It’s Summer! Choosing Safer Sunscreen for You & Your Family

Oh, it’s that magical time of year we so dearly love!

S-U-M-M-E-R! It means hot days, no school, staying up late, and endless fun! Unfortunately, it also means much higher risk of sunburn, and greater exposure to the chemicals in everyday sunscreens.

I know, I know, I can practically hear some of you groaning, not wanting to hear how another thing is “out to get” you and your family. I don’t have kids myself, but I can understand that it’s frustrating as a parent to have to worry that pretty much everything is dangerous and chemical-filled. Like it or not though, for every item your kids touch, there’s always a better choice to be made. Sunscreen is no different!

And hey, this isn’t just about the kiddos, folks! It’s about every teen and adult too. We all use sunscreen (right?) and are exposed to the very same chemicals. However, kids’ safety usually is at the forefront of the sunscreen discussion because they are more susceptible to the negative effects, being that they’re still growing and developing. That’s basically the worst time to fill their bodies with yucky chemicals!

Before we kick off this post, it’s important to note the difference between sunscreen types. They’re not all created equal, and generally fall into two categories: physical sunscreens or chemical sunscreens. The basic difference? A physical sunscreen actually blocks or deflects the sun’s rays, whereas in a chemical sunscreen, its ingredients typically absorb the sun’s rays. See here for more info. Physical sunscreen (zinc or titanium) is actually what generated the “white-nosed beach-goer” stereotype!

beach guy
Here we see a White-Nosed Beach-Goer, the male of the species, in its natural environment…

In my book, a physical sunscreen is usually safer for your body than a chemical one, because, well, less dangerous chemicals (generally). However, if you opt for a physical sunscreen, be sure that the company is using non-nano particles (a fancy way of saying that it’s safer because they’re bigger and less likely to penetrate your skin/be absorbed into your blood). It should usually state this on the bottle or their website.

Please remember though, store-bought is not your only option! The info in this post is geared towards the majority of individuals who reach for something on a store shelf; that being the case, I want to help them make a better choice. However, please don’t forget that there are other options, including natural oils with awesome SPF you may already have in your kitchen, or making your own sunscreen (here’s one recipe – simply browse Pinterest for more). Or, you can buy from others who home-make it, via Etsy!

Ok, let’s get this thing going! Sunscreen safety in 3…2…1…

If you’re familiar with any of my previous posts, I reference the Environmental Working Group in many of my blog post discussions about choosing safer personal and beauty products (like choosing safer shampoo and safer makeup).  I’ve even introduced you to some of EWG’s apps (Healthy Living and Dirty Dozen) that can make life a little easier, helping you to make better, safer choices on the go!

Recently, EWG released it’s 10th Annual Guide to Sunscreens, and I’m here to help you make heads and tails of what it’s got to say. They reviewed over 750 sunscreens this year, and found that only 203 meet their criteria – eek!

If you click the link I just provided, you’ll see that EWG has laid out six square tiles, each there to provide you with something very important.

I know that some of you don’t like to get too nitty-gritty, but knowledge is power! Two of the tiles contain great info you’ll need to truly be an informed consumer:

  • Read the Report” tile: EWG’s overall summary of the trends in sunscreen issues in the last 10 years, along with some important notes about major concerns that still remain. Next, check out other important related articles via the links on the left.
  • 10th Annual!” tile: A nice visual summary of key information contained in the report mentioned above.

The other four tiles are where things get real! This is the meat and potatoes, the whole shebang – it’s the fruit of EWG’s labor in conducting this annual review for us. Check out:

  • Best Beach & Sport Sunscreens” tile: Here’s where the ultimate best of the best live. (I see so many wonderful brand names on this list that it makes me a little giddy!) For a quick glance, click each brand name’s drop-down to see the products contained within, along with each product’s overall score and a legend indicating price level $ – $$$. Click on any product to be taken to its data page (you’ll see: top findings summary, Health Concerns summary, UVA/UVB  protection summary, ingredient breakdown/concerns, plus how it rates compared to other similar products).
  • Best Scoring Kids Sunscreens” tile: This is a list of the very best sunscreens marketed for babies and kids, lotions only. (EWG chose to leave high-scoring sunscreen sticks off this list, even though they are safe, because people tend to under-apply.) Big FYI: This list doesn’t contain the only good choices for kids sunscreens! The “Best Beach & Sport Sunscreens” listing does contain some other high-scoring kids sunscreens!
  • Best Moisturizers with SPF” tile: Anyone looking for a multi-purpose moisturizer with SPF power should look here, as these are the best of the best. Once again, the list is full to the brim of wonderful brand names (who also make a wide line of other personal care products, hint hint). You’ve got drop-downs exactly like I mentioned above in the Best Beach & Sport section, and ditto for the navigation method.
  • Worst Scoring Kids Sunscreens” tile: Well, you can’t have best of the best without also having the worst of the worst, can you? Yuck.

Now, if you’re thinking, “This is great, but what if I want to look up the rating of a sunscreen I currently have in my cupboard? Or one that I’m thinking about buying?” No sweat! Use the main link for the sunscreen guide, and in the middle of the page you’ll see a white search bar. (If the product doesn’t come up, you can also try searching it in EWG’s main SkinDeep cosmetics/beauty products database, just in case.)

