Sunscreen is the final, most unexciting step in anyone’s morning routine, but it’s by far the most important. Just ask anyone in the worshipped world of skincare; dermatologists, aestheticians, and makeup artists will all tell you that the sun plus your skin is a dreadful equation. Aside from being the primary driver of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer (The World Health Organization states there are 132,000 new cases per year), the sun’s harmful rays will age you like nothing else, other than a cigarette habit. It triggers everything from hyperpigmentation to wrinkles and broken capillaries—aka what we spend the rest of our regimen trying to prevent. While we’re also beginning to understand the destructive role that pollution and blue light can also play, a sunny day at the beach is our skin’s biggest concern and experts agree that daily use of diligent protection is a must. Luckily, the market has caught up to our needs with a smattering of non-toxic products from innovative female founders that defend from all angles, making layering up easier than ever.
Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreen
From prestige splurges to drugstore steals, choosing a sunscreen really boils down to two options: chemical or mineral. Chemical formulas, which use active ingredients like avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, or oxybenzone, are a tempting choice due to their highly absorbable textures and ease of use (misty aerosols appeal when chasing around kids, and highly blendable creams can be re-applied in a jiff). These ingredients catalyze a chemical reaction when exposed to the sun, transforming the UV rays into heat, which is then released from the skin. But many of these active ingredients can cause harm: packed with anywhere from two to 12 damaging synthetic compounds, these formulas are now being examined for long-term adverse effects. A recent study from the FDA concluded that some of chemical sunscreens’ active ingredients might be absorbed into the bloodstream after only a single use, calling for further industry testing to determine the safety of systemic exposure. More specifically, according to the Environmental Working Group, the Public Enemy Number One ingredient is oxybenzone, which is known to cause allergic skin reactions and thought to be an endocrine disruptor (it is even linked to cancer). Furthermore, some of these ingredients have been found to cause irreparable damage to our marine life (more on that later).
“The UV radiation that travels through windows—of your house, car, and airplanes—certainly affects and ages your skin.”
On the flip side, mineral-based blocks act as a physical barrier by sitting on top of skin, reflecting ultraviolet radiation away from the body (rather than absorbing it), which eliminates potential harm altogether. Blair Murphy-Rose, a New York Dermatologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at Weill Cornell Medical Center, says to look for a broad-spectrum formula with physical barrier-blocking ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. “These active ingredients are not only less likely to elicit allergic reactions, but they’re safer for the environment compared to many chemical sunscreen ingredients on the market,” she says. She also notes that while most of us understand that the sun’s harmful rays can penetrate cloudy skies, many don’t know the importance of wearing SPF indoors. “You are absolutely doing yourself a disservice if you limit your sunscreen use to sunny days outside,” she says. “The UV radiation that travels through windows—of your house, car, and airplanes—certainly affects and ages your skin.” Citing increased skin cancer rates for pilots with exposure to powerful UV radiation at 30,000 feet, she also stresses using good sun protection if you’re flying. “When traveling by plane, keep the window shade down as much as possible—it’s even better to fly at night if you can.” Because we will take that trip to Europe at some future date.
The Future of Zinc
While non-toxic formulas continue to improve, a central complaint with mineral-based sunscreen is that it can impart a chalky film (often called a white caste) when applied—an issue that’s heightened for women of color. Finding a brand that successfully produced well-absorbed micronized minerals and with a non-ashen residue was an issue for Shontay Lundy, founder of Black Girl Sunscreen, a clean brand of suncare that blends into skin without leaving a white trace. “The myth is that ‘Black don’t crack’ and that we have a special shield called melanin, when in fact we’re still susceptible to melanoma, sunburn, hyperpigmentation, dark spots and premature aging,” says Lundy. “Due to lack of education and manipulation, women of color have been intimidated to wear sunscreen simply because of the way it makes us look.”
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Sasha Plavsic, founder of Ilia, a clean line of skincare-powered makeup, faced similar “casting” issues when creating her new SPF-driven makeup, after noticing there was a limited range of shades on the market. But conquering this problem was a trickier task than imagined because she wanted to use non-nano zinc particles—anything smaller can find its way into your bloodstream. “It’s especially challenging to work with non-nano zinc oxide, as this natural broad-spectrum mineral sunscreen usually has a white cast, making it hard to create darker shades,” says Plavsic. “For our new Super Serum Skin Tint 40, we’re working with a patent-pending form of zinc that is able to apply seamlessly without producing the ghosting effect.” (She’s now able to offer 18 skin tone matches, ranging from very fair to deep.) By layering in performance-driven ingredients like hyaluronic acid and niacinamide, Plavsic considers it to be a multi-functional, “one-and-done” product. “I have customers writing in to tell us how this serum is improving their skin over time.”
Sunscreen and the Environment
While textures and tones are certainly important to the SPF conversation, the dialogue extends well beyond aesthetics. Certain sunscreen ingredients are found to have a detrimental impact– not only on our health, but on the environment, as well. According to research from the International Coral Reef Initiative, it’s estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the oceans each year (including residue that gets rinsed down the drain), which damages marine ecosystems (like coral reefs) that not only protect seashores from storms and floods, but are home to thousands of species of marine wildlife. The aggressors are ingredients found in chemical sunscreens (oxybenzone, not shockingly) as well as some nanoparticles found in mineral sunscreens which, just like your skin, reefs can ingest. Once these chemicals or nanoparticles collect on the coral, they cause bleaching, can injure the corals’ DNA, or kill them altogether. This issue has become so detrimental in beach-centric Hawaii that in 2021, it will become the first state to ban the sale of sunscreen products that contain these toxic ingredients.
Smaller suncare companies are stepping up, offering cleaner formulas that help to protect threatened marine life. Kara Goldin, founder of Hint Water and enthusiastic snorkeler, moved into the sunscreen category when her dermatologist suggested she avoid certain commonly used chemical ingredients, especially as a fair-skinned redhead. For her, it was crucial to omit all-things-toxic. Since her best-selling Hint pineapple and grapefruit sun sticks were already reef-safe, she wanted to create something complimentary for the whole body (and just like her cult fruit-smacked water, the sunscreen has a similar sensorial kick). “I wanted to take our sunscreen line one step further and offer a reef-safe formula that has the same attributes of our original oxybenzone and paraben-free products,” she says. “We had to be sure that it still had the beautiful dry down, the ease of application, the signature scents, and the serious sun protection.”