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How To Choose A Safe Sunscreen

Dear Dr.Kim

I am becoming aware that the cosmetics and creams that I use can contain harmful chemicals. Can you advise me on what to look for in sunscreens?

K.G. Victoria


Dear K.G.

Great question. When I became pregnant with our first child I decided I better clean up my act once and for all. I went through all of my skincare products to confirm that I wasn’t exposing myself, or more importantly the baby, to hazardous chemicals. After all, the skin, the largest organ in the body, is an organ of excretion and absorption; I didn’t want to be absorbing toxic compounds. Further, when you look at children and babies, their skin surface area is far greater than their body weight making a toxic burden more detrimental.

In determining whether you are using a good product, you must read the active and inactive ingredient list. You want to check the active ingredients to determine what the sun filtering protective ingredients are. Then, the active and inactive ingredient list should be reviewed to make sure that they don’t contain harmful chemicals.

The active ingredients in sunscreen are designed to offer protection from sun exposure as an effort to reduce skin burning but also cell damage which, has been linked to cancer. While UVB rays cause sunburns, exposure to UVA can cause a deeper level of damage to skin cells and thus contribute to cancer development. While people often focus on protection against burning, they really need to be thinking more deeply then this. Make sure your sunscreen filters UVA and UVB rays.

Unlike minerals such as zinc and titanium which confer protection against UVA and UVB, chemical filters are usually limiting as most only block UVB ray exposure. Choose a mineral-based (zinc or titanium containing) sunscreen in a cream or lotion format. While these minerals are deemed safe for topical use, avoid powder and spray mineral sunscreens so there is no chance of inhaling the minerals and causing harm to your lungs.

Next, read through all the ingredients and screen for harmful constituents. Exposure to chemicals found in skincare products can be carcinogenic and harm health. It is important to know that the sunscreen you are applying to protect yourself isn’t a health hazard! Use caution when skin products contain retinyl palimitate, oxybenzone, parabens and sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulfate. Further, when you are shopping for sunscreen don’t assume a hypoallergenic or one marketed for kids and babies necessarily meets the above criteria. Hypoallergenic just means that the product is less likely to cause an allergic reaction.

Remember that a little sun exposure is good to allow synthesis and invigorate health. If you are going to be in the sun for a long time then consider covering up with clothing and think about investing in clothes made of fabrics designed to block UVA and UVB rays. Keep in mind that you should also protect your eyes and lips from excess sun.

I hope this information helps you screen your sun protection!

“Health from the inside out.” 


Dr. Kimberly McQueen BSc, ND is a Naturopathic Physician in Victoria, BC. In addition to her clinic work she has been a consultant to the Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence, Camosun College, Rugby Canada and Rowing Canada. P:778.433.4935