Natural Sun Protection : Facts about UV rays, UV Filters, Natural SPF and what to look out for in SPF products

We’ve been hearing about the dangers of the sun for years now. Sunburn leading to accelerated skin ageing and skin cancer are some of the possible consequences of excess exposure to the UV rays. People are constantly looking for natural and effective products to protect their skin against the damaging sun rays. 

We are constantly being asked about making an SPF lotion/face cream. The truth is making sun creams isn’t as easy as the Internet will let you believe, especially since seeing some home enthusiasts selling SPF products on Etsy, products which have not undergone testing and their SPF is a simple guess without any scientific backing. The truth is testing SPF products is really expensive, something in the region of £5000+ and for the moment this is something out of reach for our brand at the moment. And selling untested products with false claims regarding their SPF isn’t what we are here for. There are other reasons why we are not able to make our own SPF products, but more on this shortly.

Lets first look at UV rays and see what they are and why we need protection

Sun is essential for the formation of vitamin D (we cannot get sufficient vitamin D from food, and we do require vitamin D for the maintenance of teeth and bones, a healthy immune system and normal muscle function. Vitamin D may also benefit certain skin disorders (psoriasis, eczema) and it lifts our mood. We get all that from UV light. UV rays can be divided into three subgroups – UVA, UVB and UVC. 

UVC rays don’t reach the surface of the Earth as they are absorbed in the ozone layer so lets leave them out. 

Even though some of the UVB rays are absorbed in the ozone layer, a large amount does reach the Earth. UVB is responsible for our skin getting burned and tanned but also for skin ageing and formation of certain types of skin cancer. 

UVA rays easily penetrate the ozone layer and deep into our skin, where they cause damage, ageing of the skin, wrinkle formation.

While the amount of UVB rays increase during the summer, the amount of UVA rays stay the same all year round! Although some exposure to the sun without protection is recommended for vitamin D formation, if you spend a lot of time outside through work or hobbies you would need to protect yourself year round.

Types of UV filters

Sunscreens vary in their formulation but effectively they are a lotion or a cream with a UV filter added to them. There are two types of UV filters: chemical and physical. 

Chemical filters may include octyl methoxycinnamate, oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate - all commonly used in mainstream sun protection products. These work by penetrating into the skin so you do need to apply your sunscreen about 15 minutes before sun exposure. Once under your skin these filters absorb the energy of the UV rays and protect you form the sunburn. Because chemical filters penetrate deep into the skin, they are suspected to possibly accumulate in soft tissues and it isn’t yet clear what happens to the absorbed UV rays. It has been proven beyond a doubt that chemical sunscreens do effectively protect from sunburns, but they may possibly do it at a price.

Especially with the popularity of natural skincare, physical UV filters are becoming more and more important in sunscreens. They work by sitting on top of the skin and reflecting the UV rays away from it. The two mineral UV filters that are commonly used are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Because they do not penetrate the skin and don’t absorb the UV light, they are much safer compared to chemical filters. Their main downside is the fact that they leave a white film upon application on the skin. Something that is generally fine for little children, but none of us adults like to walk about resembling a ghost. To combat this researchers have developed nano sized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide which go onto the skin completely transparent. However, nanotechnology is still new and there are some concerns about it being used in skincare because of the possibility of nanoparticles penetrating the skin and accumulating in the body. And even if these particle remain large enough and intact after blending into a product and do not penetrate the skin, research has found that nanoparticles, especially titanium dioxide, form free radicals in the presence of light. This means that nano titanium dioxide could contribute to DNA damage and skin ageing. To reduce this photo-reactivity, most nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are being used in coated versions, where their surface is coated with silicone to provide some protection from free radical formation. However this technology and it’s use in sunscreens is still new and more research is needed regarding their safety. As you see, mechanical filters although on the surface may appear safer than their chemical counterparts are not without a downside either.

Isn’t simply adding a UV filter to a lotion all there is to it?

Since it is fairly easy to obtain both zinc and titanium dioxide, some home enthusiasts are making balms or lotions with added mechanical filters and are selling or using these products themselves without any proper testing. The problem with that is that mineral filters like zinc and titanium dioxide have a tendency to clump together and form microscopic lumps. These lumps are not visible with a naked eye and breaking them up using home equipment isn’t particularly effective. Using such a product would mean there would be areas of your skin which will not be protected even though you may have applied sufficient product and as a result the chance of burning and skin damage is very high. To be evenly distributed, these mechanical filters require high-end mechanical homogenisers (super fast blenders similar to, yet miles apart from your standard kitchen stick blenders ) or dispersing agents/ingredients to be used as part of the formulation. As you see, it isn’t as simple as adding zinc oxide to our products, which are made by hand in our own workshop and making unfounded SPF claims.

How about using plant oils with a natural SPF

I also keep reading in various forums that some plant oils have a natural SPF and there are eco enthusiasts out there that are determined to use a blend of these oils for sun protection . For example raspberry seed oil is believed to have SPF of 28-40, carrot seed oil 38-40, coconut oil 8 etc. The truth is most carrier oils have an SPF level about 1-3, but that is far from enough to be an effective sunscreen. Some scientific studies have found that oils would absorb a certain amount of rays and have an SPF based on that (the above example for raspberry seed and carrot seed oil), but this is different to their action once applied to the skin, and this is the SPF that is important. Also we don’t quite know what happens when the oil is exposed to sunlight, air, and hot summer temperatures. In might start to oxidise and release free radicals that harm the skin. So, until actual tests are done, there is no way of knowing how much protection from the sun carrier oils actually do offer.

To summarise, no matter what sun protection we use, there would be some downsides, however the mineral sunscreens for now appear to be a safer bet, if you can accept the downsides (skin whitening and clothes staining) . Please make sure your sun cream is produced by a reputable brand, whose products are produced in a factory (using the correct equipment) and have also been tested in a lab! Your sun creams should have both the UVA/UVB symbol on the label (meaning you are protected from both). Alternatively stay in the shade and avoid sun exposure, especially between 12 and 4 pm when the sun is most fierce.

We stock a number of tested and proven effective SPF products using both mechanical and safer* chemical UV filters suspended in a natural base - Green People SPF30 Body Lotion and Green People SPF30 Face Cream (mostly mechanical), Alba Botanica SPF50 Clear Sun Spray (chemical) , Alba Botanica SPF30 Kids Mineral Sunscreen (mechanical) and Jason SPF20 Facial SunBlock (chemical & mechanical). 

Now knowing all the facts surrounding SPF products, you should be able to make an informed choice to suit you and your lifestyle.

*safer chemical UV filters are different to those mentioned above and so far there have not been any health concerns regarding the use of these alternative chemical UV filters

Disclaimer: the above article is written based on my extensive personal research into sun damage to our skin and available sunscreens. Having had young children myself I naturally wanted to make sure they are both safe and protected. In the past 15 years we have used most of the products we stock today  and our personal favourites are the Green People's Unscented Lotion and Alba's Clear Fragrance Free Sun Spray. The latter, although containing chemical filters, is the only sun product I have personally been able to use during a holiday and not broke out in rashes. Just my personal experience :) 

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