SUNSCREEN 101: The Basics and Your Choices

Casting a Light on Natural vs. Mass Suncare

Oh, the daunting and ever-expanding array of sun care choices. Perhaps it’s because I take sun protection for my family so seriously–we swim, we surf, and want to enjoy our time in the outdoors as responsibly as possibly–that I just immediately reach for the Factor 60+ by a well-known brand. Perhaps, as a child of the 70’s when suncare consisted of nothing more than zinc cream and a t-shirt, watching the arrival of SPF’s and sunscreen regulations in the 80’s made me prone to believe “Go big or go home.” But suncare has come a long way—we know more about how ultraviolet light affects us, more about the chemicals and ingredients used, and natural options have improved. Time to make a conscious choice. So it’s back to the basics. And the basics start with the two main camps of sunscreen– Natural vs. Mass.

How Sunscreens work:

The main difference between natural and mass sunscreens is in how they work. Natural, or sometimes called “mineral” products physically block or deflect UV rays from the skin (think of the zinc splotch on the lifeguard’s nose), thus are often called “physical” or “block” sunscreens, whereas mass products, often referred to as “chemical” work by absorbing the UV rays into the skin.

Active Ingredients:

According to Health Canada, the only active UV filtering ingredients sunscreens may contain to be licensed as Natural Health Products (NHPs) are Titanium Dioxide, Zinc Oxide and Para-Aminobenzoic Acid (aka PABA). Sunscreens that contain one or more of a list of 17 UV filtering chemicals including Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, and Homosalate, are classified as drugs. You can verify your sunscreen has been tested by Health Canada for safety, efficacy and manufacturing standards, and is approved for sale in Canada by checking for an 8-digit Natural Product Number (NPN) or Drug Identification Number (DIN) on its packaging.

Base Requirements:

Whether a sunscreen is regulated as an NHP or a drug, they have the same base requirements from Health Canada including they must contain a recognized UVA and a UVB absorber, have a minimum Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 15, and have a critical wavelength protection of at least 370 nm. So let’s get to these things:

UVA/UVB: Zinc Oxide is considered the gold standard of natural UVA/UVB protection as it protects from the broad spectrum of UVA and UVB rays. Titanium Dioxide and PABA, on the other hand, are considered less effective at combatting UVA rays and for this reason, are typically recommended in combination with Zinc Oxide. Health Canada’s list of 17 chemicals considered safe (found here at have a broad range of UVA/UVB capabilities.

SPF: While both UVA and UVB rays contribute to skin cancers, SPF only measures UVB. SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, is a measure of a sunscreen’s ability to prevent UVB from damaging the skin. If it takes 20 minutes for your unprotected skin to start turning red, an SPF of 15 will theoretically prevent reddening 15 times longer. Canada Health requires an SPF of at least 15, considered to do an excellent job of protecting against UVB. In fact, as you go higher on the SPF scale, the impact is minimized–SPF 15 filters out about 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 filters 97%, and 50 only 1% more. Choosing the highest SPF you can find isn’t necessarily the best way to choose, firstly because you might be tempted to stay out longer because you aren’t burning but you are still overloading on UVAs which actually penetrate more deeply, and secondly—especially if you’re using mass products–the higher the SPF, the higher the concentration of chemical ingredients.

Critical Wavelength Protection: The amount of UVA protection a sunscreen product offers is measured in Critical Wavelength. Although rarely promoted like SPF, a label of “broad-spectrum” guarantees a critical wavelength of > 370nm.

What to Keep in Mind:

Both Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide have come under fire for containing nanoparticles which allow many mineral sunscreens to go on clear rather than white. While further research is being done into the impact of these particles on the environment and into skin application, it is generally considered that they do not migrate through the skin but could enter the blood stream through the lungs. For this reason, many companies produce cream-only versions of their sun protection rather than sprays. You’ll notice that many companies list “non-nano” or state their particle size on the packaging. PABA, although considered a natural ingredient because it is found in folic acid and in food, is seldom included in natural sunscreens anymore both because it was found to increase sensitivities to allergic reactions, and more frighteningly, some research suggests it breaks down in the sun releasing free radicals that could actually cause cancerous cells. The Environmental Working Group rates the full list of 17 chemical UV filters approved by Health Canada on a scale of 1 to 10, often citing “information limited” to verifiable health concerns including lingering blood concentrations, photosensitivity leading to DNA degradation, hormone disruption, and allergic sensitivities. Oxybenzone, one of the most common, gets a hazard score of 8, while Avobenzone gets a score of 2 and is considered the safest.

Other Concerns:

Added Ingredients: My go-to big brand chemical sunscreen contains 26 other ingredients besides the active UV filters, most of which I can’t pronounce. Most of the natural sunscreens I checked contain just the active ingredients plus a few pronounceable things I checked which improve spreadability, moisturizing ability, water resistance, and fragrance. Many sunscreens, both mineral and chemical, contain added antioxidants like Vitamin E, sunflower oil, green tea, black tea, cocoa butter, and mango butter, to protect your skin against the free radicals caused by the sun. You’ll notice natural sunscreens are generally free from other nasties including paraben, phthalates, sodium lauryl sulfates, and often make claims that might be important to you like biodegradable, vegan-friendly, reef-safe, gluten free, no animal testing, and no artificial flavours or fragrances.

Wearability: Because natural sunscreens sit on the skin rather than being absorbed, water tends to “bead” on the skin and you might be turned off by the whitish hue they can give you or the residual effect on your bathing suits and clothing. The “up” side is that these mild deterrents are actually quite reassuring that you are protected and you can apply and immediately hit the beach as they don’t take the 20 minutes that chemical products need to absorb into the skin.

Bottom Line:

It’s more important than ever to get good sun protection, the Canadian Cancer Society says one in every three cancers diagnosed worldwide is a skin cancer, 80-90% of which are caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Canadians born in the 1990s have two to three times higher lifetime risk of getting skin cancer (1 in 6) than those born in the 1960s (1 in 20). While the best choice is to stay out of the sun especially in the summer between 10 and 4, if you are enjoying the sun, do it as consciously as possible. Research the risks, the factors, the ingredients, and best application and re-application procedures, and find the sunscreen or combination of sunscreens that’s best for you and your family’s needs.

A creative graphic, web, multi-media designer and artist. Lover of hockey and adorable animals.

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