So there you have it! Using all of these tools, choosing a safer sunscreen for yourself or your kids should be much, much easier. In short, here’s what you absolutely should avoid when choosing a sunscreen:

  1. Oxybenzone – Hormone disrupter, as well as an allergen to some. It’s not the only common UV-filter that poses a risk of disrupting hormone activity, but is by far the biggest concern.
  2. Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A) – Can speed development of skin tumors and lesions, along with contribute to risk of Vitamin A overdose. See here for more. The FDA is aware of major concerns over it being in beauty products, but has not taken action.
  3. Parabens – Endocrine disruption, cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity risks. Watch for anything ending in “paraben,” like “methylparaben” or “propylparaben,” to name a few. Avoid in all beauty products, not just sunscreen!
  4. Spray sunscreens – Inhalation risk, which the FDA has considered banning, but has not yet taken action on.
  5. SPF 50 or higher – Often misleading, and can cause a false sense of security that leads to getting burned. Also can have a higher concentration of chemicals.
  6. Methylisothiazolinone (MI) – Many people are very allergic to this preservative. MI is typically only considered safe under circumstances where the area of skin exposure is small and/or in “wash-off” scenarios (like hand soap), and even those “safe” scenarios can still trigger allergic reactions in some. In a sunscreen, it’s being used completely the opposite, so that’s a big concern.

Here is a list of other ingredients you can choose to avoid if you want to go with even safer, cleaner products.

Some Further Thoughts on Sunscreen Choices….

I was browsing on the EWG Facebook page, and I saw a lot of really frustrated parents, aggravated that this is yet another thing they have to worry about. Here’s the thing though – once you pick a good one that works, you’re done! Yeah, it’s a little legwork up front picking one and trying it. But once you’ve found one, you’ll never have to give it another thought other than just keeping it on-hand, and you can rest easy knowing you’ve made a good choice.

People who criticize being informed and making better sunscreen choices as “alarmist” and “unnecessary” need to realize that protecting against skin cancer is not the only page to this book. What good does it do if you’re protecting against skin cancer, but inadvertently causing another form of internal cancer? You don’t have to rob Peter to pay Paul.

We live in an informed age, and need to act like it. We now know that things our parents’ generation used with no concern are in fact a major concern. One only needs to point to skyrocketing cancer rates to realize that “the way we’ve always done things” is not good enough, nor safe enough. Sticking our heads into the metaphorical sand will not prevent our children from getting cancer.

The flip side of that coin is that we have a chance to do better. We cannot sit around and wait for the FDA to change regulations, because that happens painfully slowly at very best. Corporate greed, political lobbying, and governmental incompetence are very strong forces that we the consumers are up against every day in terms of our health and safety. We as consumers have to take matters into our own hands.

As you may know, the motto of my blog site is “better choices”. My belief is that every change counts, no matter how small. It’s up to each of us to be informed and start making those better choices. I told a frustrated mom (who said she can’t afford an organic sunscreen) that it doesn’t matter – buying a non-organic one that simply does not contain oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate (vitamin A), or parabens is a huge step in the right direction. Making that better choice can cost little or no extra money than making a much worse purchase choice. Even if it does cost a little extra per bottle, isn’t that worth it?

Cost is always the first thing that everyone cites when discussing reasons why they haven’t yet made better choices. I’m probably going to ruffle a few feathers with this one, but you know what? It needs to be said. If you are able to do any discretionary spending in your monthly budget (i.e. having cable/satellite TV, paying for unlimited smartphone data, eating at restaurants, buying Starbucks, buying designer clothes, whatever) then you have the ability to choose to spend your extra money to buy better products that may cost a small percentage more. There’s a big difference between “can’t” and “won’t“. If you truly can’t, which is a reality for some, that’s a completely different situation.

Last but not least, one thing that drives me simply insane in the sunscreen debate is when people confuse what their dermatologist thinks of a sunscreen versus how safe the sunscreen actually is. All too often, people are encouraged by their dermatologists to avoid more natural sunscreens, and are pushed to continue using Big Name Brands (which, on average, are usually the most chemical-laden no matter which type of beauty product you’re discussing). Here’s the problem. Dermatologists are simply doing their job – protecting your skin from sun damage, by any means necessary. The fault in this approach is that it focuses simply on skin damage and skin cancer, not on the ingredients contained in the product, nor what they’ll do inside a person’s body. Any product you put on your skin enters your bloodstream in under a minute, and has free reign to access your organs. A dermatologist is not a toxicologist or an oncologist, and won’t be thinking like one. That’s the same reason why some of the most chemical-filled and dangerous body lotions, for example, are “Dermatologist-Recommended”. Sigh.

Well, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve covered our bases! Hopefully this information will help you make much better choices this summer for the sunscreen you choose to apply on yourself and family. Remember, every better choice counts!

Wishing you a healthier, happier summer 2016!


9 thoughts on “It’s Summer! Choosing Safer Sunscreen for You & Your Family

    1. Thanks!! I saw your post, and it reminded me that I forgot to include info about more natural options (which I personally am all about wherever I can!). So happy to include a link to your post – it’s awesome info that I’m definitely going to try out! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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