How to Pick the Healthiest Sunscreen
I’ll admit it: I like being tan. I like the way the sun makes me feel. This could be because the vitamin D derived from sunlight exposure has been associated with improved mood and an overall sense of wellbeing. It could also be because I have yet to find a bronzer that can quite deliver the magical glow that comes from a day spent poolside, with a piña colada in hand. But according to the FDA, “There is no such thing as a safe tan. The increase in skin pigment called melanin, which causes the tan color change in your skin, is a sign of damage.” Bummer.
As my search for the perfect bronzer continues (stay tuned), I thought I’d sit down with Kate Solomon, founder of Babo Botanicals, to get the scoop on sunscreen and how to pick the best one.
UVA? UVB? WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
“The sunlight that reaches the earth is made up of two types of [potentially] harmful rays: long wave ultraviolet A (UVA), and short wave ultraviolet B (UVB).” says Solomon.
UVA rays account for 90 to 95% of UV light. These rays penetrate deep into the dermis, the skin’s thickest layer, and are the rays responsible for skin aging, wrinkling, and tanning. UVA rays are present at relatively equal intensity all day long, at all times of the year, and they can penetrate clouds and glass.
When you’re inside or driving your car, you’re still exposed to UVA radiation.
UVB rays make up only 5-10% of solar light. These rays damage the skin’s more superficial layers, causing us to turn red and burn. (You can remember, “B means burn.”)
Unlike UVA rays, UVB rays cannot penetrate glass – so when you’re inside you’re protected.
WHAT DOES SUNSCREEN DO?
Most sunscreens primarily protect against UVB rays. The SPF of a sunscreen indicates how long it will take for UVB rays to redden your skin. For example, someone using a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 will take 15 times longer to burn than without the sunscreen. Sunscreens labeled “Broad Spectrum” do offer some protection from UVA rays but, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, there is no consensus on how much.
The good news is that sunscreen keeps your skin from burning, and protects against the UVB rays that are primarily responsible for basal and squamous skin cancers. The not-so-good news is that since your skin is not burning, you may be more likely to stay out in the sun longer, exposing your skin to more UVA rays.
CHEMICAL VERSUS PHYSICAL (MINERAL) SUNSCREENS
Active ingredients in sunscreens are either chemical or physical. Chemical sunscreens form a protective film on the surface of the skin, and absorb the UV radiation before it penetrates the skin. Physical, or, mineral sunscreens are insoluble particles that form a barrier on the surface of the skin and reflect UV rays away from the skin.
Chemicals approved by the FDA to screen both UVA and UVB rays include dioxybenzone, oxybenzone, and sulisobenzone. Approved UVA filters include avobenzone, ecamsule (Mexoryl SX), and meradimate. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), chemical UV filters have the potential to permeate the skin and enter the bloodstream. The EWG and other toxicology experts believe that topical application of chemicals such as oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate are linked to hormone disruption and potential cell damage, however, there is no current research indicating that these chemicals are harmful to humans. Both have been deemed safe by The Skin Cancer Foundation and the American Academy of Dermatology.
Physical sunscreens contain active mineral ingredients, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, and protect against both UVA and UVB rays. According to the Environmental Working Group, physical sunscreens have the best safety profile, as they are stable in sunlight, and do not appear to penetrate the skin. Babo sunscreens consist either exclusively, or primarily of zinc oxide. “Zinc is one of the only ingredients that covers the full broadband protection of both UVA and UVB rays on its own,” says Solomon. “Other active sunscreen ingredients need to be combined to get the full broadband protection.” Additionally, mineral sunscreens are effective immediately, whereas chemical sunscreens need to be applied 30 minutes before sun exposure, she says.
WON’T ZINC MAKE ME ALL WHITE?
While zinc may have the best reputation for sun protection, it hasn’t been the best, aesthetically speaking, until now. Babo’s 22.5% zinc oxide sunscreens disappear as they’re rubbed in – no mime face! According to Solomon, they encapsulate their non-nano zinc oxide in jojoba esters, so as it’s rubbed in, it becomes clearer. I was skeptical at first, but now I’m a full-on Babo believer. It really does disappear!
WHAT ABOUT VITAMIN D?
Vitamin D is a critical nutrient for helping the body absorb calcium and phosphorous, enabling bones and teeth to grow properly, supporting the immune system, and regulating our mood and mental state. Although it is possible to get vitamin D from food, 80-90% of the vitamin D our body gets is obtained through exposure to sunlight, says Solomon.
Recently, there has been a growing movement to forgo sunscreen in the name of getting vitamin D the all-natural way. But this can be tricky to gauge. The amount of vitamin D your body makes depends on your skin tone, the time of day, the time of year, and where you live. If you want to avoid the confusion – and the inevitable skin damage – you can keep the sunscreen, and get your vitamin D from supplements. Just make sure it’s in the form of vitamin D3 – this is the kind that’s made by our bodies (and the kind we use in all our SmartyPants vitamins).
KATE’S TIPS FOR PICKING THE BEST SUNSCREEN:
- Look for Zinc
Zinc is a “miracle mineral,” says Solomon. It sits on top of the skin to form a formidable barrier, and, as a single ingredient, it is the leading filter for UVA, UVB, and even UVC rays, she says. According to Solomon, if the zinc ingredient used in the sunscreen is non-nano, it doesn’t penetrate the skin.
“My recommendation is to always look for a broad spectrum, zinc-based sunscreen that is at least 30 SPF, with water-resistant protection.”
- Look out for questionable chemicals
Both Solomon and the Environmental Working Group recommend avoiding chemical sunscreens such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, which could be absorbed into the bloodstream, and topical application of retinyl palmitate, which has been linked to an increased risk of skin damage.
- Make sure it says “Broad Spectrum”
“If ‘broad spectrum’ is not on the label, do not buy it. It means that it does not screen against UVA and UVB rays.”
WHAT ELSE CAN YOU DO?
In addition to using a mineral sunscreen like Babo Botanicals, or others recommended by the EWG, there are several foods that have been proven to help protect against sun damage from the inside out (you can read more about them here).
The smartest skin-saving strategy (in our opinion) is to incorporate these and other anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich foods (think: fish, fruits, and veggies) into your diet, and use proper sun protection. If you’re going to be outdoors for longer than an hour or two, make sure you’ve got physical coverage (i.e. a hat, visor, t-shirt), and, whenever possible, take cover in the shade.
MORE ABOUT BABO
Kate Solomon began her career as a hair and skincare product developer for some of the biggest names in beauty, including L’Oreal, LVMH, Avon, and Redken (so she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to a well-formulated cosmetic!) She started Babo after she had her first child and was unable to find a line of products that both stood up to her professional standards, and was also safe and natural enough for her new baby.
“What goes on children’s bodies should be as natural as what goes into their mouths.”
– Kate Solomon, Founder of Babo Botanicals
Kate now works with top botanists, and most Babo products are made on a certified organic farm in upstate New York. All Babo sunscreens are made in an FDA-regulated facility.
Organic. Local. We’re in love.