What You Can Use Instead of Sunscreen That Won’t Wear Off, Look Greasy or Make You Break Out
While moderate amounts of sunshine are important to our health and to generate Vitamin D with as little as 10 minutes of exposure, we all know that too much sun, too often, can be harmful. While sunscreen is a widely used method to provide protection when doing outdoor activities such as fishing, it can be toxic due to chemical ingredients among other disadvantages. Dermatologists agree that whenever practical, it’s best to use natural substitutes and sun protective clothing such as hats, sunglasses, face shields, and arm sleeves.
In This Article:
- About UV Exposure and Where Does It Come From?
- Types and Causes of Skin Cancer
- Who Is Most at Risk of Getting Skin Cancer?
- History of Sun Protection and Sunscreen
- What Does SPF and UPF Mean?
- Types of Sunscreen
- How Chemical Sunscreens Work
- How Dangerous Are Chemical Sunscreens and Their Ingredients?
- Physical aka Mineral Sunscreens (Sunblock)
- Non Toxic, Chemical Free and Organic Sunscreens
- Homemade Sunscreen Recipes and Natural Alternatives
- Why Sunscreens Aren’t Usually Your Best Sun Protection Option
- How Can You Protect Yourself From the Sun Without Using Sunscreen?
- Outdoor Clothing and Sun Protective Apparel
The Importance Of Sun Protection
As the most common of all cancers in people, the importance of protecting oneself from skin cancer cannot be overstated. Not only are over 1 million people diagnosed every year in the US, the incidence of skin cancer continues to increase. According to a Mayo Clinic study, there has been an 800% increase in young women and a 400% increase in young men of melanoma since 1970. While there may be a number of factors at play, the degradation of the Earth’s ozone layer is thought to be a contributor since ozone filters out UV radiation.
While there are a variety of sun protection options available to help minimize skin cancer risk, sun and age spots, wrinkles, cataracts and premature aging caused by Ultraviolet rays (UV), as you’ll see, all options are not created equal and some may do you more harm than good. Each has their own set of advantages and disadvantages
For example, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization focused on improving human health, chemical based sunscreens were found to likely be hazardous to the body due to the number and types of chemicals used in most commercial sunscreens, some of which are believed to be toxic. The EWG advises using an effective substitute to chemical sunscreen to reduce or eliminate any side effects of using these all too common products.
About UV Exposure and Where Does It Come From?
Ultraviolet Radiation or UVR is electromagnetic radiation but at a different wavelength than other forms such as radio, visible light, and infrared. UV radiation is between visible light and X-rays on the electromagnetic spectrum. It has a shorter wavelength (higher frequencies) than visible light and longer wavelength than X-rays.
While we receive most of our Ultraviolet exposure from the sun, we also can get it from man made sources such as certain types of lighting and lamps, industrial and medical equipment as well as from tanning beds. Compared to the sun however, these are relatively minor and not a source of significant exposure for most people.
Doctors and dermatologists agree, that a little bit of the sun each day is healthy, providing much needed Vitamin D but after 10-15 minutes or so, the table starts to turn and it becomes important to reduce your UV exposure.
Types and Causes of Skin Cancer
Skin cancers are typically segmented into three major types although there are some less common types as well:
- Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)
- Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)
Ultraviolet light exposure is the primary cause of skin cancer and the most common source is from sunlight.
BCC and SCC are often referred to as non-melanoma skin cancers and tend to be more prevalent in older people due to the fact that they tend to develop from long term UV exposure accumulated over many years.
Melanomas are more common in younger people, especially in people in their 20s but occur in people of all ages. In contrast to BCC and SCC, short but intense sun exposure, usually resulting in severe sunburn or blisters instead of accumulated exposure over years is a prime contributor to melanoma formation.
Who Is Most at Risk of Getting Skin Cancer?
Having an outdoor occupation increases the risks associated with skin cancer. Construction workers, landscapers, farm workers, lifeguards, commercial fisherman and others who are exposed to the sun a lot due to their career choice should take extraordinary measures to protect themselves. Because of the high frequency of being in the sun, it’s important to use easy, effective, non toxic and chemical free protection to ensure consistent use day after day.
