Archive for May 25, 2011

Making (eco-)sense of sunscreen

Prepare yourself for a longer than usual posting here. If sunscreen were a simple topic, I would write in my usual short and sweet way…. but, as you probably know, it is not at all straight-forward. Having said that, I will do my very best to make things as simple as possible and to provide you with some meaningful recommendations (and lots of links for further reading).

In an ideal world, we would all like a sunscreen that protects us from both UVA and UVB rays, is light, non-greasy and easy to apply, non-toxic and, of course, well-priced. If this is what you are looking for, I am afraid I am going to disappoint you. There is no sunscreen that has it all. However, there are a few things you can (and should) avoid, and you might as well be informed about the choices you will need to make, so read on.

Let’s start with a few sunscreen facts.
1. Sunscreens contain either physical sun barriers (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) or chemical barriers (the most common being oxybenzone).

2. Physical sunscreens generally turn your skin white/greenish (you can see the oxides) unless they are formulated with nano particles (so small that they are invisible).

3. The jury is still out on whether nano particles are safe. The EWG finds that they do not increase the amount of zinc/titanium absorbed, and is therefore not alarmed by them. Others, such as Friends of the Earth, campaign against them.

4. What does seem to be beyond dispute is that nanoparticles of zinc are considerably more damaging for the colon and intestinal wall than ‘regular’ zinc particles, so that sunscreens formulated with nanoparticles are more dangerous if accidentally ingested.

5. Oxybenzone – the most common chemical sunblock in north america – is a potential allergen and hormone disruptor which is easily absorbed into the body through the skin. Experts caution against its use, especially by children. This tilts the balance even further towards the use of physical sunblocks, especially those containing zinc oxide (which is a good UVA and UVB blocker).

6. Sunscreen SPF factors refer to protection against UVB rays (the ones that cause visible sun-burn) only. UVA rays cause skin damage and cancers too. UVA protection factors are not, however, recorded and many sunscreens with a high UVB rating have a very poor UVA rating. Indeed, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) approximately 60% of north american sunscreens have inadequate UVA protection. (NB. the EWG’s 2011 Sunscreen Guide gives an assessment of UVA/UVB balance for each product reviewed; products containing zinc oxide generally score well.)

7. In Europe sunscreen manufacturers abide by a voluntary code that ensures that all products provide meaningful UVA protection (is this why sunscreens are so much more expensive in Europe?). It helps that European manufacturers are able to use a wider range of chemical barriers than their north american counterparts. Compounds such as Mexoryl and Tinosorb appear to be safe and effective UVA blockers but are presently not approved (or have only limited approval) in the US.

8. Free radicals are damaging to our skin and our DNA. They are generated by UVA, which is why we need to look for adequate UVA protection. However….many of the ingredients in sunscreen – both physical and chemical – actually release their own free radicals. So we need to make sure that the balance is tipped against free radicals. The ingredient that seems to do the best job here is coated zinc oxide particles.

9. Very high SPF factors cause problems as they are often unproven and tend to lull people into a false sense of security (meaning that they do not reapply sunscreen as often as they should).

10. Many sunscreens contain vitamin A in the form of retinyl palmitate (a common ingredient of facial creams). This has been shown to be photocarcinogenic (i.e. in the presence of sun it can actually increase the incidence of skin cancer).

11. Sprayed or powdered sunscreens are generally a bad idea as too much product is inhaled.

So where does this leave us? The bottom line from the EWG (which is a mine of information on this topic) is to AVOID: oxybenzone, Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate), added insect repellant, sprays/powders and factors greater than SPF50. Instead you should look for zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. If you prefer a chemical sunscreen, avobenzone or Mexoryl SX (or, in Europe Tinosorb) are the safest options. Cream sunscreens are best, waterproof is good and SPF 30-50 should suit everyone.

If you are not completely exhausted and confused and you still want to know what I do for sunscreen, here goes.
I am a fan of zinc oxide. I don’t mind being a bit white (at least I know I have myself covered), and I certainly don’t mind my kids going white. I do not lose sleep over nano particles, but I don’t quite see the point of them when the downside of the ‘big’ zinc oxide particles is just a little colour (or not, if the coating is right). For kids, especially, who tend to be limited hand washers, and keen ingesters of things on their hands, I would argue against nano-particles.

Apart from the colour, one of the big knocks on zinc-based sunscreens is that they are too viscous. Having tried various sunscreens, I can assure you that some are worse than others.

Aubrey Organics generally make very pure products and their sunscreen is no exception. It tends to separate a bit so you need to shake it before opening, but I like the consistency, once mixed. Badger products are generally good and the company has a very informative website. Heiko is a Canadian company whose sunscreen is nice for being more matte than some. It has a strong, somewhat medicinal smell, which I quite like (it used to rate a 1 (very good) on the Skindeep Database but it is not ranked at all this year: not sure why). Another good – and well-ranked by EWG – product is Loving Naturals (which is one of the cheaper physical block options). All these brands are available – not always widely but through at least one internet retailer – in Canada as well as the US. None contains nano-particles.

Overall, customers in the US have many more choices than we do in Canada and customers in Europe are better off still (at least in terms of efficiency, though prices are high).


