Choosing the Right Sun Protection
by Sharon Labchuk
UPdate Spring 2003

With the thinning of the ozone layer, protection from the sun's rays has become an increasing concern. Conventional sunscreens often contain hazardous ingredients including fragrance, dyes, mineral oil and other petrochemical ingredients including ethanol and glycols, as well as chemical sun blocks.

Sunscreens come in two basic types, physical blocks and chemical blocks.  The best known physical blocks are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, naturally occurring minerals more effective than some chemical sunscreens.  They work as a barrier against sun damage.  Chemical blocks work by absorbing ultraviolet rays before they reach the skin's surface. PABA used to be the most popular sunscreen but it proved to be so harsh that most manufacturers stopped using it.  But a new PABA
derivative known as padimate O or PABA ester appears to cause few allergic reactions, especially when natural  food-grade padimate O is used, rather than the synthetic version. Other chemical sunscreens use benzophonones and cinnamates. 

Few studies have been published on the safety of chemical sunscreens and their use is controversial. One study showed that significant amounts of oxybenzone, a common sunscreen ingredient, appeared to penetrate the skin.

A number of scientists and doctors believe that sunscreens offer a false sense of security which can result in excessive sun exposure, and ultimately result in skin cancers. A study by the European Institute of Oncology shows that most people do not apply enough sunscreen to reach the level of protection indicated on the label. They say, in fact, an SFP-50 sunscreen applied at a typical less-than-recommended rate yields a practical SPF of only 2.

After evaluating studies on sunscreen use and cancer, Marianne Berwick, an
epidemiologist at the Memorial Sloan-Kittering Cancer Centre in New York concluded there is no evidence that sunscreens actually prevent skin cancer. In an article published in Preventative Medicine, Dr. G. Ainsleigh proposes that sunscreen use may cause more cancer deaths than it prevents.  He says more cancer deaths could be prevented by regular but moderate sun exposure instead of relying on the heavy use of sunscreens.  A recent study from University of Zurich in Switzerland examined six commonly used chemical sunscreens for hormone-disrupting activity. The scientists discovered that five of the six chemicals, including benzophenones and cinnamates, seemed to mimic estrogen. They recommended more studies to look at possible long term effects. The Cancer Prevention Coalition, headed by Dr. Samuel Epstein, lists cinnamates and benzophenones as hormone disrupters.  Some studies suggest sunscreen, even natural sunscreen, interferes with the skin's ability to produce vitamin D. Vitamin D is an essential nutrient which is produced when sun shines on bare skin. It is not provided by most foods but is added as a supplement to soy milk and cow's milk.

Until all of the evidence is in, it would seem prudent to cover up, or avoid sun exposure between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. in the summer when the sun's rays are most intense. Limit sunbathing and choose a mineral-based sunblock or one with natural padimate O.

There are a number of sunscreens available locally which use physical blocks or natural padimate O, and are free of chemical fragrance, dyes, ethanols and glycols. Aubrey Organics Sun Shade SPF 4/8 contains padimate 0, while Aubrey Organics' Sun Shade SPF 12/15, Titania Full Spectrum Sunblock SPF 25, and Green Tea Sunblock for Children SPF 25 all contain titanium dioxide and padimate 0. Lavera's Sun Spray SPF 15 and Sun Milk SPF 10/15/20/25 all use titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.  Cocoa butter screens some UV rays, and sesame oil screens about 30% of the sun's rays. You can also find sunscreens based on cinnamate and benzophenone which are chemical fragrance free and contain fewer other hazardous ingredients than conventional products. These include Avalon's Alba Botanica Sun SPF 15/30,30+, Lily of the Desert Skin Saving Sunblock SPF 16/40, and Nature's Gate Sunblock Lotion SPF 8/30.  Unscented sunscreens with conventional ingredients include Clinique City Block Sheer SPF15, Coppertone Oil Free UVA/UVB 15/30, Marcelle Sunscreen (available with and without chemical sunblocks), Neutrogena UVA/UVB Sunblock 30, Ombrelle, and RoC Sunscreen.


Sharon Labchuk is an environmental researcher and activist living in PEI.  This article is  excerpted from the NSAEHA's "Guide To Less Toxic Products" , a work in progress which will be available on line later this year at