In addition to outdoor employment, people at most risk also include:
- People who spend a fair amount of time fishing, hunting or doing an outdoor hobby, sport or activity
- Anyone who has had one or more severe sunburns, especially when young
- Those with fair skin, especially redheads and people who freckle easily
- People with light colored hair with blue or green eyes
- Anyone who’s previously had skin cancer
- People with certain genetic factors like those with the MC1R gene or family history of skin cancers
- Seniors who spent a lot of time outdoors in their younger years
While this list focuses on those most at risk, today’s reality is that due to a variety of factors everyone should be vigilant about protecting themselves and should be examined by a dermatologist every year. Skin cancer is highly curable when caught early and the earlier it is caught, the less chance there is of the treatment requiring disfiguring surgery or even topical chemotherapy.
History of Sun Protection and Sunscreen
From the earliest of times, humans protected themselves from the sun in obvious ways like finding shade, traveling by night and using things in their environment to shield themselves from the sun during its most intense times of the day or year. As time went on, clothing in the form of animal skins and plant fibers helped provide more constant protection.
In more recent yet ancient times, it is thought that the Egyptians were the first civilization to use what we would now call sunscreen. They combined substances like Aloe Vera, Clay and certain plant oils together as a cream applied to their skin to help tolerate long days in continuous sun for areas of their body clothing didn’t cover. Additionally the Egyptians are also credited with inventing the hat, as paintings in tombs have depicted people wearing straw headwear as early as 3200 BC.
In modern times, the first chemical sunscreen has often been attributed to the founder of L’Oreal, Eugene Schueler who improved upon various home made concoctions of the time so that it could be productized. In 1944, Benjamin Green has been attributed to creating the first mass market sunscreen. From that time onward there have been various other formulations and improvements created by a myriad of individuals and companies. Today brands like Banana Boat, Coppertone, Australian Gold, Neutrogena, Hawaiian Tropic, Panama Jack and others have gone beyond traditional creams to include wipes, roll-on and spray on applications.
As science has advanced, so has sunscreen. Formulations have been designed to defend against specific types of light (UVA or UVB) and broad spectrum formulations minimize both types simultaneously. However the dark side to this technological progression has been the integration of chemicals now believed to be harmful to human health, some of which are considered to be worse for the body than not using sun protection at all.
Even today, while there are a variety of sun protection options available, there’s no single option that provides perfect protection with zero health risks. Therefore, your best bet is to match your activity and/or need to the right type of protection option and ensure it has adequate SPF and/or UPF for the amount of time you’ll be in the sun.
What Does SPF and UPF Mean?
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. It’s a value of how effective a sunscreen or cosmetic product containing sunscreen is in preventing sunburn caused by UVB rays.
There’s two ways to look at what SPF means, one is that it allows a fraction of the solar radiation to reach the skin, the other is it extends the time it takes a typical person to burn from sun exposure by the SPF number. If a sunscreen has an SPF of 15, it would allow 1/15th of the radiation through. This essentially means if a person normally takes 20 minutes to get a burn, that amount of time is multiplied by 15 (the spf) yielding 300 minutes (5 hours) before the person would theoretically receive enough radiation to get sunburn. If for example a person normally burns in half that time without any sunscreen, then with it they would burn in 2.5 hours in this example. This assumes the sunscreen lotion was not washed off or degraded in some way during that time.
While increasing the SPF means it takes longer before a burn should occur, if you doubled the SPF, it doesn’t mean it filters out twice the rays. There’s only a slight increase. For example SPF 30 filters out about 97% of UVB while SPF 15 filters out 93%. Also, unless the sunscreen is labeled as broad spectrum, it probably does not filter out UVA rays.
UPF or Ultraviolet Protection Factor is a rating that originated in Australia in 1996 that is used for clothing and other fabrics that protect you from the sun and is a value of how effective the clothing is in shielding you against the sun. It measures the amount of both UVA and UVB radiation that penetrates the fabric and reaches your skin. That said, many clothing manufactures view SPF and UPF being somewhat synonymous so if you see spf clothing, they are basically saying that if you were using sunscreen that’s the level of protection you’d essentially be getting by wearing their clothes.
