As a pale-skinned person, I’ve experienced my fair share of sunburns over the years. I know all too well the painful consequences of not properly protecting my skin from the sun. At the same time, however, I’m concerned about the harmful chemicals found in most commercial sunscreen brands these days. Furthermore, I also want to make sure I’m getting adequate amounts of vitamin D. Could there possibly be a way to stay protected from the sun, avoid harmful chemicals and get sufficient amounts of vitamin D? After doing some research into all natural sunscreen alternatives, I’m happy to say that there may be hope in sight.
Melanoma Risk or Vitamin D Deficiency? A Dangerous Catch-22
Growing up, I remember adults constantly reminding us to vigorously lather on sunscreen before going outside. The importance of sunscreen was never to be questioned, and the sun was made out to be a dangerous adversary.
This fear-mongering was not completely unfounded, of course. As more and more people are experiencing, the risk of developing skin cancer is now greater than ever before.
The rates of skin cancer, also known as melanoma, continue to rise drastically. Statistically, around 24 people out of every 100,000 people are now developing skin cancer every year. That’s up from just 8 people in 100,000 about 40 years ago. (1)
But if sunscreen is so effective, and if more people are applying it than ever before, then why is melanoma becoming ever more prevalent?
Radiation from the sun reaches the earth in two kinds of rays: UVA and UVB. For a long time, it was believed that UVB was the real culprit when it comes to skin cancer. Therefore, over the years, commercial sunscreen products focused on filtering out UVB rays and not UVA.
While UVB is certainly responsible for bad sunburns, UVA could potentially be more dangerous when it comes to the risk of developing skin cancer. Supposedly, it penetrates the skin at a deeper level than UVB does. The lack of attention paid to UVA rays, then, could be one reason for the soaring rates of melanoma.
As we’ll go over below, many of the chemicals found in sunscreens could also be directly responsible for rising skin cancer rates. People with lighter skin tend to go for products with a higher SPF. Unfortunately, the higher the SPF, the more amount of chemicals a sunscreen usually contains. (1)
We know that skin cancer is bad, and is certainly something we want to avoid. Even if we find a powerful sunscreen that blocks out both UVA and UVB rays, though, we may be preventing ourselves from enjoying one of the main benefits of sunlight: vitamin D.
As mentioned in detail in this article, vitamin D deficiency is associated with symptoms like osteoporosis, cardiovascular diseases and depression – just to name a few!
When it comes to either sunscreen or sun exposure in general, it seems we are damned if we do, damned if we don’t.
Can a Healthy Diet Replace the Need for Sunscreen?
The potential risks and benefits of sunscreen is a hotly debated topic these days. Predictably, the mainstream media continues to tout the same message it always has – that we should never leave home without generously lathering ourselves with the same old commercial sunscreen brands.
Some in the “alternative health” movement, on the other hand, advocate the opposite approach. Isabell Z. of Natural News, for example, states in an article that “Sunscreen should be a last resort.” She goes on to argue that we can naturally protect ourselves from sunburn by eating a diet high in antioxidants. (2)
Dr. Mercola, in fact, advocates the consumption of a carotenoid called astaxanthin, which can be absorbed by eating seafood and algae. This compound is supposed to naturally help the skin protect itself against both UVA and UVB rays. (1)
While I can’t argue with the importance and benefits of a high antioxidant diet, I’ve definitely gotten bad sunburns even when my diet was at its healthiest.
Everyone’s skin tone is different, of course. If you’re on the more pale end of the spectrum, it’s not a good idea to think that a diet high in blueberries and seafood is an excuse to go out in the sun all day with no consequences.
Some form of external protection from the sun’s rays is definitely important. But with all the chemicals in commercial sunscreens, what type of natural or organic sunscreen alternatives, if any, are out there?
First of all, let’s look at some of the main toxic chemicals found in many commercial sunscreen brands before learning about natural alternatives. That way, you’ll have an idea of what ingredients you should be avoiding.
Can the Chemicals in Sunscreen Cause Cancer?
