Choosing a Safer Sunscreen

by , | Jul 20, 2021 | Lifestyle

Summer is in full swing, which means long days in the hot summer sun! Whether you are lounging by the pool, strolling along the beach, or tending to a blossoming garden, healthy sun exposure allows your body to produce important Vitamin D. 

A note about Vitamin D: our bodies need it, and it’s easiest to get from direct sunlight. Experts recommend getting sunshine for about 10-30 minutes three times a week for people with light skin, while people with more melanin may need up to a few hours to produce the same amount of Vitamin D. If you’re going to be in the sun longer than that, sunscreen is essential to protect your skin from excess sunlight and resulting skin damage.

But there is more to choosing the right sunscreen than SPF! Have you ever considered what is in your sunscreen?

Ingredients in sunscreen are not only absorbed into our bodies, but also wash off into our waterways and oceans. Thus, choosing the right sunscreen means looking for ingredients that offer broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays and are safe for human and environmental health.   

Conventional sunscreen is typically chock-full of toxic chemicals linked to unwanted health risks, including cancer, hormone disruptions, and allergic reactions. Further, these toxic chemicals are dangerous to marine ecosystems. They pose a threat to coral reefs, which are essential for thriving coastlines, oceanic biodiversity and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

To combat harmful sunscreen ingredients, our partner Made Safe compiled a guide to choosing safer sunscreen, which includes a list of ingredients to avoid and safer alternatives. When looking for sunscreen, check the label to make sure none of these active ingredients are included: 

  1. Oxybenzone
  2. Octinoxate
  3. Octocrylene
  4. Homosalate
  5. Avobenzone
  6. Parabens
  7. Nanoparticles

Made Safe identified these ingredients as key chemicals of concern. They are so harmful to coral reefs and humans that sunscreens containing them have been banned from being sold in Hawaii and other island nations. Another important part of choosing the right sunscreen is understanding labels:

Reef Safe: This label has no federal regulations or legal standing, so can be misleading. To avoid confusion, look for sunscreen that contains only non-nanomaterial zinc oxide or non-nanomaterial titanium dioxide as active ingredients.

SPF: The sun protection factor, or SPF, indicates protection against ultraviolet B light rays. Higher SPF does not always mean more protection because these measures are often imprecise and unreliable. SPF 50 protects against 98% of UV rays, so anything higher does not mean significantly more coverage. Learn more about SPF values and other sunscreen tips from our partner the Environmental Working Group (EWG) here.

Broad spectrum: There are two types of ultraviolet (UV) rays — UVA and UVB — that can harm your skin. SPF is the level of protection sunscreen has against UVB rays, broad spectrum indicates that the sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays. 

Finally, consider other ways to protect yourself from the sun with these tips from EWG:

  1. Cover up with a shirt, hat or shorts; more coverage means more sun protection!
  2. Go outside in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid strong UV radiation.
  3. Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes against UV rays that cause cataracts.
  4. Find shade and take regular shade breaks.
  5. Choose lotion sunscreen over spray.

When switching from a conventional to conscious SPF product, keep in mind that mineral-based sunscreens with Titanium Dioxide or Zinc Oxide often leave a slight white cast, because the minerals don’t fully absorb into the skin. They have to sit on top of your skin in order to reflect the harmful rays of the sun. This is just a fact of mineral sunscreens. Too often, when top beauty brands talk about finding a sunscreen that doesn’t leave a white cast on your face or body, many recommend either a chemical sun barrier, which is harmful to you and oceans, or a nanoparticle physical barrier, which soaks into the skin and does not have scientific proof to back up safety. 

Nanoparticles or nanomaterial, often listed on chemical sunscreen packaging as “nano” are super-small particles, up to 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Their miniscule size makes them more bioavailable, so they get fast-tracked into your body, but we don’t fully understand what they do once in there! They do rub into skin better than standard mineral sunblocks, but the cost of this coverage is unknown and potentially hazardous to humans and marine ecosystems.

Made Safe and EWG both provide great resources for selecting sunscreen that is safer for you and the planet. Check for the Made Safe Certified icon or research your favorite brands on EWG’s Skin Deep Database.

If you want to add a little SPF to your daily routine (which we highly suggest!), we recommend Acure! Acure recently launched two new SPF day creams: Radically Rejuvenating SPF and Seriously Soothing SPF. We love that they prioritize customer and planet wellbeing by choosing clean, natural ingredients that are 100% vegan and paraben-free.

Even if you’re going out for your regular Vitamin D sunshine, the sensitive skin on the face should be protected by an SPF day cream, sunglasses, and a hat. Throw on a tank top and some shorts to give the sun more skin to work with and you’ll be making plenty of Vitamin D in no time!

Our team is so passionate about sunscreen that we built out a campaign to bring awareness to wider audiences with our partner Acure Beauty, educational posts about reef safety, chemical ingredients, and tips for an eco-friendly trip to the beach.

Acure was generous enough to send all of our interns SPF products that are broad spectrum, made with non-nano zinc oxide, and don’t leave a white cast! We have created unboxing videos, taken pictures of the products in beautiful places, tested the sunscreen out on ourselves… and concluded that we love it! We hope this campaign emphasizes the importance of sun protection for people and planet.

Stay safe and enjoy the sun!


  • Meredith Epstein

    Meredith graduated from Stony Brook University in May 2021 where she studied Environmental Studies and Psychology. She has always been passionate about the environment and influencing the people around her to practice sustainability in their everyday lives. She is thrilled to be an intern at Turning Green, and is very excited to see how this experience will shape her future in environmental work! She loves to travel, and her dream is to live in as many countries as possible during her lifetime, all while advocating and educating others about how to live an environmentally-conscious lifestyle. Some of her favorite things to do are travel, cook plant-based meals, go on nature hikes, continue to learn about the environment, and read Harry Potter, Nicholas Sparks, and John Green books!

  • Gabriela Nahm

    Gabriela is a senior at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. She is an Environmental studies major on the social sciences track with a minor in sociology. She has always had a strong love for the environment through years of hiking on the nearby Appalachian trail and other outdoor adventures, but she found her passion for Environmental Justice after watching There’s Something in the Water in her first environmental studies college course. She is the student ambassador for Davidson’s Sustainability Collective and is passionate about making sustainability an accessible choice for all students on campus. In her free time, she loves long walks, plant-based baking, and having dance parties.