UPDATED ON MAY 22, 2019: A new clinical trial study was recently posted to the Journal of the American Medical Association that, yet again, begs to question the safety of commonly used sunscreen products widely available to consumers. Are the options we find on supermarket shelves really the best sunscreen options available? This study suggests the need for a much more critical look at the ingredients used in common sunscreens and how they interact in the body.

Although the authors still insist that the “results do not indicate that individuals should refrain from the use of sunscreen” (and I concur)… the conclusion of the study, states that “in this preliminary study involving healthy volunteers, application of 4 commercially available sunscreens under maximal use conditions resulted in plasma concentrations that exceeded the threshold established by the FDA for potentially waiving some nonclinical toxicology studies for sunscreens. The systemic absorption of sunscreen ingredients supports the need for further studies to determine the clinical significance of these findings.”

This means that chemicals found in these commonly used sunscreen (sprays and lotions), that have no business entering the blood stream, ARE… and at rates much higher than what the FDA has deemed “safe”.

The findings presented in this trial should concern you. This only adds to the mounting evidence that you should take extra precautions when preparing your sun-safe plan for the summer.

You want to do what's best for your family to protect them and keep them safe. You eat organic (as often as possible), you use natural remedies like lavender essential oil, and you do your research to make sure you're providing your family with only the best. But, when it comes to sun protection, the facts are still a little hazy… is spraying them down with the latest and greatest sun-guard spray or lathering them up with SPF 2000+ really the best way to protect them? Keep reading to find out which are the best sunscreen options and how to spot the ingredients you want to avoid.

Why do we use sunscreen?

If you're like most people (including me) you may not have even given  much thought to it. It's to prevent cancer, right? is it to make sure you don't burn in the scalding sun? Maybe you've been doing it 'cause it's the “thing to do”… recommended by the “experts”… who are those experts anyways?

If you've ever been confused or absentminded about the whole sunscreen thing… you're not alone. I'd like to share some of the research I've done on the topic, and let you in on a few of our family secrets so you can do your best with the information provided to make healthier choices for yourself and your families.

Best Sunscreen Options & How to Spot the Toxic Ingredients you want to Avoid

So, let's begin with…

What are we attempting to protect ourselves from in the first place?

Too much of a good thing…
Sunlight has a lot of good to offer us, including improving our moods, helping us sleep better, offering us a certain level of vitamin D, among plenty of other benefits… however, you know how the saying goes… Too much of a good thing… is… something to do with being bad?? (I can't remember it exactly!)


I'm sure you're no stranger to the idea that too much sun exposure = risk of sunburn = increased risk of developing skin cancer. The conclusion, obviously, is that too much sun exposure is a bad thing.

What we do know is that the sun emits ultraviolet radiation (UV rays), UVA and UVB rays to be exact… there are also UVC rays, but apparently those get absorbed by the ozone layer, so we don't have to worry about them (yet).

UVA rays are the ones that are always around, even on cloudy days. They can penetrate deeper into the skin cells, and contribute majorly to skin aging, wrinkling, and may even initiate the development of skin cancers. Indoor tanning booths primarily use UVA rays to work their magic…

The high-pressure sunlamps used in tanning salons emit doses of UVA as much as 12 times that of the sun. Not surprisingly, people who use tanning salons are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma, and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma. According to recent research, first exposure to tanning beds in youth increases melanoma risk by 75 percent. (source)

I'm ashamed to admit that I used to enjoy going to the tanning bed off and on for several years. Yes, I was even a nurse then, and yes the words “it's just skin cancer” came out of my mouth when questioned by a couple of my wiser friends. I'm not proud of this, I just felt the need to be honest.

Obviously, tanning beds are now a thing of the past for me, a thing which I so wish I could undo… Consistent skin checks are now a very real necessity, and unfortunately I live with the understanding that I've increased my risk of cancer immeasurably.

UVB rays are to blame for redness and blistering sunburns and can cause the most damage to the superficial layers of skin. The intensity of UVB rays depends on your location, the season, and time of day… 10 am to 4 pm, April through October are when UVB rays are at their worst in the U.S. (source) so you can actually prevent exposure to a large degree if you can be mindful of it.