Many people are now coming to the conclusion that it’s not just the sun that can cause cancer, but sunscreen itself. Below are just a few of the harmful chemicals found in many commercial sunscreen products:
Oxybenzone: Also known as benzophenone-3, this toxic chemical is found in a large majority of commercial sunscreens in addition to many other skin care products. The chemical disrupts the hormones and is known to cause allergic reactions. When absorbed via sunscreen, it often enters the bloodstream and ends up staying in our bodies for a long time. (3)
Triethanolamine: This common ingredient is linked to allergic reactions, long-term skin damage and immunotoxicity. (4)
Retinyl palmitate: This chemical has been shown to actually increase the amount of free radicals in our systems when exposed to sunlight. Therefore, sunscreen with retinyl palmitate in it could actually increase our risk of skin cancer. (3)
Octinoxate: This ingredient has been linked to premature aging and problems with the thyroid gland.
Avobenzone: When exposed to the chlorine in pool water, this ingredient becomes especially toxic. The other chemicals produced by this reaction, phenols and acetyl benzenes, are linked to cancer and a weakening of the immune system. (3)
These are just some of the ingredients found in most commercial sunscreen brands these days. I happen to have a few different bottles of sunscreen at home and I took a look at the ingredients on the back. The list of chemical is enormously long, and written in such tiny print that they’re nearly impossible to read!
It’s no surprise then why so many people just ignore the back labels when shopping for sunscreen. But that doesn’t come without its consequences. So when people start to wonder: Can the chemicals in sunscreen cause cancer? The answer is sadly ‘yes.’
Fortunately, a number of natural sunscreen alternatives exist which can either be purchased or made at home. It’s very important that we educate ourselves on the topic if we want to avoid the adverse effects of toxic sunscreen ingredients, while preventing melanoma and vitamin D deficiency.
Some of the Best Natural Alternatives to Chemical-laden Sunscreen
Applying coconut oil to your skin is an effective way to partially block out UV radiation while still getting some vitamin D. Coconut oil, though, has a low SPF. Depending on the variety, it may be as high as 8, but most kinds of coconut oil sunscreens have an SPF of around 4. An SPF of 4 can only protect you from the sun for about 45 minutes, while only blocking out 20% or so of the sun’s rays.
Depending on how you look at it, though, that could be considered a good thing. Higher SPF sunscreens block out over 90% of the sun’s rays, but that also means preventing the user from absorbing highly beneficial vitamin D. In any case, coconut oil should only be used as sunscreen in certain situations. (5, 6)
Unless you want a painful sunburn, don’t bother with coconut oil sunscreen if you’re going to be spending all day at the beach. However, using coconut oil for sunscreen can be beneficial if you simply want to get a tan. This is best done by going out in the sun daily for brief increments (under 20 minutes) at a time.
If you’ve already gone too far and are currently experiencing a sunburn, you may be interested to learn that coconut oil is better at treating sunburn than it is at preventing it.
So is coconut oil sunscreen a good natural alternative to chemical-laden commercial sunscreens? No, not quite, as it only works for small increments of time. As we’ll detail below, though, many people are using coconut oil as just one ingredient of many in their homemade natural sunscreen recipes.
Zinc Oxide Sunscreen
Like many other products on the market, there was a time when even commercial sunscreens relied much more on natural ingredients than they do today. One of the most important components of sunscreen has traditionally been zinc oxide. As the name suggests, zinc oxide is an oxidized form of zinc.
Without getting too deep into the chemistry, zinc oxide is a compound that can form in nature, although only rarely. Though much of it might be synthesized in a lab these days, the compound itself is naturally occurring and not something concocted by humans.
When used in sunscreen, zinc oxide helps protect the skin by making the UVA and UVB rays bounce off of it. It’s generally considered to be a safe ingredient and has been used in skin care products for decades.
So if zinc oxide is both safe and effective at protecting the skin against harmful rays, all we have to do is look out for ‘zinc oxide’ on the ingredients list, right? Well, there are a number of other factors you need to look out for too, even if your sunscreen lists zinc oxide as a main ingredient.
Traditionally, consumers of zinc oxide sunscreen have not always happy with the thick film the sunscreen leaves on the skin. This prompted many manufacturers to come up with an alternative method of making it. This method involves shrinking down the particles of the sunscreen into nanoparticles, making it easier for the skin to absorb. Unfortunately, these nanoparticles may cause more harm than good.
