Sunscreen, straw hat, and sunglasses on a sage-green background

Sun-Safe and Non-Toxic: Your Guide to Non-Toxic Sun Protection

sun protection May 21, 2024

by Sophia Ruan Gushée. Published May 14, 2019. Updated May 21, 2024.

As a mother of three and a toxic exposures specialist, I have been studying the best sunscreen and sun-safe strategies for my family since 2007. Every year, I reassess sunscreen products because no sunscreen will be 100% nontoxic, sunscreen formulas change, new products enter the market each year, nuanced understandings are constantly discovered and shared by scientists, and my kids keep changing!  

With sunburns, skin cancer, and vitamin D deficiency (and related health issues) all on the rise, I often grapple with the healthiest approach to sun protection. To learn how I balance these considerations into the seven sun protection strategies, keep reading.  

What's a healthy dose of sunshine?

Healthy sun exposure is critical for our circadian rhythms, eye health, and vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is essential for our bones, nervous systemmusculoskeletal system and immune system. Vitamin D is being studied for its possible association with health outcomes like blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, mood disorders, respiratory issues, and dementia (Harvard Medical School 2017)

Sunshine is also helpful for our wake-sleep cycles, hormones, and eye health too! The American Academy of Opthamology reports outdoor time to help reduce the chances of nearsightedness, but it also recommends wearing sunglasses and a hat too!

We are vitamin D deficient

Even though I've been highly motivated to get daily doses of sunshine each morning, I'm shocked at how rarely I get outdoors. I know I'm not the only one too since the US EPA reports that Americans spend 90% of their time indoors. That must help explain why vitamin D deficiency has been on the rise.

Estimates of those Americans who are vitamin D deficient vary greatly, ranging from 42%(2) to 80%(3). Across the world, vitamin D deficiency is estimated to effect approximately half of the world's population, or 1 billion people worldwide (4).

What are sources of vitamin D?

In addition to sunshine, vitamin D3 is available through our diets—like from fatty fish (such as tuna, mackerel, and salmon), foods fortified with vitamin D3 (such as dairy products, soy milk, and cereals), beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks.

Wild Sockeye Salmon

While salmon is the most popular fish in my family since it tends to have less mercury than tuna, vitamin D3 levels vary among even wild salmon. A 2019 study article in the journal Nutrients, "Vitamin D in Wild and Farmed Atlantic Salmon (Salmo Salar)—What Do We Know?," found that vitamin D3 in wild Atlantic salmon caught in the Baltic Sea was significantly higher than from salmon caught in the North Sea (18.5 ± 4.6 µg/100 g, and 9.4 ± 1.9 µg/100 g, respectively). Farmed salmon can contain much less vitamin Dthan wild salmon. 

Among wild salmon, wild sockeye salmon is more likely to contain higher levels of vitamin D3 than, for example, wild pink salmon. VitalChoice, a good retailer of fish, reports "at about 687 IU per 3.5 oz (100 gram) serving, sockeye salmon has more vitamin D than any other salmon."

Wild Planet Sockeye Salmon has been recommended by several nutritionists for its quality. The links earn Amazon affiliate fees.

While eating a nutrient-dense diet that includes sources of vitamin D is important, it's hard for many to have healthy vitamin D levels through natural whole foods. That's why many healthcare providers recommend vitamin D supplements.

Vitamin D supplements: benefits and risks

Vitamin D3 supplements can help those most at risk for deficiency, like breastfed infants, older adults, people who don't get enough sun exposure, and those with darker skin. However, supplements are not regulated as much as they should be so it's hard to know the actual vitamin levels in supplements. There can be great variance from the actual vitamin Dlevels and the reported amount. Excess vitamin D levels can increase health risks for things like fractures, falls, and kidney stones. 

Also, how much vitamin Dyour body actually absorbs from supplements is hard to know, and whether there are toxic chemicals or heavy metals in the supplements is also a concern.

So how can you determine the best sources of vitamin D3 for you and your family?

