June 14th, 2011

Here Comes the Sunscreen: Choices for the Safest Options

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green sunscreen

There’s no question, the best form of sun protection is to stay out of the sun (although a little outdoor time is recommended for much needed Vitamin D). The next best form of natural sunscreen is to cover up and wear a big floppy hat. It’s not realistic to stay out of the sun or cover-up 24/7 so we need to turn to sunscreen for some additional protection from the sun’s harmful rays.  There are literally hundreds of sunscreens to choose from.

How do we choose sunscreen that is safe and effective? EWG’s Sunscreen Guide

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a well-respected organization that works hard to protect us from toxic chemicals in our food, water, air and the products we use every day. For the past 5 years EWG has put together a list of their top-rated sunscreens. For many of us this list is our go-to guide for safe sunscreen.

Wait….there’s a problem

Just as I was about to invest in lots of sunscreen my friend Kathy over at Safe Mama pointed out something interesting. EWG had included sunscreens in their list that contain parabens, fragrance/phthalates, PEGs, propylene glycol and other potentially toxic chemicals. How could this be? I thought the whole point of compiling a safe sunscreen list was to include sunscreens that were safe and DIDN’T contain hazardous chemicals?

Why would EWG do this?

The EWG site says the “overall rating for each product reflects a combination of the product’s health hazard rating and efficacy rating”.  EWG doesn’t only look at the ingredients-they also evaluate how well the product protects from the sun rays. It’s the combination of these two things that EWG uses to rate their sunscreens.  When Safe Mama asked EWG about this very issue they told her “sun protection accounts for 2/3rds of the score, and ingredient hazards for 1/3”.

So there you have it-EWG has a formula for evaluating sunscreens and only a small portion of the formula is based on whether or not the product has safe ingredients.  

The problem with this approach is that most people don’t know about it. I didn’t. I assumed that EWG was basing their findings on ingredient safety alone.  I was wrong. But now I know and so do you. So we can use the information, as it was intended, to make an educated decision about which sunscreens to use.

Safe Mama compiles her own annual Sunscreen Cheat Sheet, which contains many of the same sunscreens listed on EWG’s site, but her list includes only those with safe ingredients. SafeMama has done her homework. She has personally tried many of the sunscreens and gives honest feedback about application, protection and ingredients.

Which list should I follow?

It’s never as simple and straight forward as it seems. You can use a cheat sheet, top-rated list or any other list as a guide, but you have to educate and do some of the leg-work yourself. Decide which ingredients you are comfortable putting on your body. Finding your own balance between safe ingredients and adequate protection against ultraviolet-rays will lead you to a safe sunscreen that works for you. Remember: no sunscreen is perfect (at least I haven’t found one yet).

A few tips to help you choose a safe sunscreen

  • Don’t buy a sunscreen with nanoparticles.  Manufacturers are trying to develop sunscreens that work, but  don’t leave the classic white thick film on our skin (think of a lifeguard’s nose).  The process of micronization and the creation of nanoparticles are used to reduce the white residue. Healthy Child Healthy World provides an excellent explanation of micronization and nanoparticles. The safety of nanoparticles is still unclear. 
  • Avoid sunscreen with oxybenzone. Oxybenzone is a hormone-disrupting chemical linked with endocrine disruption and cell damage (and low birth weight when used by pregnant women). Oxybenzone can penetrate the skin and enter your bloodstream.
  • Avoid sunscreen with vitamin A or retinyl palmitate (vitamin A compound). Vitamin A, when exposed to the sun, could speed up the growth of cancerous tumors and skin lesions.
  • Read the ingredient list carefully. Cross check with a safe sunscreen list of your choice.  Just like in food products, if the ingredient name is long and difficult to pronounce be wary.

Don’t forget to check out EWG’s Sunscreen Hall of Shame for sunscreens that are on the “dangerous-do not buy” list.

How do you decide which sunscreen to use?

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[Top photo used under Creative Commons from lululemon/Flickr]

Disclosure-Safe Mama was kind enough to include my review of Poofy Organics Sunscreen on her Cheat Sheet.

10 Responses to “Here Comes the Sunscreen: Choices for the Safest Options”

  1. This year I made my decision based on the brand – I simply went with one I trusted. In fact, I was really happy to find out that Green Beaver (available only in Canada for now) made sunscreen, because that meant I wouldn’t have to refer to multiple lists to determine whether other options were safe and effective. It can be a hassle, but it’s worth it if you care for your skin. My recommendation is to use sunscreen as little as possibly by staying out of the sun during the peak hours of the day, 10 am to 3 pm I believe. And it’s still healthy to get some direct exposure, as long as it’s done safely, i.e. for short periods of time early in the morning.

  2. I’ve never heard of Green Beaver Andrea-probably because it’s only in Canada. Thanks for the great suggestions-limiting sun exposure is the best form of sunscreen. Let me know how Green Beaver is working out.

  3. I had read recently that Green Beaver was waiting for FDA approval for the US. It looks like a great product – I love their toothpastes!

  4. Good to know Kathy-thanks!

  5. I was always told to buy a sunscreen with 3 ingredients or less and one of them should be zinc. I actually just wrote a post on sunscreens too.

    http://onelovemeg.com/i-sleep-in-spf/

    This post is awesome. I will make sure to avoid those chemicals. I never knew the list of No’s. Thanks for sharing!

  6. […] of the problem when looking for a non-whitening safe sunscreen  is that sunscreens without nanoparticles (safer) tend to leave the classic white, thick film on our skin. Manufacturers continue to work on […]

  7. […] particular about the scent and texture of the sunscreen they use. Every summer I buy a few of my favorite safe brands and let them pick. All three of my kids will only wear sunscreens that don’t make them turn […]

  8. […] is a new formulation which isn’t greasy and is easy to apply.  We started using it last year and it worked really well. HERE are a few other favorite sunscreens, perfect for those summer […]

  9. […] no question, the best form of sun protection is to stay out of the sun (although a little outdoor time is recommended for much needed Vitamin […]

  10. […] here and for many it’s also time to head to the beach. This year I wasn’t only on a mission to find the safest sunscreen, but I was also determined to discover a few safe-for-the-beach products for […]

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About Lori

I’m Lori Popkewitz Alper, a recovering attorney, writer, mom of three boys and the Founder of Groovy Green Livin. Join me as we work together to make the world a safer place for all.

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