Sunburn is all natural. Is sunscreen?

Jessica Alba’s Honest Company has been sued by a customer who claims the company is making false claims in its marketing and labeling.

The lawsuit alleges the Honest Company falsely says its products are “natural.” It further says that Honest’s sunscreen isn’t “effective.”

Source: Jessica Alba’s Honest Company sued for alleged false labeling

The Honest Company has a mission to provide
Effective • Safe • Delightful • Accessible • Responsible
Lifestyle Products for Family & Home

They advertise the sunscreen with SPF 30 as “highly effective & ultra pure mineral sunscreen” and “natural mineral-based”. Zinc oxide is the mineral. No “synthetic chemicals”. So, for one, the company has to admit that chemicals are required here, at least not pandering to the chemophobia crowd. The problem is, it take a lot to make a good sunscreen product that people like and that works. (Covering or staying out of the sun works best, obviously). Minerals don’t sound as bad as chemicals. Zinc oxide does occur in nature but, for industrial uses, it is synthetically manufactured. It is widely used in MANY different products including sun block.

This complaint that the sunscreen is less than effective (and not very pleasant to use) has been around for a while now. David Kroll at Forbes, looked into why things may have gone wrong with the product including the chemistry reasons. The product was reformulated in early 2015 and the problems began.

The new formulation released this year appears to have reduced the zinc oxide concentration from 20 percent to 9.3 percent with the claim that it doesn’t leave a white residue. The base, which still lists beeswax as the number one ingredient, now contains shea butter and a variety of plant based oils, likely intended to improve the sensory features of the product.

So, it’s possible that in the effort to make it more pleasant to use overall, the reformulation removed some of the UV blocking power or just does not stay mixed in the tube in order to be dispensed correctly. That’s his guess. This lawsuit however focuses on it also not being natural.

Sunburn is natural, folks. Anything made by people can be considered natural since we are part of nature. We don’t obtain anything SUPERnatural. This is all quite messy and rather pointless. “Natural” does not equal safer or better. Unless you lick it, sunscreen isn’t even getting into your bloodstream. This sounds like a silly game of semantics and fuss over nothing. What’s “natural”? What isn’t?

There is another important lesson here. In order to have something feel less “artificial”, you must add in seemingly “artificial” ingredients. That’s what makes today’s products superior to those of the past. Chemistry and better formulations of ingredients look and feel better and easier to use. The benefits to using a GOOD sunscreen far outweigh the risks of using a more “gentle” one for people who eschew “chemicals” or “unnatural” ingredients (whatever that means).

Nature has limitations. Pick your “poison”.

Editor’s Note: The definitions of words in quotation marks are loose and variable depending on whether you talk science- or marketing-speak.  


  7 comments for “Sunburn is all natural. Is sunscreen?

  1. One Eyed Jack
    September 5, 2015 at 1:52 PM

    Cinnabar (mercury sulfide), also known as dragon’s blood, is a natural mineral with a rich, deep, red color. I think I’ll make a lipstick from it. I’m sure it will be safe. It’s both natural and a mineral!

  2. Blargh
    September 5, 2015 at 5:54 PM

    You jest, but that is the apparent reasoning in ayurveda and TCM, where it is an actual ingredient (along with arsenic, lead and cadmium), often with tragic results:

  3. Erik1986
    September 5, 2015 at 9:52 PM

    My dad was partially disabled from the residual effects of low-level mercury poisoning from working in the cinnabar mines in Almaden, CA as a child/teen in the 1920s. Despite his issues, he did live into his 70s.

  4. Eve
    September 5, 2015 at 11:03 PM

    First I’m not supposed to eat toads; now I’m not supposed to lick sunscreen. What next, Sharon? I suppose I shouldn’t take a bunch of amphetamines at a conference on homeopa…oh, oh dear.

  5. Graham
    September 6, 2015 at 9:15 PM

    According to this report, which appears in the ‘news’ source called the Huffington Post, the Honest Company is now being sued because they used ‘synthetic’ chemicals rather than ‘natural’ ones:

    It reminds me of an anecdote about people who go into old mines to breath radon gas because the ‘natural’ radiation is good for you, unlike the ‘synthetic’ radition they make in nuclear reactors.

  6. Travis
    September 8, 2015 at 1:51 PM

    I’d love to see a lawyer use a defense like yours to simultaneously defend but also discredit their product (to those who think “natural” means better) :

    “Anything made by people can be considered natural since we are part of nature.”

  7. Cathy
    September 10, 2015 at 8:55 PM

    While not recommending that you actually do it, you should be pretty safe licking most sunscreens. My friend once walked into the room to find her toddler drinking the sunscreen. A call to the poisons information line informed her that he should be perfectly all right. There shouldn’t be anything in there that would harm him. I think she was told to watch him for an allergic reaction.

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