Types of Sunscreen
To help illustrate the distinctions between each, we’ve grouped suncreens into 4 different types or categories:
- Chemical Sunscreens
- Physical Sunscreens formerly known as Sunblock
- Organic and Non Toxic Sunscreens
- Homemade Sunscreen
How Chemical Sunscreens Work
These sun screens use chemicals that actually get absorbed into your skin and when UVA rays come into contact with them, a chemical reaction occurs that turns the solar radiation into heat thereby stopping or minimizing the rays from penetrating further into your skin’s cells and DNA. When rays do penetrate and cells or DNA is damaged, the inflammation and resultant blood flow to the area is what we see and feel as a burn, which is an area of redness, swelling and sensitivity. When the sunburn is severe, a blister typically appears. Itchy or peeling skin also is an indication of a significant sunburn.
To prevent damage to the skin, certain chemicals are used in these sunscreens. The chemicals commonly used to convert the radiation into heat in sunscreens may include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octinoxate, octocrylene, homosalate, methoxycinnamate and octyl salicylate. Additionally, most non-organic sunscreens contain up to 50% to 70% inactive constituents, synthetic preservatives and fragrance ingredients as well.
One of its many drawbacks is as more UV light impacts the ingredients, the chemicals essentially get used up and eventually you lose their protection. This is why it is recommended to generously slather on sunscreen initially, to maximize the chemicals that you absorb and then reapply at regular intervals. Additionally, it can take about 30 minutes for the chemicals to seep into your body enough to work most effectively so planning ahead ensures you don’t start to burn before the protective effects kick in.
On the positive side, chemical sunscreens overall are more effective than other sunscreens, especially the broad spectrum ones and if your primary activity is in the water like swimming or surfing, a water resistant sunscreen is going to provide you with the best all around protection since it doesn’t suffer from the problem of not working if it washes off.
How Dangerous Are Chemical Sunscreens and Their Ingredients?
Because the chemicals are absorbed into your skin and therefore your body, there’s been concern about the short and long term effects on our health. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has said that 97 percent of Americans are believed to be contaminated with the sunscreen chemical oxybenzone.
Other studies of sunscreen lotion and spray components indicate that they may disrupt the hormone system, affect metabolism, cause allergic skin reactions, exacerbate rosacea, clog pores and even increase the risk of endometriosis among other issues.
Additionally, in the case of sunscreen sprays, you now have the problem of ingesting or breathing in these substances into our lungs and mucous membranes providing a more direct path to our internal organs. Chemicals applied to our lips in lip balms also can be ingested internally simply by licking our lips. Some of these chemicals are believed to continue to accumulate in our tissues over our lifetime.
Unfortunately it’s quite possible the “cure is worse than the disease” in the case of chemical sunscreens and their risks may outweigh the benefits. Certainly more studies need to be done, but the reality is these are man made unnatural substances that get absorbed into our bodies. Some of these chemicals have not been in use long enough to really know the full extent of their adverse effects, if any. That has led many to seek a replacement.
Physical aka Mineral Sunscreens (Sunblock)
Sunblock is now referred to as a mineral sunscreen, physical sunscreen, barrier sunscreen and even natural sunscreen even though use of the word natural is suspect based on what’s in these sunscreens. In 2011, the FDA banned advertisers from using the word sunblock as it felt the term was misleading.
The two most common minerals used in physical sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Large particle sized mineral sunscreens tend to remain on the skin and are not absorbed unless accompanied by other chemicals as often is the case with broad spectrum combinations. Mineral sunscreens physically reflect UVB rays before the rays actually penetrate the skin. That’s why if you rub it off, the effectiveness goes with it. In order to maximize effectiveness you have to cover every bit of skin that you want protected which can sometimes be difficult to do in areas you cannot reach or see in the mirror.
Because these creams consist of particles that are designed to actually reflect, and to an extent block the sun’s rays, they tend to be visible on your skin and often yield a “ghostly” appearance making it rather obvious to people you interact with that you are wearing it. The darker a person’s skin tone, the more obvious this residue or tint becomes.
More recent physical sunscreens have started to use “nanoparticles” which are smaller sized particles (under 100 nm) to allow for easier and better spreading, less clumping and fuller skin coverage. While the manufactures claim this is a technological advancement, there’s an ongoing debate about the safety of nanoparticles. There are concerns about the toxicity of nanoparticles and how vital organs such as lungs, kidneys, liver, heart and brain may be affected after absorption and systemic distribution to them.
On the positive side, mineral sunscreens are less likely to cause irritation or your skin to breakout due to clogged pores and tends to last longer than chemical sunscreens. They also start to work immediately upon application without having to wait and don’t need to be reapplied unless it gets removed through activity or intentionally.
