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Buying random sunscreens is no longer an option—some are actually harmful to both you and the environment. To help navigate this jungle, we’ve tried to map out the dos and don’ts.

We’d like to think that natural and organic skin care is better for your personal health, but also for the health of this planet. However, it can be hard to figure out what’s truly good, and what’s just good marketing. As summer is emerging, it’s high time to start looking into sun protection, and as it turns out, this is a real hard nut to crack—there are defiantly some mixed messages out there.

Let’s lay out some basic facts to start with. We need SPF (sun protecting factor) products to protect the skin from the sun’s UVB and UVA radiation. UVB is the one that burns your skin, while UVA goes deeper into the skin and produces free radicals, which can make your skin age prematurely, give you sun allergy and pigment changes, and cause skin cancer. All things we don’t want, basically.

Sun protection is commonly divided into two groups: Chemical and physical.

Chemical UV filters are absorbed by the skin and works against UV radiation through a sort of chemical reaction. They’re usually not biodegradable and are known to cause contact allergies. Oxybenzone, for example, is a common compound in synthetic and chemical sun protections, and has been found in 3,500 brands of sunscreen worldwide. This is a toxic substance that’s bad for our bodies and that’s particularly harmful to aquatic animals—corals especially.

Physical UV filters, on the other hand, consist of particles (and they should never be nanoparticels) that lie on top of the skin and reflect the UV radiation off of it. These UV filters commonly consist of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide is considered to be less harmful to the environment and is not a contact allergen. These are usually used in the “natural” and “organic” sunscreens.

We all know that protecting ourselves from the sun is super important, and if protective clothing and limited exposure to direct sunlight isn’t possible—SPF is the given go-to. But, when we’re at the beach, slapping on ton’s of lotion—‘cause that’s what we’ve been told to do—we don’t really think about the huge amount that we leave behind in the ocean. Actually, research has shown that between 6,000 to 14,000 tons of sunscreen ends up in the coral reef areas each year. This means that huge amounts of toxic chemicals, such as Oxybenzone, are released, dissolving some of our most important coral reefs.

Zinc oxide, the physical UV filter, is supposedly safe for humans if the amount in the sunscreen doesn’t exceed 25%, but it’s also said to be very toxic to water living organisms. So, though it’s a natural substance, it should probably be avoided—especially if you’re going swimming. That leaves us with titanium dioxide, a natural earth mineral, which seems to be our best option at this point. However, skeptics especially voices a concern regarding the use of any of these substances in the form of nanoparticles, since these can do harm if entering our bloodstreams.

So, unless there’s something better out there (and please let us know if you know of something) we’d go for a natural/organic physical UV-filter sunscreen with non-nanoparticle titanium dioxide. The titanium dioxide does leave a bit of a white film on your skin, but that may just be something we have to live with—at least for now.

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