Quest for the Perfect Sunscreen, Part 1: New Sunscreen Labeling Rules; Avoid Oxybenzone

Warm weather is here, which means it’s time to slather on the sunscreen. I know it’s a pain to put it on every morning, and I am not doing a very good job with that lately so I can’t really lecture you. But now I have a sunglasses tan, a watch tan, and a shoe tan, and you don’t want that. So don’t be like me!

But seriously, you don’t want your skin to look old before it has to, and you definitely don’t want skin cancer. And don’t think that skin cancer worries are decades away – my boyfriend got skin cancer on his forehead when he was 36. Granted, that was after a high school filled with playing sports outside, definitely without sunscreen, but his doctor said that more and more of his patients are in their 20s and 30s. Guess that ozone layer really is disappearing, huh?

Now that I’ve manipulated you with my shameless use of scare tactics, here’s the good news: there are new rules for the way companies label sunscreens. They haven’t gone into effect yet, but once the bottles are labeled this way it will be easier to know what protection you’re really buying. Basically, the rules force companies to tone down their claims, so that they will actually give you a true idea of what protection the sunscreen offers. Yeah I know, that’s pretty scary, because the subtext of this is that probably most of what you see on that label now isn’t actually true. Here’s an explanation of the new rules: new sunscreen labeling Don’t read this article unless you want to feel driven to run home and grab your sunscreen bottle out of the medicine cabinet and start reading the label to see what misleading claims it has on the front.

In another article I found, NPR examines the reasons that the rules are not in effect yet even though they were scheduled to start this summer, and those reasons are not very flattering to pharmaceutical companies (not that anything ever is). Don’t read this article unless you want to feel like a helpless consumer at the mercy of big pharma (not the best feeling in the world, so consider yourself warned). NPR sunscreen article

Now that we have some background, let’s talk about specific sunscreens. If you’re like me, you’ve probably purchased more than a few types of sunscreen over the years. I checked my cabinets and I have five. One is the one I currently use on my face and one is the one I currently use on my body. One is another body lotion and the other two are face lotions that I got last year and subsequently rejected. I’m going to check them now on The Environmental Working Group’s complete list and rating of sunscreens: EWG’s sunscreen list. This list analyzes the ingredients in the sunscreen and gives a rating based on various factors.

Ok, so my current face sunscreen is CVS Extreme Sport Sunscreen, SPF 70+ CVS Extreme Sport. Why did I buy this? For my extremely sporty lifestyle? Not really, it was a random purchase that I didn’t really think about at the time but I ended up liking how it felt on my face. I’ve had a hard time with face sunscreens because they are always too oily or too chemical-y feeling so I was happy to find one that didn’t bother me in some way. So how does it rate on the scale? There are three pages of CVS sunscreens on the list but this one isn’t there. However, all of the others from CVS got the same overall rating, a 7, which equals “high hazard.” That’s nice. We’ll assume that this one got the same rating. The label says, “Compare to the active ingredients of Neutrogena Sport Face Sunblock Lotion,” so I checked the rating for that one. It also got a 7. The rating breakdown is: UVB protection excellent; UVA protection moderate; UVA/UVB balance moderate; Health concern High – contains oxybenzone and misleading SPF. So I won’t get any sun but will be killed by oxybenzone? Of course I immediately researched oxybenzone. Oxybenzone is a “notorious hormone disruptor” that causes developmental toxicity, endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity, and enhanced skin absorbtion. Lovely.

So three of my current bottles, which are the CVS brand, went in the trash. That left me with California Baby SPF 30+ Face and Body sunscreen CA Baby. Now California Baby makes mineral sunscreens, which are supposed to be safer. I picked this off the EWG’s list of sunscreens last year. Let’s see if it still rates well. Yep, it gets a 2, which is low hazard, and has no health concerns. So why did I buy a new one this year instead of sticking with this one? Well, it gives the whole Kabuki effect – you know, it looks like you are wearing a layer of white makeup. I guess I kept it because I thought someday I might want to look like a Kabuki dancer? I still have one more bottle left in the cabinet but I think I’ll skip looking it up because it does the Kabuki thing too and I’ll never wear it.

So, left with nothing, I solicited Valeria’s opinion on sunscreen. I haven’t told her yet that my two failed because she will say it serves me right for buying CVS brand facial products. She wears this one: Devita Solar Protective Moisturizer SPF 30+ Devita. This is what she says about it: “I LOVE It. It’s awesome. It just disappears into your skin, not greasy, perfect.” So how did it do? It wasn’t on the list, but the active ingredient is zinc oxide. I looked up the other sunscreens on the list with the same active ingredient and most of them were rated 2, low hazard. However, they have this to say about zinc oxide: concerns – cancer, organ system toxicity, and biochemical or cellular level changes. So I guess I won’t be buying that one either. What is depressing about that is that the label has all these claims like “vegan” and “paraben free” and “organic” but what it doesn’t say is that it is full of zinc oxide, which is a mineral not a chemical but nonetheless is not that great for you.

Fortunately, the EWG’s site also has a list of their top-rated Beach and Sport sunscreens: Beach and Sport sunscreens. They say that all of these contain the minerals zinc or titanium, which are “the right choices for people who want the best UVA protection without any chemical considered to be a potential hormone disruptor. None of the products contain oxybenzone…” Why is Valeria’s sunscreen bad for having zinc oxide if zinc is in all the top-rated sunscreens? Because zinc does have  risks, but it is one of the two best ingredients available to American manufacturers. So there you have it folks – the best sunscreens, the ones that won’t kill you slowly with chemicals, are only available from European companies.

So, what do we Americans do? I guess the answer is to buy European sunscreens, but I have no idea how to do that and I need a sunscreen now, so I made a list of the ones that get a #1 rating on the EWG list and went to Whole Foods to test the ones they had. Unfortunately, they only had three, the Aubrey Naturals, the Badger, and the Burn Out. All of them did the white mask thing. I’m thinking that is what mineral sunscreens do, because they usually have zinc oxide, and that is how lifeguards get the white strip on their faces, right? And so I am still left without a sunscreen. I want to find a place to actually try them out before I buy, because I need to know what they feel like on my skin. I’m thinking it might be time for a trip to Sephora. Stay tuned for Part 2.

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2 responses to “Quest for the Perfect Sunscreen, Part 1: New Sunscreen Labeling Rules; Avoid Oxybenzone

  1. Pingback: Quest for the Perfect Sunscreen, Part 2: Zinc Oxide | Cultivating Style·

  2. The comment that “Oxybenzone is a “notorious hormone disruptor” that causes developmental toxicity, endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity, and enhanced skin absorbtion.” Really needs a fact check and substantiation. Oxybenzone is actually quite safe and has got a really bad rap by one person after another repeated bad science about it.

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