Non Toxic, Chemical Free and Organic Sunscreens
While these are not necessarily the same since sunscreen without chemicals may not be organic, they are categorized as such here since they don’t use chemicals nor use suspect ingredients like nanoparticles.
In a 2016 report from Consumer Reports, almost 50% of sun screen users they surveyed responded that they look for a natural product when shopping for sun protection. This clearly illustrates people’s concerns about the health implications of using most of the products on the market.
Organic and chemical free sunscreens are harder to find and some stores don’t even carry them at all. But like most anything, you can find them online and through Amazon. Some respected brands to consider include Badger, True Natural and others.
However, Consumer Reports stated they had “disappointing and subpar results” when testing chemical free sunscreens. Only a few tested reasonably well, most failed badly and some were just OK.
So the challenge is as you look for a safer alternative, at least with sunscreens is that the effectiveness just isn’t the same as most of what we find on the store shelves. When you do find one that looks promising, buy the smallest size, try it and see whether it works for you.
Homemade Sunscreen Recipes and Natural Alternatives
How do you make your own natural sunscreen? There’s a variety of natural oils and other ingredients that help provide some level of sun protection and with the right recipe combination a reasonable SPF can be achieved.
Here are the most used ingredients in toxin free, home made sunscreens (for oils, try to use organic if you can as the cost is only slightly more in most cases):
Coconut Oil – Has a natural SPF between 4 and 10 depending on purity and even which study you read. So Coconut oil alone provides minimal defense and typically would not be enough protection.
Vitamin E Oil – Antioxidant and helps naturally preserve homemade sunscreen but this component does not yield protective effects on its own.
Red Raspberry Seed Oil and Carrot Seed Oil – These two oils are often purported to have high SPF (over 30) but the reality is there’s not been many scientific studies on them for sun protection. One study showed high SPF for UVB but low SPF for UVA.
Other Oils and Carriers – There’s no shortage of plant based components people have listed in sunscreen recipes such as wheat germ oil, shea butter, aloe vera and others. These compounds show SPFs from 0 to up to 20 with many under SPF 10.
Zinc Oxide (non nano) – In its non nanoparticle size (over 100 nm) it is non-toxic, usually non-irritating and a highly respected broad spectrum sunblock ingredient. Zinc is a natural mineral. You can buy it online in powdered form and it’s inexpensive!
The Recipe: The key is the zinc oxide. Using 20% by weight of the lotion solution you create will provide a good defensive barrier of approximately 20 SPF. Place whatever oils or other components you decide to use except the zinc oxide into a double boiler, heat but don’t boil. Once everything appears mixed and is warm and liquid throughout add the zinc oxide being careful not to inhale the powder (if you are concerned, wear a dust mask but if you are careful that’s probably not necessary). If the smell of what you create isn’t what you want, adding vanilla extract or certain essential oils can help. Since there are so many different recipes out there, the actual components and amounts are almost limitless. You can just experiment or search online to find a recipe with exact quantities that appeals to you. If you don’t want to go through the trouble of finding and making the right recipe, you can find a natural or organic lotion and simply add the zinc oxide (20% by weight) to that (mix it in very well though). Add or remove zinc oxide depending on your tint preference after you see how it looks on you.
Caveats: It’s important to keep in mind that whatever you create you really don’t know the actual SPF that will result. So it’s not recommended to rely on it for all day intense sun the first time using it. Test your recipe carefully and see how it works. Additionally, homemade sunscreen has a limited shelf life. It’s best to use it the same day or next day. While it could be fine for a week or more, it’s probably not a good idea to store it for months between uses. Oils do go rancid quickly and if nothing else, the smell may not be pleasant if one or more ingredients go bad.
Why Sunscreens Aren’t Usually Your Best Sun Protection Option
- They aren’t that convenient, it takes time to apply them properly and may require reapplication every so often.
- No matter which type of sunscreen, they all leave some kind of residue on your skin. Some more than others. It doesn’t always provide you with the best look if you need go somewhere in public after putting it on.
- The expiration date on the bottle is important. Sunscreen eventually loses effectiveness the longer it goes past the expiry.
- Chemical sunscreens can actually trigger pigmentation (freckles and spots) in many people.
- Some people think that wearing sunscreen provides full protection. No sunscreen blocks 100% of UV.
