The Health Benefits of Natural Sunscreen

By Draya Mooney


Regular application of sunscreen is vital to prevent premature aging, sunburn, and skin cancer, yet growing studies show chemicals found in some sunscreens are consequential to health. Skin is porous and readily absorbs the ingredients of most skin care products into the bloodstream. Children are particularly susceptible to toxic chemicals as their skin is more porous than adults. For this reason, many people choose natural sunscreen as it is chemical free.


The past confirms it is possible for toxic chemicals to be commonplace in sunscreen. The first formulas for sunscreen contained para-aminobenzoic acid, otherwise known as PABA. It remained a fundamental chemical used in sunscreen until mass allergic reactions were reported. Studies eventually discovered that reflective agents in PABA created heat from sunlight that inflamed and burned the skin. Many sunscreens are now advertised as PABA free, but there are still chemicals prevalent in popular sunscreens that are causing concern throughout the health care community.


Chemicals of particular concern are oxybenzone, parabens, and retinyl palmitate. Growing independent studies have affirmed the potentially harmful effects of these chemicals on the human body, but it is controversially asserted by industry professionals that more research is necessary. Until formal tests are conducted, the Food and Drug Administration authorizes use of these chemicals in sunscreen and other skin care products. This has incited organizations such as the Environmental Working Group to petition the FDA to expedite the testing process and publicize the findings.


Oxybenzone is an organic chemical also known as benzophenone-3. It is a mainstream chemical used in sunscreen because of its ability to absorb UV rays. The primary criticism against oxybenzone is that it easily penetrates the skin and accumulates in the fatty tissues of the body for an unknown length of time. A 2008 study by the US Centers for Disease Control found 96.8% of Americans had oxybenzone in their system, a relevant figure as oxybenzone is known to assist the absorption of further chemicals into the body. Studies also show oxybenzone instigates estrogenic hormone activity, is an immunotoxin that damages cells, and can provoke photo sensitivity.


Similarly contentious is the group of chemicals known as parabens. Sunscreen manufacturers use parabens because they have antimicrobial properties that act as a preservative to inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi and enhance shelf life. Though they occur in nature, most parabens found in sunscreen are artificially generated. The use of this group of chemicals in sunscreen is opposed because parabens have been detected in tumors of humans who have breast cancer. They mimic the action of estrogen, the hormone some believe is linked to breast cancer. Also, research shows parabens to be endocrine disruptors which could damage the reproductive system. Many health organizations advise pregnant women to avoid sunscreen with parabens.


Retinyl palmitate is a synthetic derivative of vitamin A. It is known commonly for its anti-aging benefits, but leading studies show it behaves as a photocarcinogen, meaning it could accelerate the development of cancerous tumors when exposed to sunlight. UV rays break down retinyl palmitate into retinol compounds that form free radicals proven to damage cells.


Sunscreen is essential. Until further research is conducted on these potentially harmful chemicals, it is wise to be precautious and choose natural sunscreen. The best sunscreens are mineral based. Zinc oxide is the safest and most effective active ingredient used in sunscreen. It is the only ingredient to shield against all three types of UV rays and thus provides better protection than even nontoxic ingredients found in chemical sunscreens. Zinc oxide is especially recommended for children and adults with sensitive skin.


Most natural sunscreens are hypoallergenic and contain organic ingredients that help the skin. These organic ingredients provide the same benefits as harsher, synthetic chemicals. Green tea is an antioxidant that prevents damage caused by free radicals. Aloe Vera restores moisture and soothes burns. Chamomile promotes cell regeneration and has anti-inflammatory properties. Marigold calms irritated skin. Grape seed oil is a natural antioxidant that also moisturizes the skin and is anti-aging.


Not all chemical sunscreens are toxic, but there is a growing concern regarding some commonplace chemicals. Choosing a natural sunscreen not only eliminates the potential risk of controversial chemicals, but overall they are usually kinder to the skin and are especially beneficial to people with sensitive skin or allergies. As natural sunscreens are growing in popularity, they can be found at most stores that carry sunscreen products.