What is the difference between a natural and chemical sunscreen?
“There’s a pretty significant difference in the way the two work,” explained Brian. “Natural sunscreen” generally refers to a mineral-based product with zinc or titanium dioxide as the key active ingredients. These work by coating the skin with a physical barrier that the sun’s rays can’t penetrate. They literally block the sun. Chemical sunscreens rely on synthetics which absorb and filter the sun’s energy, creating heat. “We’re all familiar with putting (synthetic) sunscreen on and feeling tingling, burning and irritation. And we wonder why am I still getting burned?” continued Brian. “That’s the chemical process and the heat entering your body.”
Dana added that since 1984 despite the widespread use of synthetic sunscreens, skin cancer rates have risen. “We have to look into the chemicals.”
In short, natural sunscreens simply shade us, while their synthetic counterparts work by creating a chemical process in the body, one that may cause hormone disruption.
Editorial note: in this case we’re referring to the active ingredients as we distinguish natural from synthetic or chemical sunscreens. It’s important to note that a zinc or titanium dioxide-based sunscreen can be formulated with other synthetic preservatives and emulsifiers. At CAP Beauty, as always, all of our sunscreens are 100% natural.
What is the difference between titanium dioxide and zinc?
“Titanium has a bad rap,” explained Jun, “because it’s harmful when inhaled” but in the case of a cream, oil or lotion, the particles are suspended in a solution and cannot be inhaled. Zinc particles are bigger and sit on the skin like a shield. Many cosmetic companies prefer titanium dioxide because its easier to formulate a light, sheer product. But for sports and the beach, both Brian and Jun go with zinc. Zinc protects us from the entire UVA/UVB range whereas titanium dioxide blocks only the shorter range. Long range UVA rays, according to Brian and Jun, are deeper penetrating, causing cellular damage. They are also more closely linked to melanoma.
So while zinc-based products may feel heavier, they’re the choice for our most active and sun-filled days.
What about nano and non-nano? Coated vs. uncoated?
Nano and non-nano refer to the size of the particle of either zinc or titanium dioxide. Jun and Brian explained that there once were concerns that nano particles could be absorbed into the skin and enter the bloodstream. “This has been debunked” said Jun, but both Raw Elements and EiR use non-nano zinc as they prefer the larger particles for their better ability to shield. Non-nano sunscreens are also better for the environment.
Coated means the zinc particles have been encased in dimethicone or silicone. It’s a trick some formulators like because it makes it easier to create a desirable texture. Look for uncoated.
What does SPF really mean?
I remember from my childhood (confession here: my dad was in the sunscreen business, and it wasn’t natural!) that a product’s SPF referred to the amount of time it allowed you to stay in the sun without burning. If you can naturally spend about 10 minutes in direct sun before your skin starts to burn, then a product with SPF 30 means you can stay for 300 minutes before the same degree of redness sets in. But as Brian points out, “No one’s going out for 300 minutes and not getting burned so the testing system is flawed.” Add to that all of the other factors like our location and the amount of reflection, sweat, swimming and of course the weather and it’s very difficult to rely solely on a product’s SPF to know how often to apply.
Jun explained that from a formulator’s standpoint, the SPF is determined by the percentage of active ingredient in a product. We can roughly know that one with a higher SPF provides more protection, but both Brian and Jun agree that over a certain number (30 or 50) there’s little added benefit.
So how do we know what to use, and how often to apply?
Brian’s mantra is simple: avoid overexposure. Find out what works and stick with it. He confessed this is a process of trial and error, but encourages us to play it safe. I’ve also found that one of the benefits of natural sunscreens is that you can often feel them on your skin. While this is often considered a detriment, when you’re in the ocean or on a long run, it's incredibly reassuring to know that your protection is intact. When it comes to a zinc-based product, if you can feel it on your skin, it's working.
Brian’s advice for making sure we are using enough sunscreen is to apply enough that we can see a coating evenly over the skin. Then start working to rub it in.
Do our diets have anything to do with it? Can we actually make ourselves more resilient to sun damage by eating the right foods?
Absolutely, says Dana who went on to explain that this is an area of vast and emerging research. Tomatoes, in particular, are known to help and Dana shared one study in particular. Participants ate a tablespoon per day of tomato paste along with some olive oil. After ten weeks, they were exposed to the sun. Compared to a control group, the tomato paste-eaters showed a 30% reduction in sunburn. 30% is significant especially when compared to the relatively small dietary change. But Dana says it doesn’t have to be tomatoes. Any red food will help. The magic’s in the lycopene. Think watermelon, red peppers and berries, not coincidentally, the foods of summer. But, like with the study, we should be mixing in a touch of oil as this helps us reap lycopene’s benefits. In other words, make gazpacho.
What should we do if we do get burned?
“If you burn, it's like an open wound” explains Jun who relies heavily on the most healing herbs and botanicals. She recommends arnica, comfrey and lavender. She also cautions against the use of oil when we’re burned. “Oil attracts heat” and so it won’t provide as much relief. She recommends witch hazel instead and suggests mixing in a drop of lavender essential oil and misting onto the skin.
Brian suggests keeping an aloe plant in the house. “Filet it and use the gel. Nothing’s better.”
We’ve created a culture of sun avoidance, but the sun is also a mighty source of health. Why should we still seek the sun despite all of the fears?
“The sun is the most effective form of vitamin D,” explained Dana. She went on to explain that the sun converts cholesterol in our bodies to vitamin D. When her clients present elevated levels of cholesterol towards the end of winter, she often recommends they revisit the test after summer.
Dana also told us about a recent study showing that the combination of sunlight and chlorophyll in our bodies, creates energy. “This happens in plants. There’s no reason why it wouldn’t happen in humans.”
Why is Hawaii banning certain sunscreens?
You may have read this in the news. Hawaii has passed a bill banning the use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two popular actives in chemical sunscreens. Mass use of these products is hurting our oceans, the coral reefs in particular. We applaud Hawaii’s progressive and protective stance. And tip our hats to our brands offering safe and environmentally sound alternatives. Once again, naturals are the modern choice.
A note about sprays.
While convenient, spay-on sunscreens are too easily inhaled. Even natural sunscreens are not safe to breathe, so stick with lotions and oils.