It's easy to see why some consumers are turning to niche manufacturers' so-called natural sunscreens, whose ingredient lists sound far more comforting, stocked, as they are, with organic macadamia nut or hemp seed oils, green tea extracts, beeswax, purified water and other wholesome fare.
"Yes," says Jeffrey Dover, president of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, but consumers typically don't put on enough of the natural products to make them effective. (In general, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that consumers use enough sunscreen to fill a shot glass.)
While many natural sunscreens have content that might be expected on food labels, the active ingredients that make them work are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, the latter of which can temporarily whiten the skin. Both work by physically blocking the sun's rays, Dover says. Generally speaking, natural sunscreens require a lot more rubbing in and advance application time to bind with the skin and be effective.
Traditional sunscreens, Dover says, work differently. They operate with chemical blocks that absorb ultraviolet rays, preventing them from causing serious damage. Avobenzone is the most widely used ingredient to absorb UVA, the type of ultraviolet light that contributes to skin cancer and aging of the skin, but it degrades in sunlight, so it has to be combined with other ingredients to be effective. Oxybenzone is the ingredient most often used to absorb UVB, the type of ultraviolet light that causes sunburn. Both avobenzone and oxybenzonze absorb invisibly into the skin, leaving little trace they're there.
The issue with a traditional sunscreen is how much of it is absorbed by the skin into the body and what it does to the body once it's there. Oxybenzone, for example, can be a hormone disruptor and its presence in pregnant women correlates with lower baby birth weights, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 9% of the oxybenzone applied to skin soaks through it, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.
Despite questions about various ingredients in both traditional and natural products, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasizes the use of a sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 15 or higher as a way to help prevent sun damage.
In addition, the active ingredients in natural sunscreens are also being questioned. While titanium dioxide and zinc oxide don't penetrate the skin to the same degree as oxybenzone, their environmental effects aren't entirely clear. Much of the titanium dioxide and zinc oxide used in natural sunscreens has been micronized into nanoparticles — a "new technology that's taking zinc and titanium particles and breaking them into incredibly small sizes that allow you to have a product that doesn't turn your skin white the way the old lifeguard sunscreens did," said Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group.
While Lunder and her group think natural sunscreens are healthier than chemical sunscreens, and that zinc oxide is slightly better than titanium dioxide because it is more biodegradable, she also said nano technology deserves more scrutiny because there may be environmental effects that impact plants and aquaculture. Minnesota Public Radio recently reported that the Environmental Protection Agency has been studying "seven different nano materials, hoping to develop the tools regulators will need to determine how risky they will be in lakes, rivers and groundwater.
Most consumers continue to purchase traditional products. Indeed, natural sunscreens currently account for only a tiny percentage of the sun-care market, according to Karen Grant, global industry analyst and vice president of beauty for the NPD Group, a market research firm. "It's still very niche. We haven't seen a lot of products from the big players in this area," said Grant, adding that Bare Escentuals is the only mainstream, high-end sunscreen manufacturer she's aware of that produces a natural sunscreen.
Natural products are primarily available online and at specialty stores and grocers such as Whole Foods.