It’s Finally Sunscreen Season

Me, driving a big boat in the middle of the Atlantic, probably wearing a lot of sunscreen because I haven't showered in a few days

Here I am, driving a big boat in the middle of the Atlantic, probably wearing a lot of sunscreen because I haven’t showered in a few days.

As a sailor, I’ve worn a lot of sunscreen in my life.  I’ve probably consumed more sunscreen than any other body product, and it makes me cringe to think about how toxic all of it probably definitely was.

Now that I’ve got my first sunburn of the season (bike riding, last weekend), it’s time for me to get over my fear of expensive toxic sunscreens and do some research.

Luckily, the EWG has a massive guide to sunscreen complete with ratings and well cited explanations of chemical effects.  If you are a heavy sunscreen user, I would definitely recommend consulting this resource.  Here, I summarize some of the most important things to know from their guide for finding safer sunscreen. Once I buy and try some, I’ll let you know what I think.

The active ingredients in sunscreen work in either a physical or chemical way to protect you from the sun. Most rub-in sunscreens are chemical filters.  The ones that don’t rub in well, like the pink zinc of my youth sailing days, physically block harmful rays. Luckily nowadays you can buy “clear” zinc.

According to the EWG’s research, some of the most widespread chemical sunscreens are skin-penetrating endocrine disruptors, including oxybenzone (one of the ingredients that caused my Chapstick woes) and octinoxate.  Other active ingredients of concern include homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene.  Chemical filter avobenzene and physical filters titanium dioxide and zinc oxide have not shown evidence of endocrine disruption.

Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are nanoparticles (very small particles) and have their own safety implications. The fate of nanoparticles (of any type) in the environment is not well understood, and they may have serious health effects within the body. However, based on current research, the EWG concludes that these sun blocking particles do not penetrate the skin and are not endocrine disrupting.  The EWG recommends zinc oxide sunscreens as the safest overall.

Additionally, when looking for sunscreen it is important to avoid all the bad chemicals found in many body products, including parabens, phthalates, fragrance, phenoxyethanol, and other petroleum products. (See here for more.)

One last ingredient to look out for: Vitamin A, or retinal palmitate/retinol.  Vitamin A is an antioxidant, a “good” molecule that inhibits damage in the body from free radicals, but is suspected to actually increase the growth of cancer in the presence of sunlight.  This preliminary research needs following up, but it would be probably be best to avoid these ingredients.

To summarize: 

  • Avoid oxybenzone and octinoxate.  Look for zinc oxide instead.
  • Also avoid all of the standard bad chemicals in body products.
  • Watch out for Vitamin A.

My old favorite sunscreen, Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch, got a 5 on EWG.  It contains oxybenzone as well as fragrance and parabens.  Eek!

After consulting EWG’s list of recommended beach and sport sunscreens, I am going to look for something like Badger Aloe Vera Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30.  I remember seeing Badger sunscreens on sale at Whole Foods last weekend, and they aren’t much more expensive than Neutrogena.  This one contains zinc oxide and no other ingredient is rated over a 1!

no contest here

No contest here.

It turns out that safer sunscreen is a whole lot less toxic than I originally feared. Although inland graduate school means not much sailing for me this summer, I will still be getting my sun time in running, biking, and hiking.  Enjoy the summer!


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