How to Find a Non-Toxic Sunscreen that Works

The Slightly Greener Life Podcast | Episode 9

May 14, 2023

Hi and welcome back to The Slightly Greener Life! In today’s episode we’ll be talking about different types of sunscreen and how to a non-toxic sunscreen that actually works- because believe it or not, some types of sunscreen protect better than others!

We just got back from FL a few days ago, and coming fresh from a long Chicago winter, it’s always a little tricky getting accustomed to the FL sun!

We have a house in Florida that we also Airbnb and we like to go down there several times a year to get some work done and also to see all of our friends that now live down there. And this past week, it was beautiful weather it was sunny and warm every day, and of course, the day we got there, we were in hanging out in our pool. I’m always careful to put on my mineral sunscreen, so I didn’t do too bad. But we did go boating and I will say mistakes were made. I did come back with a little sunburn. I wanted to sit in the front of the boat and soak up the last day of sun because it was the last day of our trip and I knew I was going back to some chilly IL weather! I’m usually pretty good about going and sitting in the shade frequently, and I’m known to also bundle myself up in towels from head to toe to protect myself, but my friends and I were having fun relaxing in the sun, and I totally wasn’t thinking about and got nailed on the way back in. I made one of the sunscreen mistakes that I talk about not making, so I figured today is a good day to do a podcast episode on how to safely use sunscreens – because obviously I also need the reminder!

May is also Skin Cancer Awareness Month, so what better time than now and right before most of us are heading into warmer months to talk about safer sunscreen.

When I began outlining this episode, I felt like I was doing a research paper – I couldn’t stop looking at studies. But I want these podcasts to be all about simple solutions, so I will concentrate more there. I’m breaking this up into 2 episodes because there is so much info about sunscreens and how to find the safest, most non-toxic type that actually protects. 

Because we wear sunscreens to protect ourselves from the dangers of the sun, but believe it or not, we may need to protect ourselves from the dangers of some sunscreens!

So today we’ll talk about the 2 types of sunscreen there are and how they each work, and my favorite tips for using sunscreen correctly (because there are ways to use it wrong!). And of course, I wouldn’t let you go without giving you a couple of  my favorite safer sunscreen recommendations.

Before we dive in with this info, I’d like to say that I don’t always think that sunscreen is the best sun protection. As you’re about to find out, there are some ingredients in sunscreens that actually degrade in sunlight believe it or not, and even if you’re using a safer sunscreen that physically blocks the sun’s rays, there are ways to use it wrong (like I did last week in FL).

One of the best ways to protect yourself from the sun’s rays is to not be in the sun, especially during peak sun hours, for long periods of time. The best way natural sun protectionto protect yourself from the sun, which I know is easier said than done sometimes, is to stay in the shade as much as possible. And if you do have to be in the sun, to wear sun-protective clothing, a hat, and sunglasses.

I really love the sun-protective clothing route because as you’re about to find out, not all sunscreens protect equally. And if you burn quickly in the sun like I do, then it’s even more important to find the best sunscreen and use it correctly. 

Sunscreen is a great option for those times when you have to be out in the sun for longer periods of time, but I don’t think it should be solely relied upon as the only sun protection. You can still burn with sunscreen on, as you’re about to find out.

Now I did get a sunburn on the boat last week, but I will say I have been known to wrap myself head-to-toe in towels with just my eyes peeking out if I can’t find shade on the boat, or if I’m just enjoying sitting up front and feeling that breeze. And yes, my friends still talk about it haha, but I know my skin!

Before we move into the types of sunscreen, the term you’re about to hear me say quite often is Active Ingredients. You may be familiar with this term or have seen it on a lot of product labels. On personal care products, like sunscreen, you will typically find it on the top part of the label. Active ingredients means that these are the ingredients that do the job, in the case of sunscreen, it means these are the chemicals protecting against the sun. You’ll also see inactive ingredients on the label towards the bottom. The ingredients in this section doesn’t mean that they don’t have any health effects, it just means that these are the other ingredients in the formula. We’ll get more into these next week.

