How to Choose the Best Sunscreen

Wearing sunscreen is a no-brainer, but choosing one can be downright mind boggling. Comparing all the options on the market gets both confusing and frustrating, as I’ve come to realize after spending a crazy amount of time researching the best sunscreens for Elsie this summer. On one hand, I discovered that the traditional, chemical-based sunscreens–including those we’ve personally used for years–don’t score well with the Environmental Working Group (EWG) sunscreen ratings. On the other hand, mineral-based sunscreens clearly score better for safety and effectiveness for kids, but they get a bad rap for going on thick and leaving a chalky white residue. And then just when you think you’ve been using a product that fits the bill, the brand comes under fire for a change in formulation that is potentially leading to customer sunburns.

In the seemingly never-ending process of searching for the best sunscreen and testing out product after product, I had the chance to try Block Island Organics and decided to ask Kelly Hsiao, co-founder of this family-run company, to help clear up some of my questions about choosing a “natural” sunscreen. I couldn’t wait to share her responses with you today because they gave me SO much insight on how to navigate through all the terminology and really simplified how to choose a quality, safe sunscreen. Plus I learned a few things that I definitely need to change or do better myself–no spray sunscreen and actually using enough! Whether a mom or not, you’ve undoubtedly been in the same position as me when staring at the sunscreen shelves, so I hope Kelly’s guidance helps you too (she’s also giving us a special discount code for 15% off below).

Also I’d love to hear: What sunscreens do you like to use?


What makes a natural sunscreen “natural?”

There actually is no standard definition of “natural” by a US national regulating body. The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) do not regulate or define how the word is used. Ok, so you might be thinking then how do I determine and trust what is natural? Well in our view natural means a product that does not contain parabens, sulfates, petrochemicals, phthalates, dyes or artificial fragrances and contains ingredients that are naturally derived from fruits, plants, organic compounds and minerals.

When reading sunscreen labels, what ingredients do we want to steer clear of?

Now obviously we are biased as a mineral suncare company but organizations such as The Environmental Working Group (aka EWG, a non-profit advocacy group) recommend against using sunscreen with chemical UV filters due to toxicity concerns. Some of these chemical UV filters can potentially cause hormone disruption, penetrate into the body and irritate the skin. Chemical UV filters include: Aminobenzoic acid, Avobenzone, Cinoxate, Dioxybenzone, Ecamsule (Mexoryl SX), Ensulizole (Phenylbenzimiazole Sulfonic Acid), Homosalate, Meradimate (Menthyl Anthranilate), Octocrylene, Octinoxate (Octyl Methoxycinnamate), Octisalate ( Octyl Salicylate), Oxybenzone, Padimate O, Sulisobenzone and Trolamine Salicylate. To tell if a sunscreen uses a chemical UV filters – check the label’s “Active Ingredients.” Of course, we also suggest steering clear of the ingredients mentioned above – parabens, sulfates, petrochemicals, phthalates, dyes and artificial fragrances.

What about zinc oxide vs. titanium dioxide formulations?

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are mineral UV filters that are found in mineral sunscreens (although some sunscreens marketed as “mineral” do contain a mixture of minerals and chemicals – always check the label). We personally prefer zinc oxide (as does the EWG) because zinc is the best UV protector as it offers the broadest UV spectrum protection.  Zinc protects against UVB and UVA while titanium protects against UVB and only part of UVA. Plus, dermatologists often say zinc is the safest sunscreen ingredient for sensitive skin. It has antimicrobial properties that help to enhance wound healing and it’s even the main ingredient in diaper rash cream. Currently we use zinc only although we have used zinc and titanium in past sunscreen formulations. If you are interested, here is more on the UV protection range of different UV filters.

What what’s the buzz about nano technology? Should we look for non-nano?

Nano-particles have gotten a bad wrap and the buzz is regarding whether there are health risks associated with them. In particular, if they penetrate the skin. There are studies on both sides of this argument. The US FDA and the European Union also studied the issue and both concluded that nano-particles are safe and don’t penetrate the skin. The EWG agrees as well in their article entitled “Nanoparticles in Sunscreens” as long as they are not used in spray or powdered sunscreens. We’d agree with this too and add that it’s true of all sprays or powders no matter the type of UV filter used. I’ll get into the specifics more in the next question.

