Sunscreens

We investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 32 sunscreen brands

Chemical versus mineral sunscreen, vegan suncream, eco-friendly and reef-safe sunscreen, non toxic sun lotions, the SPF labelling system, and our recommended buys. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying sunscreen:

  • Is it organic? A straightforward way to ensure the product has reduced environmental impact whilst avoiding some of the harmful chemicals used in sunscreens. Look for certifications such as the Soil Association label.

  • Is it cruelty-free? The Leaping Bunny logo guarantees that the company behind the shampoo brand is not testing on animals anywhere in the world.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying sunscreen:

  • Does it have a SPF rating of less than 15? The NHS advises that sunscreen should have an SPF of at least 15 and therefore gives adequate blocking to UVB rays. Avoid brands with an SPF lower than 15.

  • Does it have a UVA rating? Within the EU, the amount of UVA protection is indicated in one of two ways, either by a 5-star system or by the letters UVA inside a circle. Avoid brands without a rating.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

While the rest of the cosmetics industry is awash with confusing and conflicting advice about products and their benefits, it is conclusively proven that sunscreen protects our skin from burning, aging, and cancers caused by the sun’s UV rays.

This means that choosing a sustainable option is particularly important; although we can reduce our exposure with hats, umbrellas, and clothing, it's hard to completely cut it out if we’re spending time outdoors (admittedly we may all be doing less of that in 2020!). But while the need for sunscreen is clear, the associated sustainability and health concerns are less so.

Image: Green People Sunscreen

Chemical versus Mineral sunscreen

Most sun lotions fall into two major categories, depending on the active ingredients and ‘mode of action’ they use: chemical sunscreens and mineral sunscreens.

Chemical absorbers

Chemical sunscreens contain organic compounds such as octolcrylene, oxybenzone, octinoxate and others, which act by absorbing UV rays and releasing them from the skin as infra-red heat.

Compared to mineral sunscreens, they spread more easily onto the skin, requiring less to be applied; they are also less susceptible to washing off in water
or sweat. Because they blend easily into the skin, chemical sunscreens tend not to produce any visible whitening effect.

On the other hand, the active chemicals they contain have been known to produce allergic reactions on sensitive skin, and may also cause brown spots and discolouration, due to the raising of the skin’s internal temperature.

There are concerns over potential harmful impacts of chemical sunscreens when they wash off our skin and into the environment – chiefly around the threat they pose to coral reefs, as discussed later in this guide.

Mineral reflectors

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are naturally occurring compounds and have been used to protect the skin from sunlight for thousands of years. They shield the skin by sitting on the surface and deflecting UV rays.

They tend to be gentler on sensitive skin compared to chemical sunscreen since they don’t contain chemical allergens and because they deflect heat away from the skin rather than absorbing it, they are unlikely to cause prickly heat, brown spots or other heat reactions.

Mineral sunscreens work on the surface of the skin which means that they can be harder to blend into the skin, and wash off more easily. This can also create a visibly white layer as the light is reflected away unless nanoparticles are used (see below).

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Non toxic sunscreens

We have rated all companies for their policy on the use of three harmful substances common in many cosmetic and personal care products: parabens, phthalates and triclosan.

Companies committed to not using or phasing out all three substances received our best rating, while banning two out of the three scored a middle rating.

Best rating Middle rating Worst rating

Alba Botanica

Avon (Natura)

Banana Boat

JASÖN (Hain Celestial) Eucerin Hawaiian Tropic (Edgewell Personal Care)
Amazinc! Nivea (Beiersdorf) Boots (Walgreens Boots Alliance)
Attitude Garnier Ambre Solaire Clarins
Badger Kiehl’s Malibu
Lavera Vichy (L’Oréal) Riemann (Orkla)
Neal’s Yard Holland & Barrett Superdrug (CK Hutchison Holdings)
Odylique (Essential Care Organics) Shiseido Ultrasun (Lalique Group)
Organii (Earth Aid Group) Piz Buin (Johnson & Johnson)  
Shade (Not the Norm Ltd) Yaoh  
Weleda    
Green People    

To find out more about toxic ingredients in health and beauty products, head to our feature 'Toxic Beauty'.

Nanoparticles: how big a problem are they?

The zinc oxide and titanium dioxide particles traditionally used in mineral sunscreens don’t rub easily into the skin and can produce a visible whitening effect, which may be undesirable to those wanting to show off a bronzed complexion.

Producers of mineral sunscreen have found the problem can be resolved by breaking these minerals down into tiny nanostructures, which rub into the skin much more easily.

The engineering and application of materials at a scale of 100 nanometres or less is referred to as nanotechnology (one nanometre equals one billionth of a metre or one-thousandth of the thickness of a human hair). Nanotechnology is now being applied across a number of fields including medicine, materials science, and electronics, with potentially significant benefits; one is example is the use of graphene to improve solar panel efficiency.

Concerns around nanotechnology are centered mainly around the potential harmful effects to the human body. There are fears that the small size of nanoparticles allows them to cross cell membranes, causing stress and damage to the body’s cells, and it has been reported that nanoparticles present in diesel fumes can cause lung damage, and may reach other sites in the body such as the liver, heart or blood cells.

