Nontoxic Sunscreen 101 — A comprehensive guide to safe sun care

June is here!

Perfect timing to talk solar care. This is a subject close to my heart. I love the sun. I love going to the beach and getting my Vitamin D fix. But I confess, I’m also that annoying friend who asks everyone around if they applied sunscreen each time they’re outside… I firmly believe that sun protection education is lacking and it is costing people. Sometimes, it’s just a really ugly burn, and sometimes it’s their health, or their lives. Such a shame for something that is preventable.

On a less dramatic note, sun is also responsible for premature skin aging, wrinkles and dark spots. And we don’t want that either, do we?

So let’s dive in. Do you know what’s SPF? What’s the difference between UVA and UVB? What is a mineral sunscreen?

Let’s start with some basics.

1. Sun Care Glossary


Ultraviolet A (long wave) and Ultraviolet B (short wave) are part of the radiations that reach the earth from the sun. They penetrate the atmosphere and have been proven to play an important role in conditions such as skin aging, eye damage and skin cancers.

UVA are less intense than UVB but they penetrate the skin more deeply (up to the dermis, the thickest layer of the skin). They are present throughout the year and can penetrate through clouds and glass. UVA were initially thought to be ‘only’ a photoaging agent (vs carcinogenic), accelerating premature skin aging and wrinkles. However, recent studies show that UVA can also cause cumulative cell DNA damage over time and contribute to the development of skin cancers.

UVB is the main cause of sunburn aand tends to damage the outermost skin layer: the epidermis. It plays a key role in the development of skin cancers, and contributes to premature aging as well. These rays’ intensity varies by season, location and time of day. They are most present from October through April (in the Northern Hemisphere) and from 10am to 4pm. But be aware that they can burn your skin year-round, especially at high altitudes or on reflective surfaces like sand or snow.


SPF is short for Sun Protection Factor. It is followed by a number that measures the fraction of sunburn-producing UVB rays that reach the skin. Did you know that an SPF30 blocks 97% of the UVB rays? Higher-number SPFs block slightly more, but no sunscreen can block 100% of the sun’s UVB rays. To avoid misleading the consumer, the European Union has even limited labeling to SPF50+.

It is also important to remember that high-number SPFs last the same amount of time as low-number SPFs. All sunscreens should be applied approximately every two hours and every time after swimming or sweating.

SPF is not enough. It is only a UVB protection indicator. It doesn’t rate the UVA protection.  

Broad Spectrum

Broad Spectrum (or full spectrum) sunscreens protect both from UVA and UVB.

Water Resistant

In the USA, the Food and Drug Administration only allows two claims: Water Resistant (40 min) or Very Water Resistant (80 min). These retain their stated SPF value for the specified time, in water or while sweating.

Physical (or mineral) Sunscreen

Physical sunscreens (also called mineral sunscreens) are made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. The particles in these ingredients sit on top of the skin and reflect all UV rays (UVA and UVB), creating a physical shield.

Chemical Sunscreen

Chemical sunscreens are made of carbon-based chemicals like oxybenzone, avobenzone or octinoxate. These organic (I know, confusing) compounds create a reaction that transforms the rays into heat, which is then released from the skin.

2. Mineral vs Chemical Sunscreen and other ingredients to look for

Studies suggest that key ingredients in chemical sunscreens (like avobenzone or oxybenzone) mimic estrogen and act as endocrine disruptors. And it is crucial to look at the ingredient list as a whole (remember: read the label!). Most widely available sunscreens also contain parabens, phthalates, fragrance and are packaged in aerosolized containers. “That knowledge alone is a great reason for choosing a nontoxic sunscreen over a traditional brand” says Dr. Sarah Villafranco, MD, founder of Osmia Organics, in this interview to MindBodyGreen.

In addition, oxybenzone and octinoxate have been shown to harm corals and marine life when washed off in the ocean. On May 1, Hawaii became the first state to pass a bill banning the sale of sunscreen containing chemicals believed to harm coral reefs.  

To recap:

  • Read the label: you want mineral and nontoxic
  • Go for SPF30 or higher, broad spectrum and water-resistant
  • Wear sunscreen every time you’re outside
  • Limit exposure from 10 am to 4pm
  • Protect yourself even when it’s cloudy, reapply frequently and don’t forget the usually missed spots: ears, lips, fingers and feet
  • Throw away as soon as soon as it’s expired.

3. My Favorite Nontoxic Sunscreens


  • Suntegrity Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen & Primer, Broad Spectrum SPF 30

Suntegrity Mineral Sunscreen

This is my favorite of all. It’s a moisturizer, a sunscreen and a primer! It starts a bit white and thick but as soon as you massage it, it disappears into the skin and has a non-greasy, matte finish that is a perfect makeup base. It smells good and feels soft on the skin. It’s also paraben-free and comes in a beautiful airless packaging.

Buy it here

  • Honua Skincare Malu Protecting Day Cream SPF30

Honua Skincare Malu Protecting Day Cream SPF30

The Malu Day Cream was this month’s Beauty Heroes discovery. It’s a lightweight, moisturizing SPF30 that is reef-safe! It contains traditional Hawaiian ingredients like hydrating aloe, detoxifying laukahi and repairing noni. I love the silky finish and it smells like jasmine flowers in a Summer night. MALU means shade, shelter, protection and peace, and that is exactly what it feels like…

Buy it here


  • MD Solar Sciences Mineral Creme SPF50
MD Solar Sciences Broad Spectrum SPF50
Pic taken in sunny Santa Barbara

My husband carries this little pink tube around every day. This mineral sunscreen is very light for an SPF50. It has a little of a white cast but nothing too visible when you work it in. It is oil-free and fragrance-free, full of antioxidants and gentle enough for all skin types.

Buy it here


  • Suntegrity 5-in-1 Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen
Photo: Suntegrity Website

This all-in-one BB Cream is a clean beauty cult favorite! It treats, hydrates, protects (broad spectrum SPF30), primes and covers. It’s packed with antioxidants and moisturizing agents. The finish is a little more on the glowy side, without being shiny.  

Buy it here

  • MD Solar Sciences Mineral Tinted Crème SPF 30
Photo: MDSolarSciences Website

The MD Solar Sciences lightweight tinted SPF has a universally flattering color. If you’re looking for a light coverage, good protection and a nice, matte finish, this is your guy! It’s not as moisturizing as the Suntegrity in my opinion so I usually add a few drops of squalane oil before applying it.

Buy it here


  • Suntegrity Natural Mineral Sunscreen for Body, Broad Spectrum SPF 30
Suntegrity Body Mineral Sunscreen
Photo: Suntegrity Website

If you’re more of a cream person, this is a very nice one! I only tried it once but the texture is nice and easy to apply. It comes in a lightly citrus-scented version (that contains a low dilution of essential oils) or an unscented version.

Buy it here 


  • Hurraw! Sun Lip Balm SPF15
Hurraw Sun Lip Balm SPF15
Photo: Hurraw Website

Lips are often forgotten in solar care but they’re a very fragile mucosa and important to protect! I really like Hurraw’s Sun Lip Balm in SPF15. It glides on silky-smooth, is very hydrating and smells like tangerine with hints of vanilla (yummy). The only issue is that, even if it comes out clear at first, it tends to leave white residues on the side of my mouth after a while.

Buy it here


This list is comprised of mostly face sunscreens as this is what I’m using here in SF for now but I’ll add more body sun care over the Summer! Do you have any to recommend?

Enjoy the sun and protect your skin 🙂


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