We want protection against both UVA and UVB rays. Many sunscreens on the market now claim to offer protection against both, and have some sort of SPF rating… SPF numbers can be misleading, however. For instance, SPF 50 offers approximately 98% coverage, where as SPF 30 offers about 97%, and SPF 15 gives about 93% protection from UVB rays. Anything higher than SPF 50 sort of just plateaus to a general 99% coverage… so if you're thinking you're super duper protected with an SPF 1000, think again. (source – skincancer.org) The FDA is working to prevent false advertising, and protect unsuspecting sunbathers by limiting a label to “SPF 50+” and having stricter guidelines on who can put “Broad Spectrum” (UVA & UVB coverage) on their products. (source)

Here's my concern…

Have you heard that sunscreens can actually increase your risk for cancer? (source)

I'm sure you can imagine my confusion when I began to delve into this subject… isn't sunscreen supposed to prevent a level of sun exposure that can cause cancer?!

Well yes, yes it is… the problem isn't necessarily the sun protection… the problem is the extra stuff they throw in the solution… for shelf stability or so they can put good-sounding marketing labels on the bottle.

Besides that, some of the chemicals used can interact with sunlight in such a way that they change from helpful to harmful. Vitamin A added to formulas, which sounds like a good thing at first, has been shown that it may actually speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight. Eeek! (source)

Ingredients to avoid in a sunscreen:

(Not a comprehensive list, but at least a start!)


Used to absorb UV light, but has inconclusive data showing that it can be absorbed through the skin and cause hormone disruption and potentially be linked to cell damage that may lead to skin cancer. (sort of defeats the purpose doesn't it?!)

Vitamin A (aka: Retinyl Palmitate)

“Vitamin A is an antioxidant added to skin products because manufacturers believe it slows skin aging. They may be right in the case of lotions and night creams used indoors, but the federal study (ntp_annual_report_fy2012_508) raised the possibility that it may speed the growth of cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight. Scientists have found that vitamin A can spur excess skin growth, known as hyperplasia and that in sunlight retinyl palmitate can form free radicals that damage DNA.” (source – EWG's The Problem with Vitamin A – emphasis mine)

Benzophenone-3 (B-3)

Acts as a stabilizer and also to absorb UV light, you can also find this chemical in nail polish. Unfortunately, it has also been shown to cause photo-sensitivity. “In some studies, the presence of benzophenone-3 has demonstrated an increase in the production of harmful free radicals and an ability to attack DNA cells. For this reason, it is believed to be a contributing factor in the recent rise of melanoma cases with sunscreen users. Some studies have shown it to behave similarly to the hormone estrogen, suggesting that it may cause breast cancer (source). It has also been linked to contact eczema and allergies.” (source – emphasis mine) There is also concern about our bodies' ability to store Benzophenone-3. This study conducted by the CDC found traces of BP-3 in 96.8% of urine samples. Another study, showed that BP-3 was found in urine samples collected 5 days after sunscreen was applied. This is of particular concern when applying a sunscreen with this chemical on small children!

There has been some conflicting data about Nanoparticles in sunscreen, however, after seeing this report from the Environmental Working Group regarding nanomaterials in sunscreen, I feel a bit safer with a sunblock cream that isn't specifically non-nano particle zinc oxide. According to the EWG, nanoparticles are not able to cross through the skin… BUT, nanoparticles can cause internal damage if inhaled! For this reason, I will absolutely be avoiding store-bought spray sunscreens (nano or non-nano) this year.

Why we're skipping the (toxic) sunscreen this summer, and what we're doing instead! Top recommendations for best sunscreen and DIY sunblock, and how nutrition aids in having safe summer fun. #summer #safesunexposure #nonnano #sunscreen #naturalbeauty #safesummer ~ For more tips for healthy living visit SarahMichalMcLain.com

Since we want to protect ourselves from potentially harmful sun exposure, AND protect ourselves from the unsafe ingredients added to most store-bought sunscreens…

Here's what we're doing this year as an alternative… (& Best Sunscreen Options)

Ease into it

Adjusting slowly to sun exposure is a serious must-do. We have a planned vacation to the beach (YAY!) coming up in July, and in order to not totally wreak havoc on our skin by exposing it to the harsh beach rays all at once, leaving ourselves at major risk for burnage… we will ease into sun exposure. We set up the kiddie pool in the back yard (family fun for everyone!) and will spend about 10-15 minutes a day (initially) outside as we build a healthy tolerance, and decrease our risk for damaging burns.

