The Aim of This Article
In this article, eventual benefits and downsides of sunscreens labeled as “natural”, “organic”, “hypoallergenic”, or “biodegradable” are presented in the (hopefully) unbiased way.
What are Natural Sunscreens?
Claims like “all ingredients are derived from natural substances” can be often found on some sunscreen packages. There is no regulation that would tell which sunscreens may be called natural. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, natural means “existing in, or produced by nature”, “not artificial”, meaning “not man made”. But the process of deriving ingredients from a natural source may include artificial procedures and artificial substances, making originally natural product unnatural. Besides that, ingredient is not automatically safe just because it is natural. Both natural and artificial substances can cause adverse reactions.
Example of ingredients in “all natural” labeled sunscreen (1): zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, deionized water, green tea extract, sunflower oil, coconut oil, jojoba oil, eucalyptus oil, shea butter, lecithin, glycerin, xanthan gum, tocopheryl acetate (vit E), retinyl palmitate (vit A). Comment: Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide occur in nature, but those appearing in sunscreens are not necessary naturally produced (but not necessary harmful). Shea butter may be obtained by using synthetic solvents. Tocopheryl acetate is a synthetic vitamin E, and retinyl palmitate is a synthetic vitamin A.
What Means Organic?
The use of a term “organic” on sunscreen products that have no certificate, is not clearly determined and may be misleading, since according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, at least two explanation of the term organic exist:
- In chemistry, the term organic is related to “carbon compounds of living beings, and most other carbon compounds”.
- In agriculture, the term organic relates to “food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides”.
Organizations that give “organic certificates” (see below) additionally determine allowed substances and processes in “organic production”.
IFOAM Standards for Organic Production and Processing
According to International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), “organic agriculture should avoid the use of fertilizers, pesticides, animal drugs and food additives that may have adverse health effects”. IFOAM launched basic standards for organic production and procesing in September 2000.
EU COSMOS Standard
European cosmetic standards working group has determined allowed methods of producing organic substances in COSMOS standard. COSMOS does not explain the term “organic” clearly, though.
USDA Certified Organic Cosmetic Products
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) determines “organic product” as the one that is processed without use of synthetic and non-agriculture substances, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge (with some exceptions, according to National Organic Program (NOP)), and gives the following USDA ORGANIC certificates:
- “100% organic” product may contain only organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Such a product may display an “USDA organic” seal.
- “Organic” product must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients. Such a product may display an “USDA organic” seal.
- Product “made by organic ingredients” must contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. Such a product may not display an USDA organic seal.
Australian Certified Organic Products
Products branded “miessence® certified organics” must contain at least 95% of organically produced agricultural ingredients (3). The remaining 5% may contain non-organically agricultural ingredients, but no genetically modified organisms (GMO) or any artificial chemical substances. These products may bear a “Australian Certified Organic” (ACO) seal.
Example. We have not found any sunscreen product that would meet “miessence® certified organics” criteria.
Products branded “miessence® organics” are made with at least 70% organically produced agricultural ingredients (excluding water and salt) (3). Any remaining can be non-organically produced agricultural ingredients (with no GMOs or synthetics chemicals) or non-agricultural substances like clay, bicarb soda, and minerals. These products may bear the “Biological Farmers of Australia” (BFA) seal.
Example. We found one product with an undisclosed amount of zinc oxide and BFA logo (4).
Producers of “hypoallergenic sunscreens” usually claim that their products do not contain irritant or allergenic substances like:
- Fragrances (substances that give the smell to the product) may cause headache, dizziness, rash, violent coughing and vomiting, depression, hyperactivity and irritability.
- Preservatives (substances that prevent spoiling of a product with time) such as parabens
- Basic substances (inactive substances that gives a mass to the product and hold active substances), such as isopropyl alcohol, may dry up the skin; mineral oil may be irritant
- Substances that may cause photosensitivity, such as cinnamates, salicylates, oxybenzones or musk (6,7)
Example of ingredients in one sunscreen product labeled as “hypoallergenic” (5): homosalate (10.0%), zinc oxide (7.5%), octinoxate (7.5%), purified water, isobutyl stearate, glyceryl stearate, PEG-100 stearate, glycerin, dimethicone NF, glyceryl dilaurate, PVP/eicosene copolymer, benzyl alcohol, cyclomethicone, cetearyl alcohol, ceteareth-20 cetyl alcohol, DEA-cetyl phosphate, xanthan gum, disodium EDTA, citric acid. Comment: Listed ingredients are not known as toxic, but eventual individual sensitivity to some of them can not be excluded in advance.
It was found out that paraben, cinnamate, benzophenone and a camphor derivative (non-degradable ingredients in many sunscreens) may cause bleaching of coral reefs due to death of certain algae (8). In some marine ecoparks in Mexico, the use of non-degradable sunscreens has been banned.
Example of ingredients in a sunscreen product labeled as “biodegradable” (9): cucumber, melon extracts, organic Aloe vera and Kukui pod oil, wild pansy, hibiscus, green coffee, natural titanium dioxide, zinc oxide. Comment: We checked one sunscreen with listed ingredients (that we believe are all biodegradable) and found out that sun protective factor (SPF) was only 4 (most doctors recommend SPF at least 15).
Before Buying a Sunscreen
- What rating a sunscreen product has in independent reviews
- Which exact sunscreen ingredients are considered as generally toxic or irritant
- Which exact substances irritate you? If you are allergic to peanuts, you will not be able to safely use any sunscreen containing peanut oil.
- Which exact ingredients do you find inconvenient? Zinc oxide my be thick, alcohol based sunscreen may dry up the skin, and so on. What is a good sunscreen?
- Terms “natural” or “organic” on a sunscreen package (or in ads) mean nothing, if a product does not have a seal proving that a product is organic according to some standard (USDA organic, Australia certified organic, or other).
- A sunscreen product is not automatically “safe”, if it is certified organic. Several organic substances may trigger allergic reaction in sensitive people.
- A sunscreen ingredient is not automatically “toxic”, if it is synthetic. Zinc oxide is often synthesized, not obtained naturally, but no important side effects of zinc oxide were found so far.
- A sunscreen labeled as “hypo-allergenic” is not already non-allergenic.
- Check ingredients in a “biodegradable” sunscreen to see if they are also safe for you, not only for the environment.
- Safe Sunscreen – SPF, broadband, physical/chemical sunscreen and other terms explained
- Causes of Skin Cancer - UVA, UVB rays from the sun and other skin cancer causes and risk factors
- Types of Skin Cancer - basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma, and other skin cancers with pictures
- Types of Skin Rashes- dermatologic terms explained (macule, papule, eczema, petechia, and others)
- Itchy Rash – a list of rashes that may itch, short description and links to pictures
- Example of “all natural” sunscreen (mexitanproducts.com)
- Sunscreen with “at least of 60% of certified organic ingredients (badgerbalm.com)
- Sunscreen with Biological Farmers of Australia logo (anniesorganics.mionegroup.com)
- Organic certifications in United States and Australia (mionegroup.com)
- Sunscreen denoted as “hypoallergenic” (coolibar.com)
- Sunscreens triggering photosensitivity (dermnetnz.org)
- Sunscreens and photocontact dermatitis (dermnetnz.org)
- Coral reef bleaching and sunscreens (ehponline.org)
Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on August 3, 2013