While normal zinc oxide is a great natural sunscreen because it remains stable in heat, this doesn’t apply for its nanoparticle version. When heated up, these nanoparticles may even be toxic, potentially resulting in the formation of free radicals and increased inflammation.
If that weren’t bad enough, shrinking down the zinc oxide particles may also make the formula much less effective at protecting the skin against UVA rays. (1)
Therefore, when looking for a great natural sunscreen alternative, you want to look for a zinc oxide sunscreen that is both ‘non-nano‘ and which also lacks harmful added chemicals.
While I have yet to try this brand myself, Badger Balm sunscreen advertises itself as an effective non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen.
You may also want to consider Dr. Mercola’s own brand of sunscreen called ‘Broad Spectrum.’
Thanaka Powder has long been used in the country of Myanmar (formerly Burma) as a natural way to protect the face from the sun. One of the main ingredients of Burmese Thanaka powder is wood from the Thanaka tree which is native to the region. This partially explains why thanaka is not very well-known internationally.
As thanaka powder has been used for thousands of years, its effectiveness as a sunscreen has surely stood the test of time. Thanaka powder sold on its own is not very easy to find outside of Myanmar or Southeast Asia, though. Furthermore, while it may be stylish in Myanmar, walking around with powder all over your face might not be received as well in other countries.
As more and more people are learning about this safe and natural sunscreen alternative, however, the ingredient is gradually finding its way into more products aimed at the foreign market.
One product that’s been making waves recently is called MANDA, an organic sunscreen which consists of thanaka powder, coconut oil and shea butter, among other ingredients.
A number of natural oils have also been found to act as natural sunscreens. Carrot seed oil, for example, has an SPF as high as 40, while wheatgerm oil has an SPF of 20. Meanwhile, raspberry oil is said to have an SPF between 28 and 50. (7)
Homemade Sunscreen Recipes
If you want to be 100% sure of what you’re putting on your skin, you may want to try creating some all natural sunscreen yourself. Luckily, most popular recipes seem relatively easy to prepare, as long as you have the right ingredients. Furthermore, you can easily find these recipes all over the internet, especially on sites like Pinterest.
Before you get too excited, you’d be best off testing out these homemade recipes in small increments of time before trying them out during long days at the beach. Also, be sure they work fine on yourself before having your children try them.
Even before testing them out in the sun, you also want to make sure they’re not causing any rashes or allergic reactions.
Here are a few recipes I recently discovered and am hoping to try out soon:
- Stephanie Gerber of ‘Helloglow’ provides some excellent instructions on how to create “Green Tea Infused Oil.” While green tea also helps protect skin against the sun’s harmful rays, it really needs to be mixed with some other ingredients to be effective as a sunscreen. Notably, one of the other main ingredients in Stephanie’s sunscreen recipe is coconut oil.
- This homemade recipe on the site Miracles of Health consists of carrot seed oil, coconut oil, zinc oxide and some other ingredients.
- This recipe from Organic Authority includes ingredients like carrot seed essential oil, shea butter, coconut oil, zinc oxide and more. The sunscreen is made by mixing up most of the ingredients in a jar before warming them up in a saucepan.
The EWG Natural Sunscreen List
Currently, a list created by a group called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is widely considered to be the most authoritative list of safe and effective sunscreens. You can find the list here.
Here are some other items on the list:
- ThinkBaby Sunscreen SPF 50+: Something to consider if you have small children
- Waxhead Sun Defense Zinc Oxide Vitamin D Enhanced Sunscreen, SPF 35: Another sunscreen which utilizes zinc oxide as a main ingredient
- California Tan Lotion, SPF 15: A relatively safe way to get a tan
- All Natural SPF 50 Biodegradable Visible Mineral Sunscreen by Tropical Sands: An all natural sunscreen that’s also biodegradable
- Deter Natural Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30: Another biodegradable, all natural sunscreen. It contains both zinc oxide and titanium oxide.
Do you have a favorite natural or organic sunscreen? Or do you have personal experience with any of the brands mentioned in this article? Feel free to leave a comment below to share your thoughts or recommendations!
Finding safe ways to protect our skin from UV rays while also getting enough vitamin D is an extremely important topic that deserves more of our attention. Fortunately, if you dig deep enough, you can find some great natural sunscreens that aren’t chock full of chemicals. And if you really want to get adventurous, you could always try making your own.