The Sunscreen Mess: What You Need To Know (In Plain English)


IMG_0169 My mother hates it when I use the word "pissed".  But sometimes it's the only word for the job.  And after reading through the EWG's 2010 report on sunscreen, I was pissed.  According to the EWG's latest study, the vast majority of sunscreens on the market are at best ineffective, and at worst, harmful.  In fact, the EWG only recommended 8% of the sunscreens they studied.  And the worst of the bunch?  Yup – sunscreens marketed for use on babies and children.  For shame. 

What's the crux of the issue?  In the US, we basically have two main options for sunscreen:  mineral based (sometimes called a physical block) and chemical based.  The problem is two-fold: 

  1. There's some concern about nanoparticles with mineral based sunscreen
  2. The vast majority of chemical based sunscreens that have been approved for use in the US either contain ingredients that speed tumor growth (hello, retinyl palmitate) or ingredients that can penetrate the skin and act as a synthetic estrogen (breast cancer or endocrine distruption, anyone?). 

Either way – not a pretty picture.

The EWG published their study a few days ago, and the aftermath has left many moms (myself included) a little unclear about which direction to go.  Many of us showed up for a park outing sans any sunscreen at all.  At least the kiddos are getting Vitamin D, right?  Well…yeah.  But everything in moderation.  While a little sun exposure is OK, skin cancer is no joke.  And exposure in your early years can greatly increase your risk of skin cancer.  (We think)

So now what?

Ingredients / Formulations To Avoid:

  • Powdered or spray sunscreens

Moms, put away the spray.  You (and your child) basically end up inhaling all of the bad stuff that would otherwise "just" be absorbed for your skin, making your overall chemical exposure worse.  This is your worst choice of sunscreeen.

  • Vitamin A in sunscreens

An anti-wrinkle ingredient becomes a free radical generator.  Which means…more wrinkles.  Even worse, when Vitamin A is exposed to sunlight ( a SUNSCREEN) it actually makes cancer tumors grow faster. 

The most common form of Vitamin A is retinyl palmitate, but you may also see retinol on the label.  Almost half of all sunscreens contain this ingredient, including many "organic" brands.  Avoid at all costs.  

Oh yeah – pregnant gals?  You'll want to avoid this ingredient in anything you use.  It's also linked to birth defects.

  • Oxybenzone

This is absorbed through the skin in fairly large amounts and is the potential endocrine disruptor and estrogen mimic described earlier.  It should never be put on children…or anyone, really.

  • A Really High SPF (anything over 40)

SPF 100?  Sounds really safe, right?  Not so much.  High SPFs protect you only a tiny amount more than an SPF of 30…but you are getting waaay more of the chemicals you want to avoid.  You are increasing your toxic load a WHOLE BIG BUNCH in order to stay in the sun roughly 8 minutes longer.      

What To Look For:

  • Tinosorb S or Tinosorb M

Traveling to Europe?  Have friends or family there?  You're in luck!  These ingredients are not yet available in the US.  Look for sunscreens with either Tinosorb S or Tinosorb M (but the same rules apply – no retinyl palmitate, oxybenzone, etc.). 

  • Mineral Based Sunscreen Cream

In the US, mineral based sunscreen creams are still your best bet.  The potential risk of nanoparticles isn't well understood (we've yet to determine if there is actually a risk)…so the EWG considers this potential nanoparticle risk "safer" than the known cancer-causing properties of the US chemical sunscreens.

Look for zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the only two active ingredients.  And if you are worried about nanoparticles, contact the company.  A nanoparticle is very, very small…and many of the companies I asked (Bare Escentuals, for example) doesn't use them.  

  • Mexoryl SX

One exception to the mineral based sunscreen rule is Mexoryl SX.  This is a safe and effective chemical sunscreen approved for limited distribution in the US.  You can only find this ingredient in Loreal's LaRoche-Posey brand.  But read the labels carefully:  LaRoche-Posey makes other sunscreens without Mexoryl SX that do contain oxybenzone.