- Chemical sunscreens aren’t spontaneous or instant as you need to wait some time before they fully take effect.
- Depending on which type and what ingredients, exposure to known or potential toxins, rashes and allergic reactions, clogged pores and breakouts on sensitive skin as well as the unknown long term or continuous-use effects are important considerations.
How Can You Protect Yourself From the Sun Without Using Sunscreen?
Your best substitute is sun protective clothes (discussed in detail next). Even if you are in the water or swimming, some clothing options can still help. Additionally, there are a variety of things that can help minimize UV exposure:
- Avoid being outside during the middle of the day when the sun’s rays are at their peak intensity hours from 10 am to 4 pm
- Stand or work in the shade as much as you can
- When walking long distances consider a lightweight sun blocking umbrella but any umbrella would be better than none
- Always wear UV-filtering sunglasses
- Remember that the closer to the equator you get, the more intense the sun is and the shorter time it takes to burn so use extra protection
- When on the water such as boating or fishing, you are exposed from above and from rays being reflected off the water so protect yourself accordingly
Outdoor Clothing and Sun Protective Apparel
The EWG has stated that the best line of defense against harmful UV radiation is to wear protective clothing. Clothing protects us by absorbing or blocking much of the sun’s radiation and is broad spectrum blocking both UVA and UVB radiation. Obviously, the more skin you cover the better. Clothes avoid the issues with toxins, allergies, rashes and skin sensitivities that some sunscreens may have.
However, most people are not aware of all the clothing options available today. For example, in warm climates one may not think there’s a way to protect your face or neck other than the shade from a wide brimmed hat. But face shields are a great option for both. They are lightweight, breathable, easy to use, stylish and protective.
In addition to the obvious things like shirts and pants, people sometimes forget about areas of their body that rarely see the light of day and therefore have less melanin and are more prone to burn and burn faster. Instead of going barefoot at the beach, consider wearing “wet socks” or water shoes. If you have minimal covering swimwear like a string bikini, bring a cover up or wrap in your beach bag to use after exiting the water.
When deciding on clothing, the closer the threads are within the fabric, the more UPF you get. Also, it’s a good idea to wash sun safe clothing prior to first wearing it to help shrink and tighten the fibers in the material to further enhance its protective effects to block out the rays. Like all other options, it’s important to remember that most clothing is still not going to block out 100% of the sun’s rays. Wearing long sleeve shirts or heavier clothing is good in colder climates but when it’s warm outside, wearing leather or more than 1 layer isn’t practical and could contribute to heat exhaustion. So a lightweight and cool fabric is ideal when it’s hot outside. Instead of a long sleeve shirt, consider adding arm sleeve accessories to a t-shirt. Check the SPF / UPF level of protection whatever clothing is rated to provide prior to purchase.
One activity where clothing sun protection may fall short is while swimming. While you could still wear certain clothing items in the water, like a bandana or a face shield worn around your neck, these options provide only partial protection of your entire body. The name of the game when it comes to the sun is “do as much as you can and some is better than none”. Our necks tend to show our age more than most anywhere else on our body so high SPF / UPF face and neck shields can really do the trick and come in a wide variety of colors and designs so you can be stylish at the same time as being protected. Pro Tip: many people who use face shields buy multi-unit packs so they can keep a couple in each of their cars, at home, work, in the boat, etc. so they always have some protection available no matter where they are.
Final Thoughts on Alternatives to Sunscreen
If your outdoor activity does not involve any swimming, then wearing sun protective clothing is most likely your best solution for protecting yourself. The right clothing is a great alternative without many of the shortcomings and dangers of sunscreens. Most things you can wear can be put on or taken off in just seconds, leave no greasy residue, don’t make you break out in a rash, look good and don’t seep toxins into your body that may be harmful. Using this approach will keep both your dermatologist and your doctor happy.
When covering every part of your body isn’t practical, choose an organic or homemade sunscreen as a more sensible and eco friendly replacement for chemical and nano sunscreens. When there’s no other option available besides a chemical sunscreen you happen to have around, your decision is which will do the greater harm, the chemicals or nothing at all. The longer you plan to be out in the sun, the more critical to avoid any severe burns since as we stated earlier, that is a major contributor to melanoma and therefore doing what you need to do to avoid a bad sunburn is the prudent choice even if that means going for a chemical sunscreen.