Perhaps the greatest fear comes from the fact that much about this technology remains unknown. Materials at the nanoscale do not behave in the same way as larger particles (below a certain size, so-called quantum effects come into play, where substances behave more as individual atoms and molecules than as larger materials).

Although many nanoparticles occur naturally, synthesised substances at this scale have only very recently come into existence, and we simply do not know how our own bodies and other natural organisms will interact with them.

That said, the majority of research into nanoparticles in sunscreens suggests that they do not carry any adverse health effects. Still, for some, the use of nanoparticles may carry too much risk for the sake of a minor cosmetic benefit. For our ratings, we have decided to apply the precautionary principle, especially since so much remains unknown about nanotechnology – companies producing sunscreen who do not have a clear policy not to use nanoparticles have lost half a mark on the scores table under our Controversial Technologies category.

Non-nano sunscreens

The following brands produced mineral sunscreens that used explicitly non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide: Shade, Amazinc!, Yaoh, Odylique, Badger, Weleda, Attitude, Tropic Skincare, Neal’s Yard, Organii.

uva logo ethical consumer

SPF and UVA

While the relative health risks of nanoparticles and organic chemicals are debatable, the dangers of sunlight exposure are not. More than 100,000 new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year in the UK and sun exposure is considered to be responsible for the vast majority of cases. With this in mind, the safest sunscreens are always going to be those that provide the best protection from the sun’s harmful UV rays.

Sunscreens use a number of different rating systems and it can be complicated to understand exactly which one provides the best protection.

The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating was introduced in 1974 and represents the fraction of burning rays that reach the skin (i.e. factor 30 = one-thirtieth). However, the rating relates only to UVB rays – the type that causes visible sunburn and the only type that was known to be harmful at the time.

It has since been established that UVA rays, which make up 95% of the sun’s UV radiation, can also cause harm. UVA exposure is associated with long-term skin cancers such as melanoma, and can also lead to long-term aging of the skin. Unlike UVB, UVA rays penetrate glass windows and cloud cover, and their intensity remains more or less constant all year round.

Modern sunscreen labels, therefore, include both an SPF factor, and second indicator for UVA; many products sold in the UK use a five-star rating which represents UVA protection as a percentage of UVB protection, with five stars indicating that this is 90% or above (four or five stars is considered a good level of protection).

Elsewhere, you’ll find products labelled simply with ‘UVA’ inside a circle – this indicates that the ratio of UVA protection is at least one third of that of UVB, and therefore in line with EU recommendations.

Eco Friendly Sunscreen?

Bleach on the beach: Is sunscreen killing coral?

On 1st January 2020, the Pacific island nation of Palau became the first country to prohibit sunscreens due to their impact on marine life including coral reefs. The US state of Hawaii will follow with similar legislation coming into force at the start of 2021.

In the past decade or so, multiple studies have shown that certain chemicals used in sunscreens can cause bleaching of coral. Bleaching is a phenomenon whereby corals expel the colourful algae living in their tissues in response to changes in their environment, causing the coral to turn completely white.

Bleached corals do not immediately die, and can recover, however they become far more vulnerable and susceptible to disease and frequently perish, while healthy corals can survive for thousands of years.

One substance of particular concern is oxybenzone (often labelled in ingredient lists as Benzophenone-3 or BP-3), which is used as an active UV filter in many chemical sunscreens. The majority of published studies in this area have focused on oxybenzone, with results showing that the chemical causes deformation in young corals leading to bleaching. This was due to the chemical acting like natural growth hormones, artificially stimulating bone growth and, in a macabre twist, causing the coral larvae to become encased in their own skeletons.

If that weren’t enough, the hormone-disrupting properties of oxybenzone have also been shown to cause the feminisation of male fish, due to it acting like oestrogen and inducing the growth of eggs.

Studies have also suggested that there are higher concentrations of oxybenzone in coastal areas where bathing is common, although oxybenzone also can also enter the ocean via wastewater streams, where man-made pollution is pumped into the ocean.

Another common chemical UV filter, octinoxate, is associated with similar concerns, although it appears to be less well-researched than oxybenzone. The Hawaiian ban will explicitly prohibit sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate from being sold in the state.

The following brands were found to include either oxybenzone or octinoxate in at least some of their sunscreen products at the time of writing (in many cases this did not apply to a brand’s entire product range; most also had products available that did not contain the two chemicals):

  • Malibu
  • Yaoh
  • Banana Boat
  • Hawaiian Tropic
  • Avon
  • L’Oréal (octinoxate only)
  • Kiehl’s (octinoxate only)
  • Shiseido (octinoxate only)

How safe is reef safe?

Since it was announced in 2018, brands have responded to the Hawaiian ban and increased consumer awareness by labelling products as ‘reef-safe’ or ‘reef-friendly’. Although there is no independent certification available, in most cases brands are using these labels to signify a product does not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate (and is therefore compliant with the Hawaiian ban).