As for us, we’ve taken a wait-and-see approach and thus made our sunscreen non-nano. Of course, we are always reading up on the latest research. In terms of whether one should buy a non-nano sunscreen, we think that it is a personal decision that everyone needs to make by reading through the available research.

It seems most natural sunscreens are lotions. Are spray sunscreens unsafe?

Good question. Consumers definitely like sprays due to their ease of use. However, we’d say avoid avoid avoid. There are two reasons. One, inhaling them, no matter what UV filter is used, is not a good idea. It’s why the EWG recommends against them. Also, Consumer Reports has said the same thing – don’t use spray sunscreens in their article “Don’t spray sunscreens on kids, at least for now”. Two, most of the sunscreen is lost to the wind with sprays. It makes it very hard to get proper coverage. Even the US FDA is concerned. They are doing an on-going review of the safety and effectiveness of spray sunscreens. It’s also why the FDA has outlawed powdered sunscreens. They don’t want people inhaling them. Here’s a quick checklist covering spray sunscreen concerns:

  • Can be flammable
  • Difficult to achieve full coverage as the sunscreen can blow away in the wind
  • Potential inhalation is not good
  • Can get into and irritate the eyes

If you are going to use them, we recommend spraying them into your hand first and then applying them that way.

Is “broad spectrum” on the label important?

Yes “broad spectrum” is a definite MUST. SPF is only a measure of protection against UVB rays however UVA rays are also an issue. In general UVB rays cause sunburn and skin cancer while UVA rays cause skin aging and skin cancer. UVB rays do cause a bit of skin aging and UVA a bit of sunburn, but that’s a good way to think about them. To get protection from both types, you MUST use a sunscreen labeled “broad spectrum”. This means you’ll get UVA protection as well as UVB. The term “broad spectrum” is regulated by the US FDA – the sunscreen has to pass a broad spectrum test.

What are your tips for safe sunscreen application?

A big one in my books is sunscreen needs to be worn all year-round, even on cloudy days. It’s estimated that up to 80% of UV rays penetrate clouds. Plus UV rays are prevalent year round – ever see a skier with a sunburn? They can even be amplified by reflecting off snow and ice. Even office workers can benefit as UV rays penetrate untreated glass. So if you sit next to a window or spend a lot of time in your car commuting those are two more reasons to use sunscreen daily.

A second tip is people often remember to wear sunscreen on their face but forget other exposed parts of their body such as the neck, décolletage and hands. Every exposed body part should have sunscreen on it.

My third tip is – use enough sunscreen! The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) estimates most people use 25% to 50% of the actual sunscreen needed according to a study done in 2002. This means you end up with a lower SPF than stated on the bottle. How much should you use? The AAD and The Skin Cancer Foundation recommend applying about one fluid ounce (the size of a full shot glass) to cover the full body.

Any resources you recommend for identifying safe sunscreens?

The EWG is a great resource as mentioned earlier. Every year the EWG reviews products for their safety and effectiveness. In 2015, they analyzed over 1,700 sunscreens, SPF-rated moisturizers, lip balms and found that 80% of them contained harmful ingredients or offered inadequate protection against dangerous ultraviolet radiation — or both. We feel really proud and honored that Block Island Organics sunscreen made the EWG’s Best Beach and Sport Sunscreens two years in row!

Is Block Island’s sunscreen safe to use for the whole family?

Yes it is safe for the whole family – adults, teens, kids and babies over six months. No sunscreens are recommended for babies under six months. In fact, by US FDA regulation all sunscreens have to carry a statement saying not to use them until over 6 months of age. Instead, babies under six months should not be out in the sun. If you head over to our blog we have more sun protection tips for the little ones here.

Where can we buy Block Island sunscreen?

You can buy Block Island Organics sunscreen at And if you use the discount code “laurenc” from Monday, August 24th through Sunday, August 30th, you can receive 15% off your order. Please note this code is not combinable with other codes.

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  • great article. As a year-round sunscreen user it is a necessary preventative measure and will save consumers countless money spent on face/body treatments to correct sun damage later in life. Want to look and feel great at your next event? check out