A new product on the market this year is by the Canadian company, Green Beaver. It is the only Canadian product on the EWG’s top sunscreen list. It contains non-nano zinc oxide particles but is also non-whitening (due to the proprietary coating they use, so they tell me). The downsides? It is a bit greasy for me and it is not cheap at about $19 for 90ml (3oz). FYI the kids’ and adults’ versions are exactly the same formulations, just different packaging.

natures gate

This brings me back, at last, to the issue of price. You will not find a good physical sun-block that is cheap. Zinc oxide must be expensive! This makes summer an costly proposition if you live in a sunny area (which I don’t seem to these days) and have a large family (which I certainly do). One product you might want to try if you – like me – are cost-conscious is Nature’s Gate aqua block very water resistant (SPF 50). I used this on my family during a winter sun vacation and nobody burnt at all, despite being in and out of the water. The lotion applies nicely and is clear (those nano particles again: it contains 10% zinc oxide). Last year’s formulation contained oxybenzone but this year the nasty ingredient has been eliminated. I can’t speak to the effectiveness of the new formula but I do like the price, around $10 or less for 118ml (4oz).

Phew, I hope that has been helpful. Sorry for the length. And please do send me your thoughts on sunscreens.

Year-round sun protection

I have to admit that I am not the most assiduous applier of sunscreen, nor am I a big make-up user. But one product that has really made my life easier on all fronts is Jane Iredale’s Pure Pressed Base Mineral Foundation – SPF20.

iredale powder

The foundation comes in solid form in a compact and is applied with a kabuki brush (a short, dense brush that you press into the powder and then onto your face). It can be `fixed’ with a mist spray; although this feels and smells nice, it is not really necessary.


The fact that the foundation comes in 24 different colours makes matching your skin tone easy (in the long run…hard when you are faced with so many choices to begin with).

The powder contains physical sunblocks in the form of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Since it is a solid rather than a loose powder there is little risk of inhaling these minerals, which is something you probably want to avoid. It is rated as 2 (on a scale that goes from 0-10), a low health/toxicity risk, by the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. It scores well on UVA and UVB protection and is fairly water-resistant.

But the great thing about it, as far as I am concerned, is that it is super-easy to apply, barely shows when it is on your face (just enough to make your skin look a little more even – no tell-tale golden coating) and does not feel heavy at all. So this gives me no excuse not to wear sun-block on my face on a daily basis.

Jane Iredale sells in many locations in the US, Canada and internationally. Click here for a Canadian internet option or Google `Jane Iredale’ and your city name. You will probably want to buy from a shop/spa to begin with so you can find the right colour match for your skin. Full compacts cost about $57 with refills going for about $10 less. I am just coming to the end of a compact I bought in August last year so it has lasted a good 9 months.

More green cleaning choices

I thought everyone out there had much more lofty concerns than me….but it seems that I am not alone in my search for good, green cleaning products.

My recommendation this week is a stainless and copper cleaner marketed under the Lagostina brandname in Canada and under Steel Glo (or sometimes Kleen King) in the US.

I bought this cleaner to clean my stainless saucepans (which it does extremely well), but I now use it more widely: it does a great job on cutlery but is also a stand-by as a mildly abrasive cleaner for pyrex, the cooktop and even my sink (which is Corian).


Just shake a little powder into a damp pot, scrub with a brush or pad and, hey presto, it is all clean. Even stubborn burnt-on food stains and those strange white marks that appear on stainless are easily removed. I hate to admit it, but this is a cleaning task I secretly enjoy.

I have always had my concerns about what might be in this loose, white powder which is marketed as non-toxic and biodegradable. Is it just baking soda? Or something far more noxious? I did a little research and discovered that the main ingredient (80-90%) is a mysterious-sounding substance called nepheline syenite. This appears to be a benign volcanic rock (non-toxic, non-carcinogenous, etc.) that is mined in Canada, amongst other places. The fact that it is mined does give some cause for concern, but I have not been able to find anything really damning.


So, if you cook in stainless or copper, or simply like a shiny kitchen, do give it a try. And if you know anything that I don’t about nepheline syenite, do let me know.

The product is made in the USA. In Canada it is available at Sears, Canadian Tire (in the pots and pans section, rather than the cleaning section), the Bay and Home Outfitters at a price of between $4-5 (one can lasts a while). In the US, Steel Glo is available here (only $8.95 for 3 cans). The Amazon price for Kleen King is three times higher and the product is the same.

Glasses to last a lifetime

I have many children (which I know is not eco friendly). During their short lives they have all broken many glasses, usually at the dinner table, at the end of the day, when I am not feeling particularly forgiving.

One way to get around this would be to use plastic glasses. But I don’t like plastic in any form, even when it is BPA-free, etc. You never get quite the same sense of clean and fresh with plastic as you do with glass.

So, I started hunting for the glasses of my youth which were, I was certain, virtually unbreakable. We had the same glasses at home (I know these never broke: my sister still uses them, 45 years later, in a kitchen with stone floors) and at school (anyone else remember reading the little numbers off the bottom while struggling to consume inedible school vegetables?).


A bit of research led me to Duralex a French company that has been making tempered glassware since the 1930s. The tempering process is achieved through heating the glass to over 600C and then rapidly cooling it (needless to say, that means no worries about hot/cold when you use the glasses). Glasses come in various classic styles: I like the Picardie Hi-ball 12oz (pictured), though for school memories, you will need Gigogne. The company also makes bowls and plates, which is great if you are worried about microwaving in plastic.

Yes, all glasses are made in France and shipped around the world and, yes, there must be considerable energy used in their manufacture. But, the pleasure of a well-balanced glass that you can use for decades, indoors and out, that won’t chip in the dishwasher and that can, apparently, double as a hammer at a pinch, makes that all worthwhile for me.

Duralex glasses are generally sold in sets and retail for about $5 each. See here for US stockists. In the UK, try here. In Canada, you can find the Picardie glasses in various sizes at Bed Bath and Beyond ($26.99 for 6 Picardie 12oz). You can find the full line, including bowls, plates and ramekins through the Duralex Canada distributor. See here for a list of retail locations.

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