Location, Location, Location… and Time

By location, I mean under an umbrella.. beneath a tree.. covered by a hat or well-placed clothing or piece of fabric, etc. You can get really creative with this. The point is to avoid those harsh and nasty UVB rays that make your skin red and blistery. Especially for the little ones. If you can be proactive, before you even see pink, keep 'em in the shade or with a T-Shirt on. A damp towel draped across the legs, or a wide-brimmed hat (like this one, that I love!) can be a miracle worker for protecting your precious epidermis from over-exposure.

Besides location, time is also key. SkinCancer.org recommends that you avoid being out between the hours of 10 am to 4 pm… but I realize how problematic this can be! Isn't that like the whole day?! Our family does our best to try to be mindful of time, and not be out at the peak of UVB exposure. As a general rule of thumb, we avoid being out between noon to 2, which actually works for us right now since that's usually T's nap time!

Vitamins & Antioxidants

What do red & purple grapes, nuts, dark green veggies, fish, and sweet potatoes all have in common?

They're all antioxidant powerhouses, of course! (source)

Antioxidants work by preventing damage that can be done by harmful free-radicals. Free radicals are produced when oxygen interacts with cells and cause oxidation, or changes in the cells, that damage cells and turn them into something potentially harmful. Oxidation is the same thing that happens when you leave a half-eaten apple on the counter and it begins to turn brown. I'm not gonna go into all the sciency stuff here about why free radicals are bad for your health, but here's a really good article on how antioxidants work as a great reference.

Basically, when our skin comes in contact with harmful UV light, it changes the cellular structure of our skin cells which in turn can produce free-radicals that can produce skin cancer.

Because antioxidants work to rid our bodies of these damaging free-radicals, they make an excellent solution to sun protection and cancer risk reduction!

I wish I had known so long ago how incredible antioxidants are at protecting us against harmful UV rays. It's an even greater excuse to eat more delicious blueberries! 😉 This is one of my favorite articles comparing antioxidants and sunscreen, written by Heather over at Mommypotamus. As you'll note, it's not just about eating more fish while you're at the beach, the key is maintaining a nutrient-dense diet, rich in (among other things) healthy fats & antioxidants.

How I plan to incorporate this concept for my family is simple… we will maintain our nutrient-rich diet, and be extra sure to include lots of foods with healthy omega-3s and dark purple & green anti-oxidants on a daily basis.

This article by Wellness Mama on Diets & Supplements for Sun Protection is another great resource exploring how nutrition can aid in protecting our skin and creating a great barrier from potential sun damage. It is Well worth your while to read. I especially like her recommendation for fermented cod liver/high vitamin butter oil supplementation.

Coconut Oil & Peppermint Essential Oil

According to this study, coconut oil has an SPF of about a 7 or 8, and there are a few essential oils that offer some relatively good protection as well. We make a simple blend of fractionated coconut oil and essential oils mixed in a spray bottle for easy application. Obviously it's not the highest SPF protection you can get, but, it's perfect for those days when we actually want a light protection and the added benefits from the coconut and essential oils, including repelling pesky bugs!

Best Sunscreen & DIY Natural Sunblocks

Okay, so maybe the title was a little misleading… the truth is, that when we are going to be out in the sun for extended periods of time, when we can't find shade, or it's especially blazing, we need some extra help with a good sunscreen. Luckily there are some really good options!

here are my favorites so far…

Best sunscreen {non toxic sunscreen, natural sunscreen, organic sunscreen}:

Best DIY sunscreen recipes:

How do you plan to protect yourself and your family this summer?

*Originally posted May 27, 2014, updated May 22, 2019.