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).

greenbeaversmall

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.

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6 comments

  1. Sarah says:

    Hi there,
    just read your info on sunscreen – great – thanks so much for doing all the research. My mother-in-law is allergic to the sun and always looks for parsol in the ingredients – any thoughts on that? It is in Ombrelle and not a lot of others.

  2. Diana says:

    Glad you liked it.

    Parsol is the trade name for Avobenzene, which is in a bunch of products.
    It is not great, but does not get as bad press as oxybenzone.
    See
    http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient.php?ingred06=700596

    Ombrelle products are no longer rated by the EWG…but they used to get 3s and 4s, which is better than a lot of the more readily available drug store brands.
    Hope that helps.

  3. Sarah says:

    Seems like the FDA in the US is at last trying to regulate the sunscreen market. This is a really positive change.
    See: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/science/15sun.html?_r=1&emc=eta1

  4. Anonymous says:

    I really liked Earth Baby's sunscreen SPF 30. Jason Naturals makes it for them and I found it at Whole Foods for about $10 235ml bottle I think. It lasts and does not come off as well as being not greasy and matte. It was very effective and I didn't have to use a lot.

  5. Diana says:

    In the US, the FDA is changing regulations to allow for less misleading sunscreen labelling. Hooray!
    http://bit.ly/y5y0ak

  6. Shirley says:

    Look at local crafter’s at the Farmer’s Market for sources of natural sunscreen. I have used raspberry seed oil for protection. It has high amounts of vitamin c to protect the skin but it doesn’t smell very good. I get mine from Joppa Minerals.

    I also like the skincare from http://www.scentimentalcreations.com from Vancouver. She has a sunscreen but I have only used their body lotions.

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