop around. It’s currently on Amazon for £24.
Green People Day Solution SPF15 (Active ingredient: Titanium dioxide)
I found this very light and easy to apply. No whiteness or greasiness – it gives an almost powdery finish. This was too light for my dry skin as a stand-alone moisturiser and SPF but it layered really well over my usual day cream. It would be excellent if you had oily or normal skin, I think. It’s also a good value option at about £14.95. Apparently it’s scented with rose geranium oil but I must admit I didn’t pick this up and would have said it was fragrance free. You can currently get 10% off the retail price on Essentials London.
Ingredients: Aloe barbadensis (aloe vera), *Elaeis guineensis (palm oil), *Helianthus annuus (sunflower oil), Isoamyl p-Methoxycinnamate (cinnamon-derived UV-filter), Cetearyl glucoside (emulsifying plant wax), Titanium dioxide (mineral UV-filter), *Simmondsia chinensis (jojoba oil), *Cannabis sativa (hemp oil), Cetearyl alcohol (emulsifying plant wax), Glyceryl stearate (plant-derived moisturiser), *Olea europaea (olive oil), *Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary extract), *Thea sinensis (green tea extract), *Chamomilla recutita (chamomile extract), *Pelargonium graveolens (rose geranium oil), Rosmarinus officinalis & Thymus vulgaris & Salvia officinalis, Phenoxyethanol, Benzoic acid and Dehydroacetic acid (preservative system), *Geraniol, *Citronellol, *Linalool, *Citral, *d-Limonene (from essential oils). *87.3% certified organic ingredients
Lavera Sun Sensitive Organic Neutral Sun Milk SPF20 (Active ingredient: Zinc Oxide, Titanium Dioxide)
This is a very thick cream and I found it quite hard to apply on my face without dragging. It also left the most noticeable white tint of all the products I tried, although this wasn’t as visible a few minutes after application. It’s not my choice for everyday application but I think it would be if I was on holiday or at the beach and exposed to more sun or dry air. If you’re less bothered by how you look, it feels very protecting and as if it will be much more resistant to sweat and sand. It also contains ingredients designed to calm skin that is being exposed to more irritants (sun, salt, heat, wind) – licorice extract (which studies indicate is a good ingredient for soothing rosacea), sea buckthorn oil and vitamin E. It’s also free from flower extracts, herbal extracts and essential oils so an excellent choice for those with really sensitive and easily irritated skin. I like Lavera’s focus on sensitive skin and their commitment to use zinc oxide so I’m inclined to explore more of their sun products in search of a slightly lighter formula.
It retails at £10.50 but if you purchase now on the Lavera UK site, pravera, you will get a free sun protection lip balm worth £5.50.
Ingredients: Aqua, Glycine Soja Oil*, Zinc Oxide, Polyclyceryl-3 Ricinoleate, Titanium Dioxide, Glycerin Alcohol, Tricaprylin, Canola Oil, Glyceryl Oleate, Helianthus Annuus Seed Oil, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis Oil*,Simmondsia Chinensis Oil, Tocopheryl Acetate, Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Glucose Glutamate, Oenothera Biennis Oil*, Dipotasssium Glycyrrhizate, Hippophae Rhamnoides Extract*, Tocopherol, Stearic Acid, Alumina, Betaglucan, Aloe Barbadensis Gel* Ascorbyl Palmitate
Neal’s Yard Wild Rose Daily Moisture SPF30 (Active ingredient: Zinc Oxide)
This is my current pick of the bunch and based on having to preorder in store and it being almost constantly sold out on the Neal’s Yard website, I’m not the only fan. This is a 100% mineral sunscreen with added antioxidant-rich rosehip oil and milk thistle to help counter the effects of the sun while protecting you from it. Crucially, it’s also the lightest product to apply and has no whitening effect whatsoever. The formula isn’t even white when it comes out of the tube; it’s a creamy beige-yellow. It smells quite strongly of rose so if that’s not your bag, it could be a problem, but it has a matt finish and is very easy to apply. I haven’t actually tried it without another moisturiser underneath, which I must do. I did notice that when you apply it over another product it feels slightly grainy. Not sure what that is but it’s not a huge problem and didn’t bother me too much, given all the other advantages. It is more expensive but I’m inclined to believe it’s worth that extra money.
Available from Neal’s Yard website (sometimes!) and in stores, retailing at £23.50.
Frankincense Firming Mask pictured to demonstrate packaging
Ingredients: Tapioca starch*, Zinc oxide, Helianthus annuus (Sunflower) seed oil*, Caprylic/Capric triglyceride, Glyceryl laurate, Glyceryl isostearate, Dextrin palmitate, Rosa canina (Rosehip) fruit oil*, Borago officinalis (Borage) seed oil*, Simmondsia chinensis (Jojoba) seed oil*, Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary) leaf oil*, Cymbopogon martinii (Palmarosa) herb oil*, Pogostemon cablin (Patchouli) leaf oil*, Boswellia carterii (Frankincense) oil, Pelargonium graveolens (Geranium) flower oil*, Polyhydroxystearic acid, Silybum marianum (Milk thistle) extract, Tocopherol, Citral, Citronellol, Coumarin, Eugenol, Farnesol, Geraniol, Limonene, Linalool * Organically produced ingredient Natural constituent of essential oils listed
Also on my to try list are products by Korres, Badger and L’Occitane’s Angelica range. I’ve read good things about them and will report back on further investigations into sunscreen when my budget allows!
I’d love to get feedback on the above. It’s been a bit of a slog putting things together and it would be great to find out if it’s helped anyone. Plus I’m always on the lookout for tips, so if you’ve got a mineral sunscreen you can’t do without, do let me know.