Sunscreen Q+A

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casual summer outfit

With summer in full force, it’s inevitable that more time will be spent outside in the sunshine! With that (hopefully) comes sun protection! Sunscreen has been a hot topic in the news lately. We’re killing coral reefs, arguing over which strength of SPF is the best, and occasionally harming our own skin (ironic haha). But what does it all mean? How can you make better choices when it comes to sun protection? I hope to clear some things up about sunscreen and SPF below!

What is SPF?

SPF stands for “sun protection factor” and it is what most of us recognize when we look at the label on our sunscreen, foundation, tinted moisturizer, lip balm, etc. It’s not a special sun-protective ingredient, but a measure of the level of protection a product provides against primarily ultraviolet B (UVB) light, but also some types of ultraviolet A (UVA) light. UVA rays cause aging over time (think A for “age”) and UVB rays usually cause the immediate sunburn (think B for “burn”).

Does a higher SPF mean better protection?

Not exactly. A product’s SPF value is determined in a lab under controlled circumstances. It’s based on the time it takes skin to burn without sunscreen vs. with the sunscreen being tested. For example: SPF 30 would mean it takes 30x as long for skin to burn than it did without sunscreen. However, when applied correctly, products with at least SPF 30 provide 98% protection. So why would we need something like SPF 100? We don’t. Keep in mind that SPF is only a measure of UVB rays and some UVA rays. That little number doesn’t equal complete protection from all of the sun’s harmful rays. It can also trick you into staying out in the sun longer or not re-applying sunscreen as often as you should. So what’s more important that SPF? The broad spectrum ingredients inside your sunscreen!

What does “broad spectrum” mean?

You’ve probably read this on a label and just assumed it was better, right? Well, you’re correct! Not all sun-protective agents are created equally, and broad spectrum sunscreens provide protection against UVA1, UVA2, and UVB rays. These products are preferred over “narrow spectrum” products because of the more complete protection they offer.

There are currently only 3 ingredients on the market that protect against UVA1 light, so make sure the sunscreen you choose contains one of the following:

  • zinc oxide
  • titanium dioxide
  • avobenzone

Zinc oxide is my personal favorite because it’s non-toxic and doesn’t hurt the environment. (More on this in a bit.) It’s widely available in most sunscreens and creates a barrier between your skin and all the damaging rays from the sun I mentioned above.

How do I keep from killing ocean-dwelling creatures?

Great question! Hawaii just banned oxybenzone and octinoxate a couple of ingredients found in sunscreen proven to cause coral bleaching. Coral bleaching doesn’t actually mean the coral has died, but that the animal is under significant stress (and an increased risk for dying) which causes lots of problems in the ocean’s ecosystem.

A few other things to avoid when trying to choose “reef-safe” sunscreens are petrolatum and mineral oil. These ingredients take decades to biodegrade and can be harmful or even fatal to fish and waterfowl. You also want to avoid titanium dioxide because it can cause a chemical reaction when mixed with warm ocean water resulting in the production of hydrogen peroxide which is also harmful to our ocean-dwelling friends.

Products containing non-nano zinc oxide (referring to the particle size) have been deemed “reef-safe” so that’s another reason zinc oxide is one of my favorites!

So which sunscreens are safe for the environment, non-toxic, and will actually protect my skin?

Probably the whole reason you’re here right? Below is a list of sunscreens I use and love that check all the boxes in terms of protecting both you and the environment!

safe sunscreen products
My favorite safe sunscreen products!


Below is a list of resources with legit information regarding sunscreen, skincare, and everything in between. These organizations and their websites are where I pulled all the information for this post.

Have questions or comments? Drop them in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you. As always, thanks for being here and reading along.



This post contains affiliate links that help provide me with a teeny tiny commission at no extra cost to you. Anything earned is poured back into resources that help me create more content for YOU! Thank you for your support!

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