What You Do (and Don’t) Want in a Healthy Sunscreen – Dr Wendy Davis ND

What You Do (and Don’t) Want in a Healthy Sunscreen


There has been significant research on the potential harmful effects of excessive sun exposure in the last few decades.  Unfortunately very little of this research has focused on our diet (excessive Omega 6 oils increase the risk of sunburn) and so many doctors and personal-care product companies promote daily sunscreen application to reduce your overall UV exposure and lower your risk of skin cancer and sun damage. 

However, your daily skin care routine may have unintended consequences for both you and the planet.

What to look for in a sunscreen label

With so many various sunscreens to choose from, how do you know which is best? Read on…

There are two main sunscreen categories: chemical and physical (mineral).  Chemical sunscreens sink into your skin and act like a sponge, absorbing UV rays. Mineral sunscreens sit on the surface of your skin and act like a shield.

Chemical sunscreens are formulated with chemical UV filters such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene and homosalate. They absorb the sun’s UV rays, convert them to heat and release them before your skin can soak them up. 

These types of sunscreens are generally more popular as they are designed for fast absorption and tend to go on smoothly without leaving a sticky, greasy feeling or a white cast like some mineral sunscreens. 

However, studies have shown that many of these chemicals have negative impacts on human and environmental health. This has led the US FDA and European Commission to update their sunscreen regulations to reduce the legal limit for concentrations of many of these chemicals in sunscreens. 

Regulations governing sunscreen products in Canada are outlined in the Food and Drugs Act and Cosmetic Regulations. These require sunscreen manufacturers to comply with labeling requirements; however, Health Canada maintains the list of permitted and prohibited substances in cosmetics, including sunscreens. 

Chemicals such as oxybenzone and octinoxate have not been banned or prohibited in Canada despite their health and environmental impacts. The allowed concentrations are comparable to the U.S. but much higher than the European Commission’s recent recommendations.  Even at lower concentrations there are still risks. 

Mineral sunscreens are a better option.

Mineral sunscreens (often called “natural” sunscreens) are formulated with zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide, both of which are considered safe and effective. In fact, these two sunscreen ingredients are the only two categorized as such by the U.S. FDA in proposed sunscreen regulations. Mineral sunscreens deliver broad-spectrum protection by reflecting UV radiation away from your skin.

Avoid spray sunscreens

Aerosol sunscreens, although generally safe when applied topically as lotions or gels, can trigger allergies and asthma when they enter the lungs as sprays and may pose carcinogenic and developmental risks.

Spray sunscreens can also spread the harmful product onto the surrounding environment.

The potential impact of chemical sunscreen on our health

Although sunscreen is intended to protect you, chemical formulations can have adverse effects on human health. Studies have reported finding sunscreen ingredients in breast milk, urine and blood plasma samples. 

The ingredients oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and avobenzone are all systemically absorbed into the body after one use

Constant exposure to sunscreen chemicals raises legitimate concerns, and safety data is lacking for most ingredients.

What to look for in a good sunscreen

1. A good rating by the Environmental Working Group.

Use their handy tool to find out if your sunscreen is EWG-verified and to learn about the most eco-friendly and effective options.

2. It provides broad-spectrum protection

Even though exposure to both UVA and UVB contributes to development of melanoma SPF measures only UVB. Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against both.

3. It should not contain dangerous ingredients


  • Oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor that can also trigger allergic reactions and studies show that it may cause more harm in children.

  • Octinoxate, an endocrine disruptor that can also harm reproductive organ development in utero.

  • Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A linked to skin tumors and lesions on sun-exposed skin.

  • Check out the The “Dirty Dozen” ingredients, including parabens, phthalate, PEG, parfum (a.k.a. fragrance) and sodium lauryl/laureth sulphate as these should all be avoided

4. It is s a cream (not spray or powder)

Choose mineral-based creams over a spray or a powder, since research shows titanium dioxide and zinc oxide applied topically do not migrate through skin, but inhaled nanoparticles can enter the bloodstream through the lungs.

 *Sunscreen is currently only available for purchase in clinic or can be ordered by phone and shipped to you, please contact the clinic to order.