Sunscreen Recommendation: Physical Sunblock vs Chemical Sunscreen

by Colleen Russell
Graphics by Kerrie Bross
We recently published an article about the dangerous changes in sunscreen formulations and the difference between chemical and physical sunscreens. The response to this information was phenomenal, and we found that our customers, readers, and even our staff were still confused about whether or not sunscreen was helpful or harmful.

Today, a show aired entitled, “Is Sunscreen Dangerous?” In this episode, the doctor warned his viewers that many chemical suncreens contain ingredients that can cause cancer, alter endocrine function, and disrupt hormones. Two medical experts made appearances, each with a different message about the importance of sunscreen.
Dr. Arthur Perry stated that many common ingredients in chemical sunscreens are known carcinogens and endocrine disrupters. But, according to Dr. Perry, “There are safe alternatives to chemical sunscreens…There is no reason that we should be putting endocrine disrupters on our skin.”

Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, a representative of the American Academy of Dermatology, disagreed that there was a definite correlation between sunscreen and cancer risk. She warned that sunscreen is the best defense we have against skin cancer and should be used in whatever form is available.

So, what is recommended? According to some doctors, sunscreen containing Zinc Oxide, described as “physical sunscreen,” is the safest, most effective sunblock to protect your skin from the sun this summer. Doctors also recommend physical sunscreen with Zinc Oxide as the active ingredient. Since the thick Zinc Oxide paste can create a white film on the skin, try a micronized Zinc Oxide sun block like Thinksport which has the benefit of rubbing in clear. A Zinc Oxide sunblock with nanoparticles, however, carries potential health risks.

Using sunblock is vitally important to maintaining skin health and preventing skin cancer. Choosing the right physical sunblock, though, is just as important to preventing secondary disease that could result from chemical sunscreen use. According to some doctors, when it comes to sunblock, just “Think white, you’ll get it right,” and choose Zinc Oxide for sun protection. Doctors also suggest checking the EWG 2013 Sunscreen Guide for for recommendations on specific brands of sunblock. Thinksport and Thinksport Kids, were all rated #1 on the 2012 EWG Sunscreen Guide.

There are so many myths, misconceptions, and advertising falsities circulating about sunscreen that even the FDA is having a hard time defining acceptable marketing techniques. There is a clear difference between the safety of chemical and physical sunscreens, and it’s more important than ever to read labels before slathering it on your skin. What’s in your sunscreen?

27 thoughts on “Sunscreen Recommendation: Physical Sunblock vs Chemical Sunscreen

    • Hi Elsa, Neutrogena Sunscreens are considered chemical sunscreens. Most are rated 3 or 4 on the EWG Sunscreen Guide, meaning that some ingredients are known carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, and have the potential to cause organ system toxicity. We prefer to use sunblocks that only list Zinc Oxide as an active ingredient because it is the safest, most effective broad spectrum sunscreen ingredient. We carry the Thinksport line in our store and are expecting a shipment of Raw Elements sunscreen and sticks this week.

  1. I’ve been using Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Sunblock for at least 10
    years SPF 55 Lightweight. I was very disappointed to find out
    I’ve been using a harmful product. It does not indicate titanium or
    zinc in the ingredients.

    • Hi Liz, Vanicream makes three formulations of sunscreen. EWG gave two of them a #2 rating, and the other received a #3 rating, on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being the safest and most effective. They are all zinc oxide/titanium dioxide blends, which is great. This year’s new formulation, however, appears to have a few ingredients added, probably to make the lotion easier to spread, that were flagged as potential organ system contaminants and carcinogens. The one with the least favorable rating was the 60+ spf. Generally speaking, it’s best not to use a sunscreen that advertises an spf of over 50, though this number is rather arbitrary and, according to EWG, can be misleading.

  2. What about clarins sunscreen spf 40 antipollution and lancome mexoryl spa 50 and lancome moisterizer with spa 30

    • The ratings on the three products you inquired about all received a 5, indicating moderate concern for a variety of reasons.

      The Clarins product received a 5, referencing hormonal concerns, carcinogens, and potential irritants.

      The Lancome moisturizer received a 5, referencing organ system toxicity, biochemical changes, and endocrine disruption.

      The Lancome Sunscreen received a 5, referencing reproductive issues, eye and skin irritation, and chemical absorption into the skin.

    • Hi Pat,
      The La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid SPF 50 received a rating of 3 on a scale of 1-10, 1 being the best. Health concerns were listed as moderate based on a few of the active ingredients. Although the most prevalent ingredient is titanium dioxide, it appears that an array of other ingredients were added to make this one more “fluid” so that it is easier to apply and rubs on clear. If you need something that is very easy to rub in or are partial to a tinted moisturizer, a form in which this one can be purchased, it may be a good choice. The safest, most effective skin protectant is zinc oxide, though, which this one is not.

    • Hi Jena,
      I checked the ewg report and didn’t see an Avene spf 30 with a 2013 manufacturer date. There was a sunscreen spray with an spf 20 that received a 6 (not good) for a variety of reasons that range from fragrence to ingredients to nanoparticles from the spray. They have a few cosmetic products that rate very well, so I am assuming that the drive to put this particular product into spray form changed the formulation.

    • Hi Alison!
      Thanks for stopping in. The Vivite Sunscreen wasn’t tested this year, but the moisturizer was. The Vivite Daily Facial Moisturizer with Sunscreen SPF 30 received a 5. The reason for the bad score was twofold. First, this particular sunscreen offers UVB protection but barely, if any, UVA protection. It is better to use a product that offers broad-spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Second, the ingredients used in the formulation of this product all presented potentially harmful health effects which can be avoided. Since this is a product designed to protect very delicate facial tissue from damage, a zinc oxide or titanium dioxide sunblock will give you a much more effective anti-aging component.

    • Each product seems to have a completely different recipe, so it would absolutely depend on which of their 56 preparations you purchase. EWG tests products each year and gives them a grade of 0-10 with 0 being the best, least toxic and 10 being the most harmful. As a brand, the Banana Boat products range from 3-9!

  3. Hi there,

    May I know your thoughts on the following 3 products from VMV Hypoallergenics?




    ARMADA FACE COVER 30 does not contain zinc oxide. So based on Doc Oz recommendation, should I go for ARMADA FACE COVER 45 which contains zinc oxide?

    How would you rank the above 3 sunscreen/sunblock?

    Thank you.

  4. There is much more to “safe sunscreen”, but Dr. Oz’s recommendation is a great starting point. We use and love Ava Anderson Non-Toxic, it’s one of the safest (and definitely best) on the market today, rated so by EWG too. Non-nanoparticle zinc oxide that actually rubs in, and works!

    • I went to an Ava Anderson demonstration this past weekend and, so far, I like their skincare products. I did not apply the sunscreen, but did compare the consistency to the a SPF 50+, and I found it to be similar. I agree, with a #1 rating on the Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide, it is definitely one of the best out there, and rubbing in easily is a plus for sunblock products.

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