Physical Health, Tips & Techniques, Wellness / Self-Care

How can you tell if a Sunscreen is safe?

Sadly, it is a tricky discernment.

words by: Natasha Marsh
Apr 30, 2022

The temperatures are starting to rise in New York City, and you can see the energy of the city rise, as well. Although the warm days are still few and far in between, there is never a better time to apply SPF. But did you know that some SPFs are better than others?


The beauty industry is largely unregulated and discovering safe products can be a full-time job. However, sunscreen is heavily regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, requiring many standards and certifications to be met before it goes out on shelf. Technically, all sunscreen has to be approved before use.


But lately, you might have noticed some recalls on popular sunscreen companies (remember Johnson & Johnson), begging the question: If sunscreen regulation is so strict, why do some have traces of “bad” ingredients in them? Although most formulas don’t include ingredients like benzene, they can sometimes get contaminated. So what should brands do? Screen for heavy metals and other contaminants? Sure. But what if they don’t find it in the larger ones and need to test on a batch-to-batch basis?


Generally speaking, there are two types of sunscreen: chemical and physical blockers.


There are studies now, testing physical sunscreens for health effects on the kidneys. Dermatologists often recommend mineral actives, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. They are made to sit on top of skin to block UVA and UVB rays, rather than absorb UV rays and convert them into heat before releasing them from the body like chemical sunscreens


Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are inert chemicals that are unreactive, meaning if it ends up in our bloodstream, it will be kicked out. However, European studies have found that when the nano zinc particles enter the blood stream, our bodies process it and doesn’t bioaccumulate.


To make things a bit more complicated, the matter of safety doesn’t stop with ingredient lists or testing protocols. When vendors, brands, customers, or chemists uncover possible damage of certain ingredients they can see the direct side effects it has on coral reefs and aquatic ecosystems.


This is why places like Hawaii, Australia, and the Virgin Islands have banned products like oxybenzone and octinoxate. A full list of banned ingredients can be seen on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where nano zinc and titanium dioxide are new additions on the list of ingredients that can be harmful to marine life. Sadly, this is a growing list, but not many brands consult this when considering their formulas.


Here’s how to find the best (safe) sunscreens for your skin type.


Photo via Viktor Solomin/Stocksy