Why no organic sunscreen this summer?

SunscreenBy Kate Green

Just as we nourish our insides with refreshing, seasonal organic food over the Australian summer, it makes sense to nurture our largest organ, our skin, with just as much care. Part of taking care of our family’s skin is our choice of sun protection.

But if you have been frustrated by the absence of Australian Certified Organic (ACO) labelled sunscreens, you should know there isn’t one.

To understand why, we need to understand what makes a sunscreen effective and how these ingredients are assessed by ACO.

There are two ways sunscreens can work. ‘Physical’ sunscreens physically block or reflect harmful UV rays from the skin. They have mineral pigments zinc oxide (ZnO) and/or titanium dioxide (TiO2) as active ingredients.

‘Chemical’ sunscreens absorb damaging rays using chemicals, filtering them before they reach the skin. These cannot be certified organic.

Under the Australian Certified Organic Standard relating to skincare and cosmetics, products containing titanium dioxide also cannot be considered for certification. While some non-agricultural ingredients are permitted in certified organic products, titanium dioxide – an expensive white metal – is prohibited due to the health effects potentially associated with this metal.

What can potentially go into organic sunscreens?

Zinc oxide, also a non-agricultural metal oxide, is the only active ingredient in sunscreens with potential for organic certification.

To adequately protect the skin and pass the Therapeutic Goods Administration (and label a product as sunscreen) there needs to be proof of sun protection factor (SPF). According to a spokesperson for the Administration, “All or almost all of the sunscreens available in Australia that have zinc oxide as their only active ingredient have a claimed SPF of 30+ (which means that their SPF test result was 31 or higher) and they typically contain between 15% and 25% zinc oxide.”

However, to then be eligible for organic certification with ACO, the proportion of approved non-agricultural ingredients must not exceed five per cent.


Metal oxides such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are increasingly being used in sunscreens and cosmetics in the form of nanoparticles – microscopic particles of matter measured on the nanoscale. Nanotechnology takes normal sized particles of minerals and reduces them substantially.

Nanoparticles raise some concerns because they are so small there is a risk they penetrate the skin more than larger particles. Any product containing nanoparticles cannot be considered for certification.

So what is a good sunscreen?

There is hope for those looking for some sort of stamp of approval on their products. ACO offers a second category for products that use approved non-agricultural ingredients in quantities higher than five per cent. The Made with certified organic ingredients category allows for up to 30 per cent of all ingredients from non-agricultural sources, including preservatives, however, the product must use only allowed inputs set out in the Australian Certified Organic Standard and meet strict manufacturing, labelling and auditing compliance systems required under this Standard.

Even within this category there are limited products available. Miessence has a reflective outdoor balm SPF 15 which is made with some Australian Certified Organic approved ingredients miessence.com.

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