Thinking About Switching to a Natural Sunscreen? Here’s What You Need to Know

Thinking About Switching to a Natural Sunscreen? Here’s What You Need to Know
Thomas Slack
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It’s never been easier to make the switch to a green beauty routine. Now, there are natural alternatives to every product that’s a part of our regular lineup—including sunscreen. But how do these organic options hold up compared to the average sunblock during a day in the sun, and can they be relied on to shield our complexions against UVA and UVB rays? We spoke with Jeanine Downie, M.D., Director of Image Dermatology in Montclair, New Jersey, to set the record straight on just how effective natural sunscreens are in offering daily protection from damaging effects of overexposure to the sun.

Know the Difference

What sets a natural sunscreen apart from the average formula is that they're completely chemical-free. While this major factor may sway people into thinking that they should toss out their drugstore tubes of sunblock, it doesn't necessarily mean that these clean formulas are more effective. "The issue that we dermatologists combat when it comes to organic sunscreens is that many of them don’t do what they say they’re doing to do, which is protecting people from UVA/UVB rays. Studies have shown if you sit in traffic—in any type of car—certain molecules can get down into your skin and actually cause free radical damage. I say this because sitting in pollution is much more damaging than applying a topical sunscreen to your skin that has some chemicals in it that are blocking you from UVA/UVB rays," explains Dr. Downie.

"When it comes to sunblock, I just caution people to apply proper coverage and that they go with something that’s minimum UVA/UVB coverage. There’s a lot of sunblocks out there that say they’re broad spectrum, but when you actually look at it they’re only UVB coverage," she says.

RELATED: Are You Applying Your Sunscreen Properly?

Choose a Product with Ingredients That Actually Work

If you do decide to go the natural sunscreen route, Dr. Downie recommends picking a formula that contains titanium dioxide or zinc oxide because they are both physical blockers that will shield your complexion from UVA/UVB rays. Drunk Elephant's Umbra Sheer Physical Defense SPF 30 ($38; sephora.com) one such sunscreen that contains zinc oxide and a blend of antioxidants, and leaves a non-greasy finish.

Although its not organic, Dr. Downie recommends taking your protection one step further than UVA/UVB with a formula like SkinMedica TOTAL DEFENSE + REPAIR Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 34 ($68; skinmedica.com), which also offers inrfared protection in addition to UVA/UVB. "Infrared is part of the spectrum of visible light. It means that it will protect you against the heat that's bouncing off the pavement on a especially hot day that makes you fee like you're going to melt. It's also useful for people cooking in the kitchen," Dr. Downie says.

As for what to avoid? Dr. Downie says that a lot of people choose to avoid non-organic sunscreens that contain cinnamates and oxybenzones because they experience sensitivity or allergies to these ingredients, but they've not been proven to be harmful.

If a Product Sounds Too Good to Be True, It Might Be

Many natural sunscreens also boast other skin care benefits like anti-aging ingredients, but it's best not to believe the hype until you take a good look at a product's ingredients. "Some organic sunblocks say that they have anti-aging benefits to them. The main anti-aging benefit of wearing [sunblock] is that you decrease your fine-lines and wrinkles and obviously it protects you against the sun, and you don’t get skin cancer. However, it would depend on how many antioxidants it has and the level of said antioxidants and which actual anti-aging ingredients it has in it," explains Dr. Downie.

RELATED: The Truth About What to Do with Leftover Sunscreens Post Summer

Don't Forget to Reapply

Organic or not, every sunscreen needs to be reapplied in order for it to consistantly be shielding you from UVA/UVB rays. Dr. Downie recommends putting on another coat every two-three hours if you're in the Northeast part of the U.S., and every hour if you're closer to the Equator. She also suggests reapplying more often if you're participating in outdoor activities like running, where you're directly in the sunlight for an extended period of time.

Know the Alternatives

If you've taken a natural sunscreen for a test drive and ended up with a nasty sunburn, try a mineral-based sunscreen that's gentle on sensitive skin, but won't hold out on adequate sun protection. Dr. Downie recommends Colorescience Sunforgettable Mineral Sunscreen Brush SPF 50 ($64; colorescience.com). This powder formula is compact, easy to reapply on-the-go, and, as a bonus, comes in a variety of shades for light coverage of imperfections.

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