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The fast, easy answer: Absolutely. Ask any lifeguard from the 1960s how well zinc oxide worked when they didn’t have another option.
The truth of the matter is that mineral sunscreens are the single most effective and safe products on the market – when they’re formulated correctly. But the devil is in the details and it’s really, really hard to formulate them well, as shown by the ongoing questions about The Honest Company’s Zinc Oxide based sunscreen not working.
I’ve been a natural products chemist for more than 15 years, and have always looked for ways to make ‘natural’ formulas feel more like ‘mainstream’ products. It’s not easy and sunscreens are, by far, the most difficult formulas to cross over. Mineral sunscreens are often heavy, waxy, oily and white – not exactly the best product to put on your children before they roll in the sand, or the sexy image many of us want to portray when hanging out on the beach.
The first thing to understand is that there are two types of sunscreens on the market today – those that absorb UV rays (chemicals) and those that reflect UV rays (minerals). People that choose mineral sunscreens usually do so because they are sensitive to the chemicals or are trying to avoid the impact of the chemical sunscreens on their body or the environment. Both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have been approved by the FDA as mineral sunscreens, because in properly formulated products, they have been shown to be very effective UV filters and can meet broad spectrum claims.
Natural product formulators like myself are always challenged to make mineral sunscreens feel like chemical sunscreens. Many people want to choose the healthier or more natural option, but do not want to compromise on the aesthetics of the product. Minerals sunscreen ingredients, by their nature, are heavier and more difficult to spread on the skin than chemical sunscreens. So formulators are continually looking for options such as nano technology that makes the mineral particles smaller, thus lightening the look and feel on the skin; mineral coatings that improve the dispersion ability but may add other, undesired chemicals to the formulation; or other oils and emollients to improve the feel of the end product.
I have not yet tried The Honest Company’s products, but I did check their customer feedback on Amazon and found a history of happy customers. People raved about their mineral sunscreens, then all of a sudden, after a formulation change, the negative feedback started popping up. Their old formula contained 20% zinc oxide in an oil based formula. I believe this product would be broad spectrum and hold an effective SPF. I would also think this would either contain nano-particles (which I will not put on my body or my family’s) OR would be very heavy and whitening.
Looking at the new formula, I see that it now contains 9.3% zinc. The company states they include other SPF boosters in their formula, but I don’t see any ingredient that would qualify or that they label as an additional active ingredient.
My educated guess is that they reformulated the product to reduce the whitening and heaviness of their previous product, but either did not complete the FDA required testing or had a manufacturing issue that prevented a proper dispersion of the minerals in the new formula. Either is very disappointing for any company, but especially for a company as established and successful as the Honest Company. I see the product has been taken off the market, most likely while they are determining what went wrong and how to correct the issue.
Mineral sunscreens CAN and DO work. There is a trade-off in the appearance and feel of a mineral verses chemical sunscreen, but not all are heavy, oil based formulas. We spent a long time developing the Stream2Sea formula. I spend a lot of time in the hot sun, and selfishly wanted a formula that was NOT oil based or overly heavy.
It took far more time than I expected but I’m personally delighted with the end result of my hard work. Our formula contains non-nano titanium dioxide in a water-based formula. It IS a little whitening and goes on a little heavier than what you might be used to, but it rubs in nicely, does not feel heavy on the skin and DOES work well.
If you are interested in mineral sunscreens, I commend you! If you are concerned they may not work, I would encourage you to pick up a travel size, and try it for a short duration in the sun. Pay attention to your exposure and determine how well it worked for you the next morning. Then let me know, because I love to celebrate success.
Formulator & CEO
Stream2Sea – home of the EcoConscious Mineral Sunscreen