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Choosing sunscreen

We all know that we should be wearing sunscreen.  But what if almost everything you thought you knew about sunscreen was wrong?

The Environmental Working Group is a non-profit group of science and policy experts who review scientific literature and do some in-house work for the benefit of public health and the environment.  Their 2010 Sunscreen Guide took a look at 500 beach and sport sunscreens and recommended a mere eight percent of them.

The offenses:

  • misleading SPF claims, including not protecting against UVA rays
  • containing retinyl palmitate (vitamin A), which may be photocarcinogenic
  • containing oxybenzone, a potential hormone disruptor

What does the FDA have to say about all this?  Not much; they’ve been working on sunscreen regulations for over 30 years and still haven’t finalized any.  Well, what about the Skin Cancer Foundation seal of approval?  It’s available for any SPF 15+ product, with a $10K donation.

So what should you look for?  Forget the SPF 50+ sunblocks, for starters.  According to BASF research, you’re not going to get better UVA protection than SPF 20, and you may not get any if you simply trust the claims on the front of bottle.  So apply liberally and often.  Really, you need to reapply it!  I’m certainly guilty of not reapplying as much as I should.  It just seems like so much work when I come back from a vigorous swim and sand gravity sets in.

Your best bet for broad-spectrum protection is a mineral sunblock — something containing zinc or titanium.  Mexoryl and avobenzone get EWG’s go-ahead, as well.  The hard part is that you’re not going to find a lot of these at the drugstore.  Again, you can’t go by the claims on the bottle — you need to read the ingredients.  Either shop online or make a list of the good ingredients and bad ingredients and bring it with you.  You could also check EWG’s ratings and write down a few brands.  I found a small array of mineral sunblocks at my local Whole Foods.  Some of them were imported and were outrageously expensive.  I decided to try one by Goddess Garden, which was one of the better values per ounce:

I tested it on Saturday, as we were supposed to go to Galveston Island for the day.  We never got there, but I did wear the sunblock all day while we did errands around town.  My first impression was that it is a lot thinner than the chemical sunscreens that I’m used to, but getting it absorbed still takes some work.  To my eye, there was still a faint whitish cast to my skin for a little while after it was absorbed, but that is probably to be expected with titanium, which helps give some paints their opacity.  I wouldn’t call it greasy, but it does have a little bit of the typical, heavy sunscreen feel when it first goes on.  This particular sunscreen has a light, pleasant lavender smell which dissipates fairly quickly.

That’s all well and good for the beach, but I’m not sure it’s a product I want to use on my face on a daily basis.  EWG does have ratings for moisturizers and makeup with SPF, which I’m going to have to check out.  I’ve been using this product for a pretty long time and love it:

Excuse the scuffed and dirty appearance of my bottle — it travels in my gym bag every day.  It does double-duty for me as a primer and a sunscreen, but to my disappointment the ingredient list contains both retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone — they even tell you right on the front that it contains vitamin A!  I’m not too concerned for now because I work in an office and am not exposed to much sunlight, but I suppose I won’t be wearing it to the beach and will have to do some shopping once I finish the bottle.

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