Consider this week’s post more of a PSA. It’s gender-fair in the sense that it is super important for boys, girls, and YOU. We’re going to talk about sunscreen. I’ve recently developed a sun allergy and I’ve been doing my sunscreen homework. I have some weird allergies, but this one wins the award for most inconvenient/hardest to maintain a normal lifestyle and still play by my as-few-chemicals-as-possible rule (and no animal testing!). This week I’m going to share all of my research with you so you can freak out about chemicals or UV rays or whatever, and then get yourself some safer coverage – for the good of your family, and the planet.
My favorite web resource to consult whenever I bring anything into my home – cosmetics, shampoo, household cleaners, and so on – is site maintained by the Environmental Working Group. They have timely articles as well as searchable databases of personal products, household products, and sunscreen, among others. They research the ingredients in all of these products and report a score based on the ingredients’ health risks and environmental risks. Actually they report two scores – one per ingredient and then a summary for the product as a whole. Some things are risks you might not worry about as much, for example allergy risk in fragrance (if you know you are tolerating that product fine). Others are greater, for example hormone disruption or cancer. If EWG hasn’t rated a product you use, you can enter the ingredient list for an approximate score.
Now, it gets EVEN better if you like numbers as much as I do. You can click on any given ingredient and see a) how much the EWG really knows (is that score based on one study or 10 or 20), and b) what studies did they actually read….you could even read the study yourself if you are a graduate student with a vast academic e-library at your fingertips and a dose of skepticism. The point is, you can use their numbers as is and trust they did their homework, or you can do a little more work yourself and decide whether you can live with the health or environmental risks of whatever product you think you can’t live without. But I digress.
When I found out that I needed to start wearing sunscreen 24/7, 365 days a year, as high an SPF as possible, I first turned to my web friends at EWG. They do a sunscreen guide annually, updated with the latest research in sunscreen, skin cancer, and safety. You might not need the 24/7 protection I do, but you do need sunscreen when you go outside. It is summer time, so this is definitely sunscreen season. Let’s talk about what to keep in mind when buying a sunscreen or evaluating what you have on your shelf:
- Make sure it says “broad spectrum” – this means it protects against UVA and UVB rays – although the FDA is currently pretty liberal with the amount of protection against each that is required in order to use that label
- High SPF doesn’t mean you can play it fast and loose with sunscreen application – higher SPF doesn’t offer much greater protection than lower SPF and doesn’t last longer. In general, roughly SPF 30-45 offers good protection without fooling you into thinking you are wearing body armor. High SPF (over 50) may include some controversial chemicals which we will discuss next.
- Speaking of body armor, sprays can be really dangerous in the coverage department. It is difficult to be sure you’ve applied a thick coat of sunscreen everywhere when you haven’t actually rubbed a cream over every inch of skin. Especially with squirmy kids, sprays can be tempting but ultimately misleading in the security they seem to offer. From the NYT, your child should look like this while you are rubbing sunscreen all over his/her cute little face.
- Nothing is waterproof, only (maybe) water-resistant. Reapply after swimming, sweating, and every 80-120 minutes.
- Many sunscreens (especial those over SPF 50) contain controversial chemicals including oxybenzone. Oxybenzone has been implicated as a hormone disruptor and an allergy risk. On the other hand, the American Academy of Dermatology says oxybenzone is safe, and is the only broad spectrum UVA/UVB filter that can achieve such high SPF ratings. Retinol (Vitamin A) is another controversial ingredient about which EWG and AAD disagree, with EWG saying retinol increases the risk of cancer and AAD saying retinol is a safe but largely cosmetic addition to sunscreens.
- Mineral sunscreens made primarily from zinc oxide are safe alternatives to oxybenzone-containing sunscreens and the technology behind these has improved in recent years (forget the 1980s movies with the lifeguards with the white noses!). EWG and the AAD agree these offer good sun protection. These are safer for your health, but the environmental impact isn’t well-assessed.
- Sunscreen isn’t your only form of sun protection – hats, clothing, sun glasses, and staying out of direct, intense sunlight are all important additional ways of protecting yourself from the sun!
You can find EWG ratings for sunscreen here, and explore how your current sunscreen scores. I know I just laid out a bunch of guidelines including some gray area. That’s sort of the kicker with sunscreen. You’re going to have to make an educated decision for your family that balances your decision about the oxybenzone issue, environmental concerns, and the family budget. Here are a few of my picks from the EWG list at a range of prices, as well as a personal confession:
- Kiss My Face mineral sunscreen, SPF 40, $12.96 for 3oz
- Nature’s Gate AquaBlock, SPF 50, $8.36 for 4oz
- Coppertone Sensitive Skin, SPF 50, $13.40 for 6oz (note: does contain small amount of parabens but still scores very well with EWG)
- but what do I use on bright sunny days? The only thing that keeps my allergy at bay is clothing + Neutrogena Ultra Sheer SPF 100+. It does contain oxybenzone, but no parabens. Terrible EWG score for oxybenzone and fragrance (allergy risk).
Make sure you stock up before your Fourth of July plans and reapply sunscreen liberally and often! From the NYT photo series (linked above and here), turn sunscreen time with kids into silly face time and you’ll be on your way to less frustrating but still thorough sunscreen application. Enjoy!