Choosing the Right Sunscreen

December 19, 2022 at 11:20 AM


It has long been known that we need to protect ourselves from the sun and at Commonsense, we sell sunscreens to help keep yourself and your family safe from potentially harmful UV rays. But due to the complex nature of the ingredients found in most sunscreens, we can’t apply our usual criteria for health and beauty products. 

It’s really important that all our sunscreen products meet robust SPF rating requirements because this measures their protection against UVB radiation from the sun.  It is also important that they are broad-spectrum sunscreens as these also provide protection against UVA rays. Increasingly, this may mean that our sunscreens contain nanoparticles.

Recently we undertook a review of all the sunscreens that we sell and looked at how we make decisions on whether or not to stock a sunscreen. 

Castle point beach2

All our sunscreens meet the following criteria:

  1. Independent SPF verification and broad-spectrum verification which meet the Australia/NZ Standard for classifying sunscreen products;

  2. Full disclosure of ingredients;

  3. Ingredients approved by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and if made in the US, the product is considered safe by the EWG;

  4. Not tested on animals

  5. May contain nanoparticles as long as the nanoparticles are coated and customers are informed;

  6. We sell no sunscreen sprays or powders.

All natural sunscreens contain either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient. Most of our sunscreens contain zinc oxide.  Both traditionally leave a white smear on the skin and this can be a real problem with wriggly toddlers or fashion conscious teenagers.  This is why sunscreen manufacturers have turned to nanoparticles – they go on the skin much more easily. According to the experts there is no such product as an invisible zinc sunscreen that does not contain nanoparticles.

So what are the dangers of nanoparticles? 

The concerns are two-fold:

  1. Due to their greater surface area, there is a concern that they have an increased ability to react with other molecules, particularly oxygen.

  2. There is a possibility they enter the body through the skin and thereby reach internal organs where they may cause damage due to their increased reactivity.

To counter the first of these potential problems, the manufacturers treat the minerals during production by coating each particle with a very fine layer of silicates.  This treatment has the effect of shielding the nanoparticles from contact with other materials, including oxygen. This lack of contact prevents any potential reactions from taking place, and renders the mineral inert. The claim is that it is therefore incapable of causing oxidative damage, the first of the two concerns.

Secondly, when nano-particles are incorporated into a cream or lotion they clump together, forming aggregations. These are held together by forces of molecular attraction that prevent the primary particles from becoming separated when applied to the skin. Therefore, although the primary particle size of the minerals is in theory small enough to be absorbed through the skin, in practice the aggregations that are formed in creams and lotions are too large to cross through the skin-blood barrier. Instead, they remain on the surface of the skin where they reflect and scatter UV light.

Critics, such as Friends of the Earth Australia point out we do not yet understand what quantities of nano-materials may be absorbed into the skin from sunscreens and in what circumstances. There have not been enough skin penetration studies that have looked at important variables such as skin condition (including damage through sunburn, injury or eczema, or thin skin present in the young or elderly), skin flexing (eg through exercise) and the role of substances in sunscreens that can act as penetration enhancers by increasing skin permeability. There is also concern that little research has been done on the environmental effects of sunscreens on the environment including aquatic life and coral reefs. 

In 2014 The EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP) reviewed studies regarding nano titanium dioxide in sunscreens and found that:

  1. Properly coated nanoparticles of titanium dioxide do not penetrate healthy skin;

  2. Nanoparticles do not penetrate sunburnt skin, but information on whether nanoparticles can penetrate damaged skin is not currently available;

  3. Nano particles in spray or powder form should not be used as they could be swallowed and penetrate the lungs;

  4. Non-coated titanium dioxide is not recommended.

Both Friends of the Earth (Australia) and the Environmental Working Group (US) maintain that the majority of sunscreens contain nanoparticles, even if this is not stated on the pack. 

So where does Commonsense stand on this issue? 

Usually with new technologies we apply the precautionary principle – let’s wait until we’re quite sure of its safety.  With sunscreens the situation is different – we are up against a known danger – skin cancer. We know that the UVA in the sun’s rays will definitely damage DNA and other tissues by forming free radicals. So we have set aside the precautionary principle for nanoparticles in sunscreens. This is not an endorsement of nanotechnology in general, it is a recognition that nanoparticles in sunscreens are not as dangerous to human health as skin cancer.

Of course, it is your choice whether to go for the nanoparticle brand or another. We do not stock any sunscreen that contains chemicals which we avoid in our other products. We do, however, remain concerned at the possible effects of all sunscreens on the environment including aquatic life and coral reefs. There is evidence that some chemical sunscreens damage coral, accumulate in the environment and disrupt hormones in fish. It is important that environmental assessments form part of the regulation of all sunscreens.

knees in sun

Commonsense Sunscreen Chart

We know everyone is looking for something slightly different when it comes to sunscreens. In the chart below we have laid out some of the information you might like to consider when choosing a sunscreen.

Sensible precautions you can take to avoid sun damage

Whether you choose to use a sunscreen containing nanoparticles or not, we do advise you to also take the following precautions:

  • Keep out of the sun during the middle of the day, and enjoy the sun in moderation

  • Cover up with clothing, hats and sunglasses

  • Avoid getting burned and don’t try to get sun-tanned

  • Never use a sunscreen spray – use a cream or lotion

  • Keep newborn babies out of the sun

  • Only use sunscreen on babies over 6 months old 

The issues involved in choosing sunscreens are very complex and we are committed to keeping up to date with new information as it becomes available, so we can continue to be confident in the products we stock.

Kids on beach

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