The 19 Best Clean Sunblocks + Summer Essentials
Easy is the essence of summer. Sun-safety, on the other hand, is complicated—and that lack of clarity can cause even the most health-minded among us to grab whatever’s lying around with a mumbled “I’m sure it’s fine,” as we’re packing a beach bag. With the help of the newest sun-safety sunscreen report from the Environmental Working Group, this guide aims to simplify—and elevate—the options, so “whatever’s lying around” can be the optimal, easy summer choice.
The most important message is simple: sun products are imperfect. Shade is the best sunblock there is—a hat, an umbrella, a grove of trees, a porch awning, a rashguard, a chic black boy-shorted surf suit, or even a crisp, extra-long white button-down should always be the first line of defense. Sunrise and sunset are the moments for the beach or the pool; high noon is for lazy lunches and siestas, out of the strongest, skin-damaging (not to mention decidedly less flattering) light.
That said, you do need a good bottle (or several) of sunblock. Most critically, it should be sunblock (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, also known as physical or mineral sun protection) as opposed to chemical sunscreen; according to EWG, zinc oxide is the absolute best in terms of UVA-UVB protection. “Just even looking at it, zinc oxide’s this literal shield against the sun,” says Manhattan dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman. “Not much gets through it—physical blockers are sort of a no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned.”
Why Chemical Sunscreens Are A Bad Idea
Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, are bad for so many reasons it’s hard to know where to start: The most popular one, oxybenzone, is an endocrine disruptor that the CDC study found in the urine of 96% of Americans (it, and many other sunscreen chemicals, are also found in human breast milk, blood, and tissues). Listed as an ingredient in 70% of the sunscreens tested by EWG, oxybenzone is an incredibly common “sun protection” ingredient; along with with octinoxate (octylmethoxycinnamate), it’s also the most toxic.
Besides disrupting hormones in humans and animals, many sunscreen chemicals kill coral (as if coral isn’t under enough attack already), and many are known skin allergens and irritants.
Chemical sunscreens break down in sunlight, so that “daily” SPF moisturizer that you put on before work is probably gone by lunchtime. To keep their sunscreens from degrading in sunlight as quickly, cosmetics companies add “penetration enhancers” that drive the chemicals into skin and help them stick; some of these chemicals carry their own health risks, along with encouraging hormone-disrupting sunscreen chemicals to penetrate the body more deeply.
In terms of clean mineral daily SPFs, John Masters makes a fantastic daily SPF 30; Coola, True Nature Botanicals, and Beautycounter make tinted versions (the tint helps with blending the product and gives a healthy glow in a truly amazing feat of non-chemical gorgeousness), both with SPF 30 that rubs into skin like a dream.
Chemical sunscreens, which work by absorbing the sun’s rays, as opposed to deflecting them, as mineral sunblocks do, vary dramatically in their ability to protect the skin from UVA (wrinkle- and melanoma-causing rays, as opposed to the sunburn- and non-melanoma-cancer-causing UVB). In fact, there’s little evidence to support the (many) claims that sunscreen helps prevent cancer. The National Cancer Institute reports that the rate of new melanoma cases has tripled since the 1970s; sunscreen use has increased dramatically over those years, so the rates should have gone down, not up. SPF numbers relate to UVB protection, not UVA.
Clean Mineral/Physical Sunblocks Are Much, Much Healthier
In short, buy mineral sun protection. Best-case scenario, buy mineral sunblock made with zinc oxide. While both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are vastly preferable to chemical sunscreens, the EWG rates zinc oxide most highly because it’s better at deflecting UVA rays. If you have sensitive skin, zinc oxide actually helps calm irritation (it’s the primary ingredient in most diaper rash creams) as opposed to irritating it (conventional sunscreens are among the beauty industry’s most potent irritants). “Zinc oxide’s even used as a barrier paste for wounds where the skin breaks down, like bedsores,and titanium’s so non-reactive, we use it to replace joints,” says Engelman. “They’re what I put on my baby and what I put on myself—think about it, why wouldn’t you treat your own skin the way you treat your baby’s?”
Check the “active ingredient” section on the label and make sure there’s nothing in there besides zinc oxide or titanium—”mineral-based” sunscreens can be laced with oxybenzone or other chemical sunscreen ingredients.
If you’re exercising or going in the water at all, water-resistant to either 40 or 80 minutes (it should state the time on the label) is the way to go—it’s a myth that only chemical sunscreens can be water-resistant. Juice Beauty Sport SPF 30 is water-resistant to 80 minutes, made with zinc oxide, the company’s famous antioxidant juice complex, and a soothing blend of moisturizers; All Good SPF 50 Butter is made with coconut oil, organic calendula flowers, and zinc oxide, and it, too, is water-resistant to 80 minutes; Beautycounter’s Protect All Over SPF 30 is water resistant to 40 minutes and moisturizes with aloe, green tea, and blood-orange extracts; Trukid Sport SPF 30 sinks in with incredible ease and also is water resistant to 40 minutes; both are made with zinc oxide.
BONUS: Physical sunscreens don’t kill coral—as most chemical sunscreens do—so they’re especially critical to use if you’re swimming in the ocean.
Sun Protection Controversies
Nanoparticles are an issue for both chemical and mineral sun products—and the EWG says that as long as you’re not inhaling them, micronized and/or nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide particles are not much of a concern. The EWG notes that many all “no-nano” labeled sun products (both clean and conventional) do, in fact, contain particles that qualify as nano. Since you do inhale any spray formula as you spritz it on (yourself or kids), minimize risk by spraying into your hands, then applying; Babo’s spray, made with zinc oxide, is fantastically easy to smooth in.
Another potential problem associated with sun protection: If you’re doing a fantastic job of preventing sun damage/aging/cancer (which you’ll do if you go clean and work sunblock into your daily routine), are you putting yourself at risk for Vitamin D deficiency—a factor in all kinds of diseases, including cancer? “My 88-year-old grandfather is a Southerner, and a devoted, very tanned golfer,” says Engelman. “He has been all his life—and believe it or not, even he has a vitamin D deficiency. The point is, being in the sun doesn’t save you from not getting enough vitamin D—it’s important to get tested, and to supplement, with food and with actual supplements, if you need it. It definitely shouldn’t be an excuse to go in the sun without protection.” (Engelman herself gets tested once a year, and takes 50,000 iu of Vitamin D every day—more on Vitamin D to come in an upcoming issue.)
And the fact that no studies can prove that sun protection—mineral or chemical—necessarily helps prevent melanoma is confounding but nonetheless true. “There’s never going to be a study in humans that definitively proves it, because it’d be unethical to do the experiment needed,” says Engelman. “The thinking around cancer in general is a sort of a three-strikes idea: One strike might be a genetic propensity toward melanoma, the second might be a series of sunburns, and the third might be exposure to some sort of toxin. You wouldn’t take someone predisposed to melanoma and try one arm with sunblock, the other without. People use the lack of a definitive study to demonize sun protection—I think a lot of that is the money coming from the tanning industry.”
Again, the very best solution involves actual shade—or, along with assiduous sunblock application, some of the super-chic items below: