We may have grown up using Banana Boat, but with questions swirling about the ingredients in many chemical-based beauty products, more and more often concerned sunbathers are seeking natural or chemical-free alternatives. But are they safe, and is there really a difference? We tapped some experts for answers. We asked Dr. Debra Jaliman, a dermatologist based in New York City, and Dr. Kally Papantoniou, a dermatologist based in Fresh Meadows, New York, to weigh in and give us the facts on the great sunscreen debate.
Debra Jaliman, MD, Dermatologist and WebMD Contributor
Q: What is the difference between chemical-based and physical or natural sunscreens?
DJ: The ingredients in chemical sunscreens have to bind with the outer layers of your skin; it absorbs the UV rays so your skin doesn't. There is a chemical reaction to activate the UV rays. Physical/natural sunscreen reflects or scatters the UV rays away from the skin.
Q: Are there any health hazards consumers should be wary of?
DJ: Avobenzone, also called Parsol 1789 can degrade in UVA light. Any sunscreen containing this ingredient should be kept out of the sun because it can be less effective. Some sunscreens contain retinal palmitate, which can make you sun-sensitive. This ingredient should be avoided as well.
Q: Which kind of sunscreen is better, chemical-based or natural?
DJ: I prefer physical [natural] sunscreens, because they don't have irritating chemicals. If you have sensitive skin, the ingredients in physical sunscreens won't cause a reaction.
Q: What products would you recommend?
DJ: My favorites are the Elta MD sunscreens. The UV Physical and UV Pure are great options because they don't have irritating chemicals. The Coola Organic Face Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 Matte-Tint Unscented is also great because it contains 3.2 percent titanium dioxide and 1.8 percent zinc oxide.
Dr. Kally Papantoniou, MD, Dermatologist
Q: Which is better, chemical-based or natural sunscreen?
KP: Patients will often ask whether they should be using a chemical-based sunscreen or a natural sunscreen and some ask whether they should use sunscreen at all. The answer is to always use sunscreen. Sunscreen has been proven to reduce the incidence of skin cancers including melanoma in large studies. The Skin Cancer Foundation is a great source which addresses many of the concerns with sunscreen, and helps to debunk many of the controversies and studies which have challenged the use of sunscreen. For more sensitive skin, and for children, I would suggest considering zinc-based sunscreens. Zinc covers the full UVA/UVB spectrum, and is more stable under prolonged sun exposure. Chemical sunscreen agents can break down more easily and can be more irritating to the skin. I recommend zinc-based sunscreens because they are natural and provide great protection from the sun.
So what's the verdict? Look at the ingredients when you're buying your sunscreen. Look out for any products that could be dangerous and if you can, opt for a natural formula.
Shop their product picks:
EltaMD UV Physical Broad Spectrum SPF 41 Sunscreen (3 oz.), $30, Dermstore
COOLA Mineral Face Matte Tint SPF 30 - Unscented (1.7 fl oz.), $36, Dermstore