Safer Sunscreens

beachI've always loved the beach. But growing up, my sister and I knew the surest way to get grounded was to get a sunburn.

I'm not recommending this as a parenting strategy, but I have to say it worked. While I have tons of moles (they're hereditary), the last time I went to the dermatologist, she was shocked at how little sun damage my skin has sustained.

Unfortunately, the sunscreen we used as kids had some questionable ingredients (PABA, anyone?). What I find just as alarming, though, is how many on the market today aren't terribly safe, either. Some contain Vitamin A, which in the presence of sunlight is thought to increase — that's right, increase — your risk of skin cancer. Others contain chemicals that may be hormone disruptors. And still others just don't do a very good job of protecting you from the harmful rays of the sun.

In December, companies that claim to provide broad spectrum protection (both UVA and UVB) will have to pass a test showing that they indeed do so. But, says Leeann Brown, a spokesperson for the not-for-profit Environmental Working Group, "The test is so weak that half of even passing products would not be allowed to be sold in Europe," where regulations are much more strict.

So what should you buy? I started with the EWG's list of 18 best brands of sunscreen. On a scale of one to 10, the best brands all earned a one or a two, meaning the EWG considers them a low hazard. A score of three to six equates to a moderate hazard, and seven or over is a high hazard.

Then I went shopping, hoping to find top-rated brands such as Badger, Beyond Coastal, California Baby, Purple Prairie, or Blue Lizard (I had never heard of any of these except for California Baby).

Big Brands, Poor Ratings

The results: You'll be lucky to find a superior sunscreen on your daily errand rounds, unless you're a regular visitor to Whole Foods. If you want to be assured of getting a particular top-rated product, go online. I went to supermarkets, drug stores, and big box stores. Of the EWG's top 18 brands, I only found one at the mainstream stores – Coppertone, which gets high marks for its sensitive skin, kids and babies' products. Otherwise, the shelves were crowded with house brands, Hawaiian Tropic, Banana Boat, Neutrogena, and occasionally, L'Oreal. I thought that was okay until I plugged those products into the EWG web site and found out that many of them should probably be avoided.

  • The best-rated Neutrogena product, the company's "pure and free" line, gets a three. Many of the company's other sunscreens are rated six or higher, which shocked me.
  • Banana Boat's "natural reflect" line is rated a three. That's the good news. Its other sunscreens get rated a seven, which is the beginning of the "high hazard" category.
  • The best-rated Hawaiian Tropic product, the "silk hydration" lotions, get a five. It's all downhill from there.
  • The L'Oreal "sublime" line gets threes and fours. The products that are marketed as moisturizer with sun protection do much worse.
  • The best drugstore-brand product I found was a Walgreens sunscreen with zinc oxide. It got a three. The best of the CVS and Rite-Aid brand sunscreens get fours.
  • That super-fancy La Roche Posay-Anthelios stuff rates anywhere from a two to a seven. No joke.

Staying safe

What should you buy? For all the jokes about "Whole Paycheck," every single brand of sunscreen I found at Whole Foods has a least a handful of products with a one or a two rating. These include:

  • Badger
  • Beyond Coastal
  • California Baby
  • Goddess Garden
  • Kiss My Face

Some of these companies also make products that don't get the best ratings. If I were going to reach for a sunscreen and hope for the best, I'd grab something from Badger.

"We've had some standout service from some of these smaller companies that seem to really have a commitment to developing a strong product and not as much as a commitment to brand growth," Brown says, speaking of companies such as Badger and Beyond Coastal. "It really can be frustrating to find them, which is where online shopping is so helpful."

Cheat sheet

If you can't remember which brands are best, Brown offers a few tips:

  • Stay away from spray sunscreens. Sunscreen is not meant to be inhaled. The FDA is looking into these.
  • There is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen. In fact, the terms "waterproof" and "sweatproof" will be banned from sunscreen marketing as of December.
  • Stay away from products that contain oxybenzone and Vitamin A.
  • Look for products with both UVA and UVB protection.
  • Extremely high SPF's are irrelevant. You need to reapply every two hours, no matter what the SPF.

In doubt? Wear a hat. Long sleeves. Sit in the shade. As Brown notes, "Sunscreen is not meant to be your first line of defense." I'm happy to comply. After all, who wants to go to the beach and spend all day worrying about getting burned — or grounded? — KW

If you liked this story, you might also like:

Drink Up, Times Three

Every Day, an Adventure

Apples and Domestic Happiness

Image courtesy of flickr user Amauri Aguiar

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