We’re all aware of the risks associated with too much sun exposure, including  sunburn and skin cancer.  Several people have asked me about sunscreen ingredients and what sunscreens are safest.

I remember General Leia’s first Easter.  It was only April, but we lived in Georgia at the time, so it was already pretty warm.

After church, there was an Easter egg hunt, so our little family stayed (at nine months, Leia would curiously pick up an egg if you placed her right in front of it, so that’s “hunting” Easter eggs, right?).

She was wearing a little sweet dress with straps, and I remember being surprised when she had a sunburn after only an hour or two in April.  I felt so awful about it.

But people also worry whether sunscreen is safe! So what do you do, short of staying inside all the time (which is also not the best idea)? Read below for more on sunscreen safety.

Types of sunscreens

There are two main divisions of sunscreen ingredients:  mineral and organic.

Organic sunscreens

“Organic” here doesn’t mean the same thing as when you think about organic foods.  Instead, it just means that the sunscreens are chemicals made mostly of carbon.  Organic suncreens work by absorbing UV light, keeping the light from affecting your skin.

People are sometimes told that organic sunscreens often have the letters “oxy-” in them.  Many times they do, but not always!  For example, all four of the active ingredients in the bottle shown below are organic sunscreens.


Mineral sunscreens

Mineral sunscreens are typically either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.  You can recognize a mineral sunscreen because it has a metal name (like titanium or zinc) in it.

Mineral sunscreens are considered “physical sunscreens,” because the particles work as tiny mirrors, simply reflecting sun away from your skin.  So there’s no chemical reactions going on with this type.

Which kind of sunscreen should you choose?

As always, there’s pros and cons with both organic and mineral sunscreens.  When people ask about sunscreen safety, they are usually more concerned about organic sunscreens, particularly one called oxybenzone.  About 4% of the oxybenzone or other organic sunscreens you apply end up being absorbed into your skin, and from there can move into your bloodstream. Human studies have shown that this compound can cross the placenta too, meaning that the unborn child is exposed to it whenever a pregnant mother is.

There are  that show health effects of oxybenzone in humans. One study showed that women who had higher exposures to oxybenzone were more likely than other women to have boys born about half a week early.  Now, of course, this is about 3-4 days, so it’s up to you to decide if this effect is really a problem or not.

There are other studies that show that oxybenzone can negatively affect  reproductive function in models such as rat neurons or fish.  The caveat, though, is that the oxybenzone was given to the fish or nerve cells at concentrations much higher than you’d actually get from using the sunscreen.

So are mineral sunscreens the way to go?  As usual, it depends.  Mineral sunscreens don’t absorb into the body like organic sunscreens do, so that keeps them from causing health effects.

The only trick:  Don’t use spray sunscreen with mineral ingredients.  Breathing them in can cause problems.

Unfortunately, mineral sunscreens feel slimier after you put them on than organic ones do.  Plus, since they work by behaving like a mirror for sunlight, they can give you that extra white glow, which may not be what you’re looking for at the beach.

What else can you do to keep your kids safe from the sun?

If possible, cover up more skin so you and your little ones need to wear less sunscreen over all.  Since last year, I’ve gotten swimsuits for my kids that have sleeves on them.  I love it because I only have to put sunscreen on their little legs and faces.

Hats are a great option too, if you can get your kids to keep them on!

When you do use sunscreen, consider how much risk you’re willing to take.  If you are more concerned with making sure your sunscreen feels more lightweight, go with an organic formulation.  If you really want to minimize potential health effects, go with a mineral sunscreen.

Now that you’re better informed about sunscreens, go have some fun in the sun!