Natural Sunscreens

The current heatwave may have brought many of us to the beaches and the great outdoors but for those who are wary of excessive sun exposure and the risks to skin health, a good quality skincare product containing sunscreen is a must.

A report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed that “up to 90% of the visible changes commonly attributed to ageing may be caused by sun exposure”. It is therefore hardly surprising that many of us want to protect our skin whilst enjoying the benefits of the sunny outdoors.

There is a lot of information out there about sunscreen safety however, not all of it is reliable. To those who are keen advocates of natural skincare products not least of which is a desire to be environmentally friendly, it may be difficult to  determine which source of information is worth taking seriously as many of them seem unnecessarily alarmist whilst others are misleading or downright confusing.

Terms such as nanoparticles, carcinogens and coral bleaching are all legitimate terms but they certainly don’t apply to all suncare products so it is worth taking a moment to consider the facts.

Sunscreen-the facts

The truth is, sun exposure especially if excessive in high risk groups such as fair skins or those prone to burning causes most skin cancers; the most aggressive being malignant melanoma which can be fatal. Sunscreens offer much by way of protection from such risks and therefore provide a crucial part of any skincare regime for sunny weather.

It is also proven that sunscreen helps prevent skin cancer – much of the data has been gathered from two critical studies conducted in Australia that showed that melanoma was reduced by 50% and squamous cell carcinoma by 40% in those who used sunscreen daily.  That being said, the use of sunscreen is not a replacement for sensible behaviour and one must think beyond sunscreen.

The safest and most effective way to mitigate risk of skin cancer is to minimise exposure to sun (especially between peak times such as between 10.00am and 4.00pm in the summer months) and to wear a hat that provide cover to the face and suitable clothing to filter direct contact of sun to the skin.

This is not to say that one needs to live like a bat in a cave especially in warm, sunny weather; after all, who wants to do that when we’ve waited all year for such glorious sunshine? But be cautious too as retrospective and meticulous use of sunscreen does not reverse any damage caused by previous episodes of sun exposure especially if the skin was unprotected at the time.

Needless to say, many people may not consider the ingredients in any of their suncare products as long as they see the letters SPF (sun protection factor) and suitable numbers such as 15, 30 or 50 after them.

Yet many of the traditional sunscreens use organic chemicals such as oxybenzone or octinoxate, and it is these which are the bigger health concerns, not least of which is the threat to the environment that they pose, in particular the coral wildlife.

All sunscreens are chemical in nature but essentially work in two different ways: they can be chemical sunscreens which means they absorb the most harmful UV rays (UVA and UVB) as they hit the skin or they can be physical sunscreens where they work by providing a physical barrier ensuring these rays are reflected off the skin thereby blocking them from being absorbed.

Chemical vs natural

Chemical sunscreens are easily absorbed by the skin and so these products have been more “consumer-friendly” compared to their physical sunscreen counterparts that are also referred to as natural sunscreens or mineral sunscreens. Natural sunscreens are formulated using titanium dioxide or zinc oxide and so not absorbed by the skin; they are therefore ideal for anyone concerned about toxins or sensitivities. In the past, these types of sunscreen products were confined to the back of the beauty shelves owing to their less than favourable user-friendly appeal, largely due to their uncomfortably thick consistency and a tendency to leave a less than flattering chalky white residue.

Moreover, because they are not absorbed by the skin, they wash off the moment water comes into contact with them so reapplication is necessary but this is also the case for most of the chemical sunscreen products unless they specify they are waterproof. There is an ingredient you can add to home formulated sun screen to make them water resistant called Pecogel S-1120/A, this creates a dry film after application, and can be used easily within most aqueous leave-on bases, such as sunscreen (this is polymer based and safe for skin). Although, some chemicals used to ensure the product doesn’t dissolve in water or remains fixed on the skin are derived from petrochemicals and a host of other ingredients which effectively prevents the skin from breathing and this can trigger or aggravate skin reactions.

However, with many of the newer formulations, natural sunscreens are entering a league of their own making the choice to be green and eco-friendly a whole lot easier for the conscientious consumer.

Ingredients to Avoid

Sunscreen Ingredient Comments


  • found in over 3,500 sunscreen products worldwide
  • shown in laboratory studies on rats to be an endocrine (hormone) disruptor. Criticisms over whether this an accurate model for demonstrating  risks or safety in humans
  • disrupts coral reproduction
  • causes coral bleaching
  • stunts the growth of corals
  • damages coral DNA
  •  toxic to symbiotic algae that live with corals providing their colour and performing other vital duties
  • banned in Hawaii
  • shown to cause coral bleaching
  • banned in Hawaii
4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4MBC)
  • shown to cause coral bleaching
  • permitted in Europe and Canada
  • banned in USA and Japan

These three and many other chemical sunscreens can also promote viral infection in corals that lead to bleaching. A 2008 European study published by Environmental Health Perspectives estimated that up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen is deposited in the world’s oceans each year. However, researchers agree that sunscreen alone isn’t the sole cause of coral bleaching pointing to rising sea temperatures caused by global warming among other threats. But it is the one thing that travellers to magnificent and exotic locations can directly control and over which they can exert an immediate and direct impact.

Alternatives to Consider

Any product containing mineral sunscreens such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide is safe but they need to be “non-nano” size which means more than 100 nanometers (nm) in size. This is because of the current controversy over such nanoparticles used in the food and other commercial industries which use these ingredients sometime below 100nm in a range of products from sweets to doughnuts, mayonnaise, yoghurt and other dairy products to toothpastes and paints.

Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide over 100nm are safe to use as they are too large to be absorbed by invertebrates or be toxic to the algae that feed on the corals. Moreover and on a more practical level, UV protection clothing is emerging as a favourite amongst eco-friendly travellers wanting to limit their use of sunscreen preferring to cover up instead. Clothing lined with Ultraviolet Protection Factors (UPF) operate in the same way as Sun Protection Factors (SPF) in skincare products.


It is safe to say that sun exposure carries some risks but it also presents immense benefits such as enhancing mood, providing a healthy glow and boosting natural vitamin D production. However the holiday season and the extra sunlight means a level of sun protection which can be achieved with environmentally-friendly sunscreens that not only protect our health but also that of our marine wildlife. Some of the sensible precautions should include some, if not all of the following:

  • limiting or avoiding altogether sun exposure at certain times of the day especially when UVA and UVB are at their most intense
  • wearing a hat to protect the face and neck
  • wearing suitable clothing (as much as is practically possible) to cover up over exposed skin. Choose fabrics labelled with UPF
  • look for ingredients on the label of any suncare product to ensure they are coral reef-safe or coral reef-friendly
  • choose water-resistant sunscreen if possible but be careful as it may trigger skin reactions in already sensitive skins
  • use sunscreens that have been tested biodegradable such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide (or any other mineral sunscreen ingredients)
  • Use sunscreens containing non-nano size titanium dioxide or zinc oxide that not only protect skin and health but also marine wildlife.

Have a happy holiday in the sun!

Ms Yaso Shan; MCPP, MRSB

Yaso Shan is a registered member of the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy (CPP), a leading UK professional body for qualified and practising members of western herbal medicine who began her career as a Lecturer in the Health Sciences, specialising in the biomedical sciences, physiology, pathology, infection and the principles governing conventional medical treatments. Her interest is in natural therapies, particularly plant remedies, stems from her own cultural perspective together with the fundamental belief that enabling the body to heal itself lies at the heart of all effective therapies. She is also a member of the Royal Society of Biology (RSB)

Medical Writer, Health Consultant & Lecturer


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