NOTE:  The Mexoryl SX sunscreens also contain Titanium Dioxide, so you really can't get away from those pesky minerals.

Which Brands To Buy?

Truthfully, of the sunscreens that the EWG recommends, there's not many I'd actually want to use.  For example, the EWG does recommend California Baby's Sunblock Stick.  Of course it's an effective and safe sunscreen.  It also goes on in a thick white layer that akin to wearing a mask (Raines is wearing this sunscreen in pic above). 

The good news (if there is any) is that the EWG's report didn't include many smaller brands.  These smaller brands are turning out sunscreens that appear to meet the criteria outlined above.  My 3Lab sunscreen (read about it here), for example, or LaVanilla's Healthy Sunscreen both appear to meet the basic criteria described above.  Neither are included in the EWG report.

Unfortunately, however, most of the sunscreens that meet the EWG's recommendations are expensive: expect to pay anywhere from $17 – $40 a tube.  

Where To Find More Information

 For the complete list of recommended sunscreens, go to: EWG's Best Sunscreen List

Do sunscreens even help prevent skin cancer?  Read 9 Surprising Facts About Sunscreen for answers.

The very helpful EWG's One-Page Shopper's Guide to Safe Sunscreens is good reminder of what to look for.

Still have questions?  The EWG is hosting a live chat Wednesday, June 2nd.  Read more about the live chat here.

At the end of the day, our best bet is still shade and protective clothing.  My mom may have been onto something when she would make me wear that long-sleeve t-shirt all day at the beach.




  1. Thank you for making sense of this madness! I bought new sunscreen this morning after reading your post! The info is greatly appreciated.

  2. Janelle — Thanks for the links! I always like to read the other side of the story…but in this case, I’m still unconvinced. Sure, the retinyl palmitate studies were done on mice (not humans)…but that is just barely comforting. Obviously more studies need to be done…it’s just a shame that the mouse study was done 10 years ago with no follow up. Until we have better (and more comforting data), I’m avoiding it. 🙂
    Melissa – I’m glad you found some!! Denver is almost completely sold out!
    M – Yes. Probably. 🙂

  3. Thanks for this super helpful post – was having major dilemmas about sunscreen the other day and I wish I’d read this earlier!

  4. Micronized zinc oxide seems to be the way to go. I am trying to choose between these 2 brands. Each has a slightly different story…
    Badger (above) seems to have a special coating for their zinc, and some of their zinc might fall into the larger spectrum of the nano range, but they seem to want this by design…
    It’s unclear if the formulation from Kabana
    will also have the handful of zinc particles in the 70 to 100 nano size range like Badger..
    Also, Kabana doesn’t seem to coat their zinc, but aparantly that’s because they use water in the formula as opposed to Badger which does not.
    I get the feeling that Kabana has a slighly safer formula, but Badger’s might stay on longer and offer better sun protection.
    I’ve been trying to find a safe sunscreen for too long. I’ve got it narrowed down to the products from the above companies and of course the tinosorb s and tinosorb m types in Europe.
    It seems many brands using tinosorb also have titanium dioxide which I have decided to avoid. Does anyone know of a brand in Europe that uses tinosorb but is also sensitive to not using a bunch of other chemicals in the formula?
    I fond Heliabrine Solar Defense, here,
    It lists active ingredients as
    Tinosorb®S and also
    Encapsulated UVA and UVB filters (whatever that is?)
    Now after ordering it, I realize it doesn’t list the inactive ingredients online. So who knows what else I’ll be getting?
    In closing, I am sick of companies making products designed to do something with no regard to the consequences of their ingredients or designs!!!!

  5. I should add that Badger’s position is that > 30 nano size is safe for those with healthy skin… I take this to mean you wouldn’t want to put the lotion on a cut or open wound as that might provide a path for the zinc oxide to get into your bloodstreem… Of course the same holds true for any sunscreen.

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