The following essay is part of a 5 part series to help you understand the sun and your interaction with it for optimal health. It is designed to empower you as a critical thinker and inspire you to practice sun smart habits. In this fourth part we will be learning all about sunscreen, its safety and effectiveness.

In part 3 – we learned and reviewed how the sun works and why it has a damaging effect on our body. In part 4, we will get to know all about sunscreens.

In this series we will be first exploring the basics of how sunscreen works and understand first the difference between a sunscreen and a sun block. We will then go on to find out what sunscreen is made of and what SPF means and how it works. Finally, we will examine the health risks related to using sunscreen based on the latest research and offer some healthier alternatives.

Part 4 – Get to Know Sunscreen

Sunscreens are chemically synthesized lotions that work by blocking or absorbing ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Sunscreens thus, contain various special chemical ingredients that absorb ultraviolet (UV) radiation by forming a barrier on the skin’s surface. Energy from sunlight is converted to heat, which disperses away.

A broad spectrum sunscreen works by screening or absorbing both UVA and UVB radiation. However, sunscreens do not “screen” 100% of the UV rays and hence they cannot be used as an excuse to be reckless in terms of lengthy skin exposure to the sun.

The efficacy of sunscreens depends on 3 things:

  • the concentrations of individual active ingredients
  • their stability within a sunscreen formulation
  • the presence of stabilizing agents or antioxidant ingredients in the formulation

For common myths and misleading claims related to sunscreen and its usage check out the following list from Skin Deep.

What is the difference between sunscreen and sunblock?

Sunscreens are the most popular at the moment and as we learned above, they work by absorbing the UV radiation. Sunscreens are classified as “chemical” protectors. They are available in creams, lotions and gels. They are not noticeable on the skin. The chemicals that are most often found in sunscreens are usually different from the ones found in sunblocks.

Sunblocks, instead of absorbing UV rays, work by reflecting UV radiation. Sunblocks are considered “physical” protectors. Sunblocks used to be noticeable on the skin. At one time they could be spotted by the opaque white film, but new technology has created sunblocks with particles so tiny, that the opaque film is no longer noticeable. Chemicals most common in sunblocks include titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

What is sunscreen made of?

Sunscreen is a blend of organic and inorganic active ingredients.

Inorganic ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium oxide reflect or scatter ultraviolet (UV) radiation, like we heard about in the sunblock section above.

Organic ingredients like octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC) or oxybenzone absorb UV radiation, like we heard about in the sunscreen section above. The first and most common of the absorptive chemicals is PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid). It absorbs UVB rays only. Other sunscreen chemicals that absorb UV-A and/or UV-B rays include:

Active ingredients in sunscreens

  • Aminobezoic Acid
  • Anthranilates (absorb UVA and UVB)
  • Avobenzone
  • Benzophenone (absorb UVA)
  • Cinnamates like Cinoxate (absorb UVB)
  • Dioxybenzone
  • Ecamsules (absorb UVA)
  • Ensulizole
  • Homosalate
  • Meradimate
  • Octisalate
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • Oxybenzone
  • PABA
  • Salicylates
  • Sulisobenzone
  • Trolamine Salicylate

Active Ingredients in sunblocks

  • Iron Oxide
  • Titanium Dioxide
  • Zinc Oxide

Naturally most of these chemicals as tested by independent companies like Skin Deep range from medium to high toxicity levels, with something like the famous PABA, coming in as a 7 or highly hazardous substance. Hence, many opponents of sunscreens are now speaking out as to the health safety of these chemicals, which we will cover in the last section of this part.

For more information as to the hazardous level of your sunscreen, visit Skin Deep and type in your product into their search window. You can also check out their active ingredient summary.

What is the SPF?

SPF – stands for Sun Protection Factor. This indicates the level of protection you can expect to get out of a particular sunscreen based on time spent in the sun. It is however used only as a measurement tool for UV-B rays.

Most importantly it is necessary to note that NO AMOUNT of SPF will fully protect one from the sun! Just think about the last time you were out all day with sunscreen on, you may not have burned, but you still tanned and thus exposed skin to UV damage.

Most sunscreens on the market today come in an SPF of 15, 30 and 45. Recently however, due to the increasing sun damage and skin cancer rates, companies brought out ones with an SPF of 60, 70 and even up to 90!

However note the following excerpt from Skin Deep:

SPF 50 sunscreens provide just 1.3% more protection from UVB rays than SPF 30 sunscreens. It is more important, therefore, to apply sunscreen generously than it is to seek out products with ultra-high SPF ratings. When applying sunscreen, few people put on enough to actually reach the product’s SPF rating.

SPF works based on the “multiplying factor“. You have to factor in how much time you would normally be okay in the sun without burning or better yet, listen to your daily forecast to find out how long it will take that day to burn. Then you would multiply it by the SPF of the sunscreen you choose.