Ask your physician how much vitamin D3 supplementation, if any, is recommended for you and your family members, and whether vitamin D in pills, gummies, liquid drops, or IV infusions are best for you. Recommended doses will be influenced by our sex, age, and other things (like if you're pregnant). Recommendations for adults range from (9, 10):

  • 200-600 IU each day for adults 50-70 years and younger
  • 400 IU daily for those 50-70 years old
  • 600-800 IU each day for adults over 70
  • Dr. Andrew Weil recommends 2,000 IU of vitamin D per day
  • Recommended doses for children from birth until 5+ years of age have ranged from 200-600 IU per day

As a reminder, four ounces of cooked salmon contains approximately 600 IU of vitamin D.

When selecting supplements, recommendations include D3 (cholecalciferol) rather than D2 (ergocalciferol). Try to find manufacturers that avoid harmful preservatives and fillers.

Confused? It's confusing! Please decide with your physician. The science of absorption is another challenge that few, if any, people understand fully.

Sunshine is an essential source of vitamin D

Sun exposure is the best way to stimulate our vitamin D production. Vitamin D from sun exposure "may last at least twice as long in the blood compared with ingested vitamin D," according to an article published in a peer reviewed journal, Journal of Pharmacology & Pharmacotherapeutics (4). That same article states that "most people need 1,000 to 1,500 hours of sun exposure throughout the spring, summer, and fall." 

Skin cancer keeps increasing

Skin cancer has been increasing in incidence across the world over the past decades (WHO 2019). In fact, it is the most common form of cancer in the United States (CDC 2018), affecting more than 3 million Americans in 2012, according to the most recent statistic (American Cancer Society 2019), and worldwide with 1.5 million cases reported in 2020 (12).

I wear the widest brim hat possible when playing tennis. (The image link earns an Amazon affiliate fee.)

Which sunscreens are best?

Many sunscreens use ingredients that can pose health risks that are as minor as skin irritations and as serious as cancer. While scientists have alarming data on sunscreen ingredients, scientists are also humbled by what is still not understood. For example, for decades, scientists believed that sunscreen ingredients do not penetrate the skin and can't harm us. In recent years, however, scientists have learned that's not true.

In May 2019, an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA Matta et al, 2019) reported that a small study found sunscreen ingredients to have penetrated the skin and entered the bloodstream of the study's participants. This study examined for four common sunscreen ingredients that were detected in the blood of study participants:

  1. avobenzone—generally considered safe but may disrupt hormones (16)
  2. oxybenzone—banned in the sale of sunscreens in the state of Hawaii and Key West, Florida in 2018 and 2019 due to their threats to marine ecosystems and potential toxic effects on other species and human health (13)(16); found in human breast milk, amniotic fluid, urine, and blood (17)
  3. octocrylene—banned in the sale of sunscreens in the state of Hawaii and Key West, Florida in 2018 and 2019 due to their threats to marine ecosystems and potential toxic effects on other species and human health (13)(16)
  4. ecamsule—research conducted by L'Oreal found ecamsule to be safe in its studies (15) 

Later, a JAMA 2020 study (18) tested the absorption of six sunscreen ingredients—avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate—from 4 commercially available sunscreen products (formulated as lotion, aerosol spray, nonaerosol spray, and pump spray). This study found that "all 6 of the tested active ingredients administered in 4 different sunscreen formulations were systemically absorbed and had plasma concentrations that surpassed the FDA threshold for potentially waiving some of the additional safety studies for sunscreens. These findings do not indicate that individuals should refrain from the use of sunscreen." But it "supports the need for additional studies to determine the clinical significance of these findings."

Dr. David Strauss, director of the division of applied regulatory science at the Center for Drug Evaluation Research at the FDA and one of the study’s co-authors, was quoted in a TIME magazine article with this response: We really have a paucity of data on whether there are adverse health effects of these ingredients or not. But the FDA reminds us that absorption does not necessarily equate to risk and recommends continued use of sunscreens (14).

Which active ingredients in sunscreens are safe?

Read sunscreen labels for zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. They are generally considered safe and effective. There is concern about nanoparticles, and avoid spray and powder sunscreens since it's easier to inhale those chemical forms. The form of the product—like spray or powder sunscreens—pose different health risks.

Are nanoparticles safe?

While the mineral ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the safest sunscreen active ingredients, they are sometimes used in nanosizes. Their unusually small size may make it easier to penetrate more parts of us, like our organs and cells, and to exacerbate our body burden. Results of studies have been mixed but nanoparticles are generally deemed safe, as the Environmental Working Group explained in its May 2023 article "Nanoparticles in sunscreens." However, avoid applying sunscreen with nanoingredients or bruised skin and protect that skin a different way.

My family's sunscreens

Given my key concerns above, I have chosen the below sunscreens for my family. Please note that products contain Amazon affiliate links.

As a foundation, I ask my family to apply Thinksport SPF 50 Clear Zinc Active Face, which is "EWG Verified," the safest rating by the Environmental Working Group, as of May 20, 2024. I prefer that they use only this product for reapplying but I know that my kids just won’t reapply as often if this is their only sunscreen option.

To be more successful in getting my kids to reapply, I provide them with Supergoop! Glow Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50, which the Environmental Working Group assigned a Hazard Score of 2 as of May 20, 2024.

While I prefer to avoid spray sunscreen, my children will be most likely to reapply sunscreen if it's a spray product. Supergoop! Glow Oil Sunscreen Spray, SPF 50, which has a EWG Hazard Score rating of 3.

7 sun protection strategies

Balancing the benefits and risks of sun exposure and sunscreen, below are tips for a practical approach.

  1. Stay out of the sun during its most damaging times. You can download an app to inform you of the hours during which UV rays are the most damaging. You can use the SunSmart Global UV App, a free app that describes the level of solar UV radiation at a specific location. It also suggests times to apply sun protection measures to reduce the risks of skin cancer and UV-related eye damage.
  2. Use shade. This can help reduce sun damage and the need for sunscreen. Stay indoors when the sun's rays are too risky. Use large-rimmed hats, sunglasses, parasols, and sun protective clothing too.
  3. Plan healthy sun exposures for your vitamin D levels. You can download an app to help. I use DminderAccording to a 2016 article, "The benefit of daylight for our eyesight" by Tracy Trautner of Michigan State University Extension, Dr. Christopher Starr, an ophthalmologist from Weill Cornell Medical College, suggests one to three extra hours per day should be spent outside." One article on PubMed (2008) recommends sunshine at noon for "To get an optimal vitamin D supplement from the sun at a minimal risk of getting cutaneous malignant melanoma."
  4. Use the Environmental Working Group's database for safe sunscreens. Remember that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are considered the safest active ingredients and avoid nanoparticles; using spray or powder sunscreen products make it easier to inhale the sunscreen ingredients, which poses different health risks. You can find the EWG sunscreen database at this web address:
  5. Apply enough sunscreen and reapply according to manufacturer’s instructions. Most people do not apply enough sunscreen or reapply as directed. 
  6. Talk to your doctor about the best vitamin D approach for you and your family. You want to avoid taking excess levels, try to get as much as possible through diet and healthy sun exposure. 
  7. Include foods that can help boost your body's natural defenses against the sun. Foods that contain lycopene can help.(11)


Consumers have never before had better safe sun protection products and strategies! Follow the strategies above to find the safest sunscreen lotions that are available to you; avoid spray or powder sunscreen products when possible; reapply sunscreen according to manufacturer instructions; avoid sun exposure during its most damaging times but also get healthy doses of sunshine for your vitamin D levels; protect your skin with shade, hats, and sun protective clothing; protect your eyes with sunglasses but getting enough outdoor time is also crucial for your eye health; eat vitamin D-rich foods; and talk to your trusted healthcare practitioners about whether it's worthwhile for you to use vitamin D supplements.

For more products that have been thoughtfully researched and mom-tested, join Ruan Living's D-Tox Academy. It teaches you how to navigate greenwashing to find the safest and healthiest products, but you can also save a lot of time through its shopping guides. Learn more here: D-Tox Academy. When you're ready to transform your home and commonsense more dramatically, join Ruan Living's 40-Day Home Detox!


(1) Harvard Medical School 2017. Ruiz, Emily S. MD, MPH. "Vitamin D: Finding a balance." JULY 21, 2017. Harvard Medical School.

