Protecting your skin with natural sunscreen isn’t just better for your body—it’s better for the planet

Nothing says summer like a long, lazy day at the beach. While you’re soaking in those rays, make sure you’re not only wearing sunscreen, but reapplying regularly. Though all the labels on the bottle may seem the same, what’s inside certainly is not. That’s why opting for a natural sunscreen, meaning a physical one, is crucial.

“The ingredients in chemical sunscreens pose health risks when they penetrate the skin and have been linked to tissue damage and potential hormone disruption,” says Tricia Trimble, founder and president of Suntegrity Skincare. “Some may also trigger allergic skin reactions. Natural sunscreens made with zinc oxide as the active ingredient are better for your skin because zinc oxide is very therapeutic. This is why it is used in diaper rash creams and often as an ingredient in rosacea, melasma and acne treatments. Zinc oxide is antiseptic and astringent; it absorbs moisture, which makes it particularly good for severe eczema. Zinc is also an essential mineral that your body needs for optimal function and it’s the only active sunscreen ingredient approved by the FDA for use on infants under six months.”

Another thing to look for on the bottle? Protection from both UVB and UVA rays. “SPF” refers to protection against UVB rays, which are the shorter, more energetic wavelengths, while “Broad Spectrum Protection” refers to the protection from UVA rays, the longer, less energetic wavelengths, explains Trimble. Zinc oxide prevents both UVB and UVA rays from penetrating the skin by scattering them.

Look for an SPF of at least 30, which is the number recommended by dermatologists. But no matter how much sunscreen you use, it won’t do any good unless you apply it enough and frequently, and at least 30 minutes before sun exposure. “Sunscreens are only effective if you use them properly,” says Brook Harvey-Taylor, president and founder of Pacifica. “Proper use of your sunscreen is the key factor to avoid sunburns. Even today, most people don’t know what SPF factors are, what reapplication rules need to be, and how to avoid sun damage. No matter what the SPF, sunscreens start to lose effectiveness over time. So it’s important to reapply every two hours and after swimming or heavy sweating. The most important factor is you have to use enough sunscreen for adequate protection.”

Approximately one ounce of sunscreen for your entire body is necessary for protection and close to a teaspoon for your face and neck. Make sure to rub it in until it’s completely absorbed. Don’t forget commonly missed spots, such as the tops of the hands and feet, ears, portions of your back you can’t reach, the area where the swimsuit meets the skin, and lips. “Just like the rest of your body, your lips get damaged by UVA/UVB rays and the lips tend to have thinner, more delicate skin, which is very susceptible to sun damage,” Trimble says.

Let your sunscreen do double duty by using one that has other good-for-you ingredients. “Look for sunscreens with added antioxidants,” suggests Trimble. “The more antioxidants in the product, the better. Antioxidants are known for helping boost the body’s natural defense against the formation of UVA-induced free radicals, therefore serving as a second layer of protection against UV radiation that passes through the first layer of UV protection.”

Smart sun safety isn’t just about wearing sunscreen. Limit your time outdoors between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. when rays are the strongest, and wear UPF clothing, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses when you’re outdoors. “When you can, use clothing and umbrellas to completely block the sun,” Harvey-Taylor says. “No sunscreen on the market can provide this kind of protection.”

When you use natural sunscreens, you’re not just saving your skin—you’re also saving the planet, as chemical sunscreens imperil the coral reefs. “Coral bleaching is a big concern,” says Harvey-Taylor. “This is where coral turns white after expelling algae, which make the corals more susceptible to bacteria and other sources of stress. The bleaching event comes as the world’s oceans have heated up to the warmest levels recorded since instrument records began in the late 19th century. The biggest stresses on reefs are climate change, overfishing and pollution—like runoff of pesticides in rivers and sewers that flow into the ocean, and sunscreen chemicals also play a factor. That said, with everything we do, we should consider the impact we have on the environment. If we each make incremental changes in our daily behavior, we really can make a difference.”

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