Hence, if you know that exposed skin will burn that day in 10 minutes and you have an SPF 30 sunscreen, by multiplying the 2 numbers together you would find out that you will get roughly 300 minutes or 5 hours of protection.

Even though that is the estimated way to go about it, if you are in direct sunlight most of the day, it is generally recommended to reapply the sunscreen at least every couple of hours due to things like perspiration which removes it. Also you have to reapply after swimming in the water too, even if it is a waterproof formula for best practice.

What are the health risks associated with using sunscreen?

Since the UV index made its huge debut in the 90′s, sunscreen sales went through the roof! Now almost 2 decades later, the tables are turning and medical authorities and scientists alike are questioning more and more the safety of sunscreen.

I always like to approach things from a common sense perspective and so think about this:

You do not need to be a doctor, scientist or chemist to understand this. If you just remember one basic principle from high school chemistry and that being that heat has a great affect on increasing chemical reactions. Now having said that, think about the numerous chemicals sunscreen is made of and add to that the constant presence of the sun that they are in. Add to that your skin, the medium in this case for these chemical reactions and you can end up with one toxic playground.

And that is aside from the fact that skin is capable of absorbing many substances through it and passing them directly into the bloodstream. Just think about the latest pharmaceuticals; birth control as a skin patch, smoking cessation skin patches, etc.

So like I said, from a common sense perspective you cannot fool yourself and feel that somehow the chemicals in sunscreen are the good guys, only there to protect you and never cause you any harm. Aside from the potential cancers and other serious health defects, sunscreens also can cause all sorts of mild to serious skin irritations and allergies.

In a slew of the latest studies, sunscreen is being brought into the spotlight not for preventing cancers, but actually for causing them. One of the latest, excellent articles, comes from one of our recommended sources Natural News. This article was just released today and so it could not have come at a better time to enhance our topic! The article is called “Sunscreen causes cancer” and in it author Mike Adams, informs us how there are over 150 cancer causing ingredients that make up many of today’s sunscreens. Many of these chemicals of course, get absorbed directly into our bloodstream. These can result not only in skin cancers, but various other cancers including liver damage. My favorite line from his article, one that I strive to live by myself, is when he says:

Don’t put anything on your skin that you wouldn’t eat!

In several other cited studies such as one from Skin Biology entitled “The Chemical Sunscreen Health Disaster“, scientists are actually finding that sunscreens are not only promoting skin cancers, but other cancers too, as well as estrogenic effects which can cause various sex developmental problems. This is due to the fact that sunscreen chemicals have free radical-generating properties. (Free-radicals are molecules that have mutagenic effects on our cells)

I really have nothing more to say in this section, as the above 24 page report from Skin Biology says it all. It is long, but it is easy to read, extremely comprehensive and backed up by various credible studies and doctors. I strongly urge anyone who is going to put sunscreen ever again on their body to read it as the education this report provides is priceless!!!

Are there any natural or healthier alternatives to traditional sunscreens?

Well that is a tough question to answer at first and generally speaking, I would have to say no. Your best natural protection are light, loose clothes that cover your body. However, thanks to some better formulations and more health oriented companies there are several alternatives which are safer than the traditional brands like Hawaiian Tropic and Coppertone, which are highly hazardous according to Skin Deep’s chemical database.

You can check out the list of the best sunscreens and their ratings. You can also compare your present sunscreens and make sure they do not end up on the most toxic sunscreen list.

You can also check out the list from Skin Biology, which gives you alternate sunscreen option with clearly laid out ingredients that can help de-toxify oxygen produced radicals from UV rays.

You can also block UV light with opaque creams like the white zinc oxide cream that you see lifeguards putting on their noses. These are generally less toxic, but again you would have to check out the ingredients if it is mixed with other substances for a better idea of their safety.

No matter what you go for, it is tough to pick the right sunscreen as the market is full of so many brands and varieties. Here is a tool that may help a little in the selection process. It is DERMAdoctor’s interactive tool, which can help you pick the sunscreen that is best suited for your needs, or at least give you some factors to consider.


On one hand we are told to stay out of the sun for fear of premature ageing and skin cancers. On the other hand we are told to go in the sun for overall health and vitamin D production. So what is one to do?

The full answer to this question is coming up in the final part of this series – Part 5: Maximizing the Benefits, Minimizing the Risks.

In the meantime, if you must or choose to use a sunscreen, look into one that is rated less toxic and a healthier alternative for your body and skin. Remember, we always have a choice as to which product to use, one must just exercise that choice in an intelligent way to get the most benefit out of it.

5 Part Sun Smart Series

Part 1 – Get to know the UV index

Part 2 – Get to know Your Skin

Part 3 – Get to know the Sun

Part 4 – Get to know Sunscreen

Part 5 – Summary: Maximize the Benefits, Minimize the Risks