(2) Wheeler, Stephanie. "42% Percent of Americans Are Vitamin D Deficient. Are You Among Them?"July 1, 2018. Mercy Medical Center.

(3) Dminder.

(4) Nair, Rathish and Arun Maseeh. "Vitamin D: The “sunshine” vitamin." J Pharmacol Pharmacother. 2012 Apr-Jun; 3(2): 118–126.

(5) World Health Organization, 2019. "Skin cancers."

(6) CDC 2018. "Skin Cancer Statistics." Page last reviewed: May 29, 2018. Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

(7) American Cancer Society 2019. "Key Statistics for Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancers." Last Medical Review: April 1, 2016 Last Revised: January 8, 2019. American Cancer Society.

(8) JAMA Matta et al, 2019. "Effect of Sunscreen Application Under Maximal Use Conditions on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients." JAMA. Published online May 6, 2019.

(9) Mayo Clinic, 2017. "Vitamin D." Oct. 18, 2017. Mayo Clinic.

(10) Weil, Andrew MD. "Vitamin D Supplements & Foods."

(11) Cooperstone et al, 2017. "Tomatoes protect against development of UV-induced keratinocyte carcinoma via metabolomic alterations." Scientific Reports.

(12) Arnold M, Singh D, Laversanne M, Vignat J, Vaccarella S, Meheus F, Cust AE, de Vries E, Whiteman DC, Bray F. Global Burden of Cutaneous Melanoma in 2020 and Projections to 2040. JAMA Dermatol. 2022 May 1;158(5):495-503. doi: 10.1001/jamadermatol.2022.0160. PMID: 35353115; PMCID: PMC8968696.

(13) Suh S, Pham C, Smith J, Mesinkovska NA. The banned sunscreen ingredients and their impact on human health: a systematic review. Int J Dermatol. 2020 Sep;59(9):1033-1042. doi: 10.1111/ijd.14824. Epub 2020 Feb 28. PMID: 32108942; PMCID: PMC7648445.

(14) US FDA.Shedding More Light on Sunscreen Absorption. Content current as of: 01/21/2020.

(15) National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Summary for CID 146382, Ecamsule. Accessed May 20, 2024.

(16) Kwon B, Choi K. Occurrence of major organic UV filters in aquatic environments and their endocrine disruption potentials: A mini-review. Integr Environ Assess Manag. 2021 Sep;17(5):940-950. doi: 10.1002/ieam.4449. Epub 2021 Jun 11. PMID: 33991024.

(17) Matta MKZusterzeel RPilli NR, et al. Effect of Sunscreen Application Under Maximal Use Conditions on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active IngredientsA Randomized Clinical TrialJAMA. 2019;321(21):2082–2091. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.5586.

(18) Matta MKFlorian JZusterzeel R, et al. Effect of Sunscreen Application on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active IngredientsA Randomized Clinical TrialJAMA. 2020;323(3):256–267. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.20747

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About Ruan Living

Ruan Living simplifies a nontoxic lifestyle through its Practical Nontoxic Living podcast, free detox workshops, online D-Tox Academy, and transformative 40-Day Home Detox. It aims to help you avoid toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from what you buy, own, and do— without compromising your joy and convenience. Ruan was founded by Sophia Ruan Gushée, author of the bestselling critically acclaimed book A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide to Reducing Your Toxic Exposures and several detox workbooks. A graduate of Brown University and Columbia Business School, Sophia has served on the Brown University School of Public Health Advisory Council and Well+Good Council. A popular nontoxic living speaker, consultant, and teacher, Sophia lives in New York City with her husband and three daughters. Her passion for empowering others to enjoy nontoxic living began with the birth of her first daughter in 2007. Everything she creates is a love letter to her children and for the healthiest, brightest future possible. You can learn more here: Sophia’s Impact.


This article is for informational purposes only. This information is provided “as is” without warranty.

It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. We do not offer medical advice, course of treatment, diagnosis, or any other opinion on your conditions or treatment options. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Ruan Living.

In no event will Sophia Ruan Gushee or Ruan Living be liable for any damages or loss of any kind resulting from the use of this website. Anyone relying upon or making use of the information on this website does so at his or her own risk.

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