And while we’re here, remember that all this information, including ingredients to avoid, what to look for in a safer sunscreen, and a couple of my favorite safer sunscreens will also be listed on my website at


  1. Chemical Sunscreen

The first type we’ll talk about is chemical sunscreen. This is the most common type of sunscreen, and usually uses a combination of anywhere between 2 to 6 of these active ingredients: Avobenzone, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Homosalate, Octinoxate, & Oxybenzone.

But a study conducted by the FDA in 2019 revealed that these 6 common chemicals found in sunscreen are being absorbed from the skin into the bloodstream after just a single day of use.

They have been found in significant amounts in the bloodstream, well above FDA’s threshold for what they considered to be safe  All six UV filters penetrated through the skin and ultimately got into the blood stream, well above the the FDA’s threshold even after just a single topical application of the sunscreen product. and remained above the threshold until 23 hours after application. The systemic exposures of all tested ingredients remained above the threshold in more than 50% of participants up to 7 days for avobenzone, octisalate, and octinoxate; 10 days for octocrylene; and 21 days for homosalate and oxybenzone. 

The FDA wants manufacturers to research these before they can be considered GRASE or “generally regarded as safe and effective.” 

Here are just a few of the health effects known about these active ingredients:

Some of these ingredients are showing traits of being hormone disruptors. If you’re not sure what these are, I did a whole episode on them in episode 5 with the title “Endocrine Disruptors” so be sure to listen if you haven’t yet. 

The first ingredient we’ll talk about is Avobenzone. Avobenzone is a sunlightIngredients to Avoid in Sunscreen filter that can degrade when exposed to sunlight, so it needs to be paired with another active ingredient to remain stable. It has the potential to absorb into skin through several different avenues, but there is not enough data to to know for sure. The FDA stated that they expect that avobenzonewill include the limitation that it is not GRASE (again, “generally regarded as safe and effective”) for use in sunscreen products unless it has been photostabilized to prevent its photodegradation. 

Octocrylene is typically added to stabilize avobenzone and other UV filters. It can build up in body tissues for long periods after exposure and has a relatively high rate of skin allergies. When exposed to UV light, it can produce free radicals that can damage cells and cause mutations. And exposure to octocrylene may disrupt normal vitamin D synthesis in the skin.

Octinoxate, also known as Octyl Methoxycinnamate or Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate, is also typically photo-unstable and degrades faster when combined with avobenzone. It carries a high risk of irritation. Some concerns exist about its potential for developmental and reproductive toxicity, as well as estrogen-like effects.

Octisalate, also called Octyl Salicylate or Ethylhexyl Salicylate, provides a poor range of UVB protection and It can cause allergic reactions, particularly in individuals with a salicylate allergy.

Homosalate is a potential hormone disruptor and can cause allergic reactions.

Oxybenzone is a hormone disruptor that acts like estrogen in the body. It has been associated with endometriosis in women. Oxybenzone can penetrate the skin and has high rates of skin allergies. Some research suggests a potential link between oxybenzone and lower testosterone levels in adolescent boys, hormone changes in men, and adverse effects on pregnancy outcomes and birth weights. It is also known to cause allergic reactions like photocontact dermatitis. Individuals with preexisting skin conditions or photosensitivity should be cautious with this ingredient.

Octinoxate and oxybenzone have been banned for use in Hawaii and Key West for their effects on the aquatic environment.

Five of the active ingredients, Octinoxate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, homosalate, and octisalate, were studied to see if they increased the absorption of herbicides. They were studied along with the herbicide 2,4, D (an herbicide that can also act as an endocrine disruptor). All but octrocrylene led to a significant increase in total 2,4-D penetration as compared to the control, resulting in the study stating that the active ingredients of sunscreen formulations enhance dermal penetration of the herbicide 2,4-D.

A study published in 2021 suggests that certain organic UV filters, including octinoxate, avobenzone, and homosalate may have negative effects on our sex hormones. Avobenzone and Octinoxate have been found to potentially affect thyroid function in laboratory testing.. While there is limited research on humans, Octinoxate has been linked to reduced male hormone activity, and homosalate has been associated with an increased risk of polycystic ovary syndrome. 

Most sunscreens protect against UVB rays, and while these are the rays that cause sunburn, they are also the light that helps your skin produce vitamin D. Most chemical sunscreens don’t protect against UVA rays (unless they are labeled as “broad spectrum”). And while UVA rays don’t produce sunburn, they do penetrate deeper into the skin, causing premature aging the skin. The scientific evidence linking UVA exposure to skin cancers has also increased, and suggests that UVA wavelengths continue generating DNA lesions hours after UV exposure and that these lesions can form “UV-induced mutations in many genes that have been detected in both melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers.” 

So I think that is about enough evidence for why chemical sunscreens may not be the best option. Included in that 2019 study, The FDA proposed that both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide be classified GRASE because their review of the evidence has produced sufficient safety data and evidence also suggests that few if any zinc oxide or titanium dioxide particles penetrate the skin. However, both of these ingredients have been found to be harmful when inhaled, so they should not be used in powdered for spray forms.

2. Mineral Sunscreens

Now that we’re talking about zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, let’s  move onto mineral sunscreens, because these 2 ingredients are the active ingredients that make up mineral sunscreens. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide create a barrier on your skin that can reflect and scatter the sun’s rays away from your skin.

Mineral sunscreens provide better UVA protection (most chemical sunscreens protect mainly against UVB rays, which cause sunburn, but the UVA rays cause more damage inside the skin, where it’s not as visible), are more stable in sunlight, have fewer health effects, and are a good choice for children.

However, both of these ingredients have been found to be harmful when inhaled, so they should not be used in powdered or in spray forms.As far as sun safety, here are a few simple tips:

How to Apply Sunscreen 

Use a mineral sunscreen that contains only Titanium Dioxide and/or Zinc Oxide as their Active Ingredients

Make sure you’re applying enough.When is the last time you checked the back of the bottle to see how much to apply? (if you said never – that’s my answer, too!) If we’re not using enough, we’re not getting the full protection we need. Consumer Reports recommends using one teaspoon of sunscreen per area of the body, and the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a nickel-size amount just for the face.

Apply it BEFORE you go outside. You should apply sunscreen about 15 minutes before heading outside. That’s how long it can take to absorb into skin and do its work.

Re-Apply often. Sunscreens aren’t meant to last all day, and even most water-resistant sunscreens only work for 40 minutes in water. Always be sure to reapply it after swimming or sweating (making sure to completely towel-dry first), even with water-resistant sunscreen, and a good general rule of thumb is to apply it every 2 hours (more if in the water or sweating).

Get in the shade whenever possible, and Avoid sunlight when the rays are the strongest, typically between 10 am and 4 pm.

If you’ll be outside for hours at a time, sunscreen should not be your first line of defense. It isn’t meant to last all day, and there is a lot of room for error in how it’s applied and how often.

To be safe, stay in the shade as often as possible, and if you do have to be in the sun, use a mineral sunscreen, sun protective clothing, and a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. 

Don’t use spray sunscreens – They have inhalation risks and because the spray goes everywhere, it’s also very easy to miss a spot or to apply too little

Here’s a quick review:

2 TYPES OF SUNSCREEN: Chemical and Mineral sunscreens:

  1. Chemical sunscreens protect with active ingredients such as Avobenzone, Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Octisalate, Homosalate, and Octocrylene

-Some of these actually degrade or become unstable in sunlight, so more chemicals are needed to stabilize them. 

-Some of these are linked to health effects such as hormone disruption, allergic reactions, and skin irritation

  1. Mineral sunscreens protect with active ingredients such as Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide

-These ingredients physically block the sun’s rays and scatter them away from skin.

-They’re more stable in sunlight and offer better protection against both UVB and UVA rays

A couple of my favorite mineral sunscreens are Beauty by Earth, All Good, Goddess Garden, and Badger. I love these because not only are they mineral sunscreens, but they contain safer inactive ingredients, also. We’ll be talking more about what other ingredients to be on the lookout for in next week’s episode!

And that’s it for this week! Thank you so  much for joining me, and remember, all of the info from this episode can be found on my website at See you next week!