Archive for Sunscreen

End-of-summer sunscreen round-up

This is a guest post by Laurel Thomson

I realize that few readers are interested in sunscreens in early October, but if I don’t write this post now, if I leave it until next spring, I will have forgotten the vast majority of what I’d like to communicate (I’m even older than Diana!)

Here in Ontario it was probably the most glorious summer in recent memory, with many sun-drenched days. I therefore had ample opportunity to slather myself, and my slightly reluctant 11-year-old daughter, with sunscreen. We tried 10 different products and each of us has a favourite.

If you want more details on what to look for in a sunscreen, Diana’s old post has lots of information.

These are the products we tried:

Heiko Physical Sunscreen, SPF 30.
Approximate price: $30 for 150ml ($20/100ml)
Active ingredient: zinc oxide (non-nano).  My favourite, especially for the face. As Diana mentioned in her post, it has a slightly medicinal scent, which I actually like. It is thick, so easier for small surfaces, such as face, neck and shoulders. Takes a long time to put on my entire body, so I never bothered.

Thinksport Kids Sunscreen Benefiting Livestrong, SPF 50+.
Approximate price $16 for 3 oz ($18/100ml).
Active ingredient: zinc oxide (non-nano).
My daughter’s favourite. And it really works well. Goes on virtually transparent and, in the words of an 11-year old, “smells like heaven”. Highly recommended. Even the packaging is BPA, vinyl and phthalate-free.

Elemental Herbs Sunstick, Unscented, SPF 30.
Approximate price $8 for .6oz ($45/100ml: but it is a stick)
Active ingredient: zinc oxide (non-nano).
Excellent for the face and for a quick swipe across the nose and cheeks. I carried one with me all summer and used it on both my daughter and myself when we were out for more than a couple of hours. We love the cocoa-butter scent and the feel of it on our faces – silky smooth. It also works!

California Baby Face and Body, unscented SPF 30+.
Approximate price $40 for 6oz ($22/100ml)
Active Ingredient: titanium dioxide.
Rubs in nicely, very mild chemical scent that is not unpleasant. We both like it but the name is not “cool” for an 11-year old. My only worry is that there are some concerns about the photo-reactivity of the active ingredient, TO2, which could result in cellular changes in the skin. The jury is still out on this, however.

Beyond Coastal Natural Clear Sunscreen, SPF30+.
Approximate price $18 for 2.5oz ($24/100ml)
Active ingredient: zinc oxide.
I love this sunscreen for my body, but no one else in my family does. They complain that it is thick (it is) and leaves a white film. I have yet to see the white film on my skin, but it is definitely present on my husband’s hairy arms!!  It has a lovely, mild rose scent. The company also manufactures a product under the same name that contains both titanium and zinc, which I stayed away from given my, likely unfounded, concerns about the former.

Dr. Hauschka Sunscreen Cream SPF 20.
NB. This product is discontinued: sorry Laurie 
Active ingredient: titanium dioxide.
I love Dr. Hauschka products so I ignore my aversion to TO2 and put this on my face in the winter sun, when I want something lighter than SPF 30. It is pricey at $24 for 3.5 oz, but less expensive than many higher-end creams.

TruKid Sunny Days mineral sunscreen SPF 30+.
Approximate price $17.50 for 3.5oz ($17/100ml)
Active ingredient: titanium dioxide.
Nice product, that smells faintly like the creamsicles of my youth.  I’d love to use it, but am wary of the TO2.

ECO Logical Skin Care, all natural sunscreen SPF 30+.
Approximate price $17 for 3.5oz ($16/100ml)
Active ingredient: zinc oxide.
Claims to be unscented, but smells like rancid oil, if you ask me. Stay away!

Green Beaver fragrance-free sunscreen, SPF 30.
Approximate price $20/90ml ($22/100ml)
Active Ingredient: zinc oxide.
This sunscreen is greasier than I care for but several of my friends swear by it since it does not whiten skin at all. They use it on their kids who are indifferent to the texture. They are mostly young kids or boys. My daughter won’t go near it.

Alba Botanica very emollient Sport Sunscreen, SPF 45.
Approximate price $9/4oz ($7.50/100ml)
Active ingredients: octocrylene, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, titanium dioxide.
Given its chemical ingredients, it is not surprising that this product is a clear winner in the ease-of-rubbing-in contest. However, its composition is also why I do not use it. The EWG rating is 5, which is high enough for me to avoid. I suppose an upside is it does not contain the dreaded oxybenzone. So why did I try it? A friend gave me a tube. I don’t particularly care for its chemical sunscreen scent.

From Diana: A very useful set of reviews, thanks Laurie. Funny that we both worked on TOissues around 25 years ago.

Some of these products are not readily available in Canada, though many can be shipped here through retailers such as (Use the code UQE399 to get $10 off your first order of $40 or more: shipping to Canada is only $4 for an average shipment!). 

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.

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