So, can consumers simply look for the label? Unfortunately, it seems the issue is not so simple. There are indications that other chemical UV filters used to replace oxybenzone have similar coral bleaching effects. Whereas Hawaii will ban two chemicals, Palau’s ban covers eleven, including the very common UV filter octocrylene, and is based on the results of a local study into the effects of sunscreen on jellyfish, as well as existing research on coral bleaching.

Can’t we just avoid all these harmful chemicals by using a mineral sunscreen? Dispiritingly, research has also shown zinc oxide may also cause coral bleaching due to it disrupting the photosynthesis of the algae living in coral tissues.

Titanium dioxide has been found not to cause coral bleaching, and yet is linked with potential danger to other forms of marine life.

image: bleached coral sunscreen palau hawaii ethical consumer shopping
A bleached coral reef that is susceptible to disease and more likely to perish than a coloured coral.

Murky waters indeed. Still, on the basis of current research, oxybenzone appears to be most conclusively linked to coral damage, and the most obvious one to avoid if you are going to be swimming anywhere near a reef.

A drop in the ocean?

While there is strong evidence that some sun creams can cause harm to coral, it is important to place this in context. The rapid depletion of coral reefs is one of the major biodiversity crises our planet faces. It is estimated that around half of the worlds’ corals have already been lost, and reefs could disappear entirely by 2070 if the harm stays on its current trajectory.

By far the greatest driver of coral reef depletion is the rising water temperatures caused by climate change, which is causing mass-bleaching events to occur more and more frequently across the world. So, while it is definitely sensible to choose the sunscreen least likely to cause harm, we may be doing the coral a far greater favour if we don’t take a flight to that tropical destination in the first place.

Microplastics

Microplastics, or microbeads, are all around us, in the air, in the water and in our soil. On a global average, a human being absorbs up to five grams of plastic per week, which is roughly the weight of a credit card. Find out more about microplastics in our feature, Microbeads: The hidden plastics in your cosmetics.

Of the sunscreen companies rated, most were found to have no policy or an inadequate policy. These brands have positive policies addressing this issue:

Amazinc!; Alba Botanica, JASÖN (Hain Celestial); Lavera; Neal’s Yard; Not the Norm (Shade) and Weleda.

Palm oil free sunscreen

Palm oil derivatives are frequently found in sun creams, as well as in the other and personal care products made by the same companies.

the table below shows how the companies fared against our rating for palm oil policy and practice:

Best rating Middle rating Worst rating

Badger

Boots (Walgreens Boots Alliance)

Alba Botanica

Eucerin Green People JASÖN (Hain Celestial)
Nivea (Beiersdorf) Riemann (Orkla) Amazinc!
Neal’s Yard Shiseido Attitude
Odylique (Essential Care Organics)   Avon (Natura)
Shade (Not the Norm Ltd)   Banana Boat
Weleda   Hawaiian Tropic (Edgewell Personal Care)
    Clarins
    Garnier Ambre Solaire
    Kiehl’s  
    Vichy (L’Oréal)
    Holland & Barrett
    Lavera
    Malibu
    Organii (Earth Aid Group)
    Superdrug (CK Hutchison Holdings)
    Ultrasun (Lalique Group)
    Piz Buin (Johnson & Johnson)
    Yaoh

Read our feature to find out more about palm oil and cosmetics.

Vegan sunscreens

As with other personal care products, sunscreens often contain animal derived ingredients such as keratin and lanolin, as well as honey and beeswax.

Of the brands rated in this guide, the following produced sunscreens that were marketed as vegan friendly: Alba Botanica, Attitude, Holland & Barrett, Tropic Skincare, Odylique, Organii and Yaoh.

Two companies were 100% vegan across all products (this only includes brands whose ultimate holding company produces only vegan products): Attitude and Yaoh.

Alternative packaging

Perhaps a more obvious way sunscreens are affecting the oceans is through plastic pollution. An estimated 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global personal care industry, with a large proportion of this being made up of non-recyclable or only partially recyclable plastics.

Sunscreen is particularly difficult to obtain without a plastic bottle or tube, at least among those products found in high- street shops and pharmacists.

The following three brands offered alternatives to standard plastic packaging for their sunscreen products:

Green People 'Plant based' packaging made from sugar cane
Shade Aluminium tin
Amazinc

Aluminium tin, aluminium bottle or cardboard tub

Tax avoidance

The companies behind the following brands received our worst rating for the likely use of tax avoidance strategies: Alba Botanica, JASÖN (Hain Celestial); Avon (Natura); Banana Boat; Hawaiian Tropic (Edgewell Personal Care); Boots (Walgreens Boots Alliance); Clarins; Eucerin, Nivea (Beiersdorf); Garnier Ambre Solaire, Kiehl's, Vichy (L'Oréal); Holland & Barrett; Shiseido; Superdrug (CK Hutchison Holdings); Piz Buin (Johnson & Johnson).

One company received our middle rating: Riemann (Orkla). All the others received our best rating.

Company profile

High-street pharmacist Superdrug is part of Hong Kong-based A.S. Watson Group, the ‘world’s largest international health and beauty retailer’. The Group is, in turn, owned by Cayman Islands- registered multinational conglomerate CK Hutchison Holdings, which has major operations in international seaports as well as oil and natural gas exploration.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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