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Our 4 favourite tried and tested natural sunscreens to protect you and the planet this summer

Photography By Daniel Faro, Chris Abatzis, @motherspf
Published 01.12.21

“Slip! Slop! Slap!” sang Sid the Seagull in the Cancer Council’s 1981 Australian television commercial. Forty years may have passed, but the slogan still rings true for people looking to protect themselves from sunburn and skin cancer.

Australians apply approximately two million litres of sunscreen annually. It’s great news for our skin, but there are two slight downsides: single-use plastic packaging and environmentally harmful ingredients. 

It’s not really something people want to mess with though, as protecting our skin from harmful UV rays is incredibly important to our health and wellbeing. Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70 and estimates suggest it will be the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia in 2021. So while a lot of people care about the planet, understandably most have been shopping with a protective, health mindset first and foremost.  

Thankfully, there is a best of all worlds. More brands are producing quality sunscreen that actually works, while keeping the planet front of mind by being mindful of packaging and harmful ingredients. 

Packaging is obvious: recycled or recyclable materials are best. Easy. Understanding what ingredients are okay and which ones are harmful is trickier. 

Essentially, there are two types of sunscreen: physical (mineral) sunscreens that create a layer on the skin, deflecting the sun’s dangerous rays, and chemical sunscreens designed to absorb harmful UV rays to avoid them damaging your skin. Physical sunscreens use nanoparticles such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide, while chemical sunscreens are made up of a group of compounds known as organic UV filters.

The most controversial sunscreen ingredient is oxybenzone – a naturally occurring compound found in plants and often used in chemical sunscreen products. Research suggests one drop of oxybenzone in the equivalent of seven Olympic swimming pools is enough to cause coral bleaching. Between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen washes off our skin and enters oceans around the world each year. So that’s a big problem. 

To counter this, many brands have started marketing their products as “reef-safe” or “reef-friendly”. While this is ultimately positive, as with terms like “green” and “eco”, these descriptors aren’t regulated by law and can have pretty watered-down definitions. Your best bet is to check the ingredients and make sure the sunscreen you buy doesn’t contain oxybenzone. 

So that leaves us with one burning question: do natural, non-chemical sunscreens actually work? As always, we’ve done the heavy lifting here and trialled a bunch of products for you. We’ve only included products rated SPF 30 or higher and ensured all were tested in a range of environments. Here’s how we went.

Michael William for RIISE

We Are Feel Good Inc.

MOTHER SPF

When features writer Courtney trialled MOTHER SPF sunscreen, she fell in love with the sophisticated aesthetic of the tube. She was amazed that an environmentally friendly and oxybenzone-free product matched the texture of traditional sunscreens, even absorbing into her skin better than her old products. MOTHER SPF is unique in that it minimises the ingredients in its formula – narrowing it down to nine core compounds.

It’s also vegan, rated SPF 30 and produced using 100 per cent solar power, and it comes in a tube made from recycled (and recyclable) plastic. It’s all the convenience of a normal bottle of sunscreen without adding to the plastic waste problem. Courtney loved the practicality of the tube and its easy application: handy for carrying around in your everyday bag, or passing amongst your mates on the beach. 

We Are Feel Good Inc.

We Are Feel Good Inc. is an Australian made and owned sunscreen company created by a team of outdoor enthusiasts who wanted a sunscreen they could feel good about wearing.

E-commerce manager Julia trialled We Are Feel Good Inc. and found it perfect for the Australian way of life. It’s water resistant and rated SPF 50+, so it’s no surprise the brand has been endorsed by the likes of Australian surfer Steph Gilmore and ironwoman Lana Rogers. Using it makes you feel good too: Julia found it smooth to rub in and it didn’t leave her feeling sticky.

We Are Feel Good Inc. also offers a recycling scheme for customers. Just rinse the bottle, separating the lid from the container, and return it to one of over 100 bottle collection points around Australia. The bottle is then transformed into new products, including these combs. Julia loved it so much she’s committed to keep using We Are Feel Good Inc. regularly.

@suntribesunscreen

SunButter

Suntribe

I trialled Suntribe – a sunscreen founded by a trio of nature-lovers who realised the products they were using were hurting the places they loved. Developed in Sweden, Suntribe is SPF 30, lightly tinted and water-resistant. The Suntribe formula isn’t diluted with water, which makes it thicker than my old product, but reduces waste – you need less sunscreen to cover yourself than with a diluted product. It is free from nasties like synthetic chemicals, preservatives, microplastics and oxybenzone, and it is smooth to rub in. Scented sunscreens are new to me; the cocoa and coconut smell was initially unusual, but I quickly learnt to love it. I also loved the sugar cane tube that’s produced using 86 per cent less plastic than ordinary sunscreen packaging. But mostly, I love that I can stay sun-safe outdoors without leaving behind a dirty plastic footprint.

SunButter

SunButter was founded by a marine biologist and a conservation ecologist who met while working together on the World Heritage–listed Ningaloo Reef. So you know it’s definitely ocean-safe and oxybenzone-free. It’s SPF 50+ and water-resistant, and it comes in a reusable and recyclable tin – RIP plastic! All SunButter operations are solar powered, carbon emissions are offset and it’s donated nearly $15,000 to non-profits for the environment.

SunButter definitely puts the planet first, but it doesn’t compromise on quality. Features writer Courtney trialled this brand, and, when asked what she liked about the product, she replied: “Everything!” She uses the original SPF sunscreen and the tinted SPF sunscreen for her face and has tested SunButter through the hottest east coast days without getting burnt.

She is now known to force SunButter on any friends she goes to the beach with, so they can try it for themselves. “I will never stop raving about SunButter because I love everything about it!”

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