What do my mom and Baz Luhrman have in common? Their first bit of advice is always to wear sunscreen.
As I’ve grown up I’ve become equally as devoted to this addage. Now that SPF is an everyday necessity for me, I decided it was time to do the homework on the good, the bad, and the ugly.
What’s in your sunscreen?
My first stop to understanding sunscreen ingredients was The Skincare Edit. She isn’t in the business of peddling products for the sake of it, but instead does deep dives into the ingredients and science behind what we use–and what we shouldn’t.
In her expose on sunscreen, she makes a strong case for insoluble sunscreens as opposed to soluble ones which penetrate the skin. Her reasoning stems from this discovery:
Translation: some soluble sunscreen ingredients fuck with your sex hormones. YIKES.
This is a problem for all genders and all ages, but especially for women.
This begs the question: which ingredients are the ones that are going to seep into my skin, and how do I avoid them?
Cutting the fat from my stash
Homosalate is the ingredient that you’ll see a lot of, but ubiquity isn’t always synonymous with safety.
Homosalate is found in almost half of the commercially produced sunscreens. It’s widely used to help block skin cancer-causing UVB rays, but the problem is that its nanoparticles leach into the bloodstream. Loads of studies have shown that it sticks around in blood, urine, and breast milk, and that’s where the damage happens.
Perhaps the most damning bit of evidence is from Europe’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS); the FDA or TGA of Europe. The SCCS was one of the first to speak out against this ingredient, naming it dangerous at levels that exceed 0.5%. In the US, homosalate is still permissible in concentrations up to 15%. Apparently, the rules are similar here in Australia.
One look at my sunscreen collection and I it proved to be true. My OLAY moisturiser sunscreen has homosalate 3%.
Bad, but not terrible, I thought.
That’s when I dug out my beach day sunscreen. Ladies, you know what I’m saying when I tell you this is my *special* sun protection product. It stays stashed in my beach bag when I go out for ~me time~. I’d chosen a bottle of the sexy local brand Bondi Sands, which boasts of being not only Australian-made, but broad spectrum, 4+ hours water resistant, and paraben-free.
Then I read the ingredients list, with homosalate out front at 10%.
To my great devastation, Fenty’s Hydra Vizor is just as bad.
For the sake of sustainability, I’ll get through these products, and pretend I’m still sunbathing in blissful ignorance, but I absolutely won’t be purchasing again.
To make matters worse, scientific journals say homosalate isn’t even that strong a player in the first place. The evidence shows that “homosalate does not absorb UVA rays and has weak UVB absorption properties [and is] generally used in combination with other chemical absorbing sunscreen ingredients.”
“In combination with other chemicals” is another red flag. Homosalate isn’t the only endocrine-disrupting chemical, and the other trouble-makers are equally as common to sunscreen.
Oxybenzone is good at absorbing UVA rays, the one that can cause damage to your skin on a very deep level.
But this helpful mask is a rouse for its ulterior motives.
“In December 2020, the National Toxicology Program published a study on oxybenzone…, finding an increased rate of thyroid tumors in female rats potentially linked to exposure.”
That was enough for the SCCS to step in, deeming oxybenzone “unsafe for use at current levels.” However, US sunscreen manufacturers are still legally allowed to use oxybenzone up to 6% (for now).
Still, you’ll still find it in plenty of formulations hiding under the guise of sexy sunscreens and moisturizers in the Australia as well as the United States–except in Hawaii.
Oxybenzone is among the chemicals to blame for poisoning our precious coral reefs. In the name of oceanic preservation, the Aloha State banned oxybenzone in 2018. They are on track to ban two other ingredients by 2023.
Another chemical on Hawaii’s kill list? Avobenzone.
Avobenzone is common in sunscreen, and often accompanied by another common ingredient, octocrylene. The reason A doesn’t go anywhere without O is because, on its own, A deteriorates within a half an hour.
In sunscreen time, that’s a pretty shitty PR. Considering this ingredient’s shortcomings in sun protection and its harmful effects on the reefs, it’s a chemical in sunscreen to avoid.
A recent bill passed in Hawaii that will officially ban both octocrylene and avobenzone–which is good news for us and the ocean.
But with yet another common ingredient in sunscreen to avoid, what’s a girl to do?
How to choose the right sunscreen
I’ve done some research, but that pales in comparison to the 1,800 brands tested by the EWG–so I’m using their guidance to guide you on how to choose the best sunscreen.
What I learned from their research is this: like many things in life, it’s best to go back to basics.
First, make sure you hit the SPF sweet spot. Anything higher than 50 SPF, science says, is full of shit. SPF 30 is good, 50 is better, but a minimum of 15 is absolutely essential.
Once you flip the product over, the first ingredient to look for is zinc oxide. This is like that old-school lifeguard with a white nose sort of protection.
Zinc oxide is probably the most important insoluble ingredient in protection from both UVA and UVB light. Paired with its UVB-fighting bestie, titanium dioxide, you have safe and effective sun protection.
The downside? Some formulas do leave a white cast, also sometimes referred to as “white finish.” Keep an eye out for zinc formulas with a clear or transparent finish–these are your holy grail sunscreens!
Other ingredients a good sunscreen might have:
Though it’s not yet approved in the US (go figure), there is a new frontier of seemingly safe and effective ingredients for sunscreen in a class called “tinosorbs.”
We can get products with this ingredient here in Australia, and can come in these variations:
- Tinosorb A2B (tris-biphenyl triazine)
- Tinosorb M (bisoctrizole or methylene bis-benzotriazolyl tetramethylbutylphenol)
- Tinosorb S (bemotrizinol or bis-ethylhexyloxyphenol methoxyphenyl triazine)
If all of this seems like *too much* and impossible to remember, fear not. Here’s a little resource you can print for your wallet or screenshot to your phone to refer to while shopping.
SUNSCREEN INGREDIENTS TO AVOID:
- Methylisothiazolinone, a mad irritant–more on that another time
- fragrance, just added for scent
- TIP: if it looks like an essential oil name, it probably is.
- to go totally green, also scrap silicone, just added for slip
- TIP: if it ends in -cone, -conols, -silanes, and -siloxanes it’s probably a silicone. Not only sunscreen, but you should avoid it in hair products, too.
SUNSCREEN INGREDIENTS TO LOOK FOR:
- Titanium dioxide
- Zinc oxide
- Drometrizole Trisiloxane
- Tinosorb M, S, and A2B
Four Sunscreens with Safe Ingredients
1. If you’re in the States, you can opt for this affordable and skincare-approved sunscreen like this one from Blue Lizard (available at Walmart).
2. Here in Australia, I recently reached for SunSense Sensitive Invisible screen. Bonus points for packing in Niacinamide.
3. Another solid pick? Cetaphil UVA/UVB Defence SPF 50.
4. The hot product facial sunscreen available in Australia? Ultra Violette.
As I look at my Bondi Sands sunscreen–so pretty, so deceitful–it reminds me of the true lesson here: don’t judge a book by its cover. Safe sunscreens are available and accessible, but they’re often outshined by big price tags and shiny labels. Don’t let them be.
Many of the best and safest sunscreens are hiding behind unassuming labels but hold some of the most precious ingredients. Protection! For your skin! Which holds your body together! What could possibly be more valuable than that?