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Last updated on December 4th, 2016
Did you know that not all sunscreens protect you from both UVB and UVA rays? Did you know that many sunscreens contain chemicals that disrupt hormonal function? Did you know that claims like “waterproof,” “sweatproof,” and “sunblock” are not backed up by performance tests and essentially do not mean anything? What is the answer to a safe sunscreen?
First of all, I want to start by saying that there are no absolutely safe and 100% protective sunscreens. The best defense against the sun is to avoid spending extended periods of time under it (especially between 10 am and 2 pm) and to wear a sun hat and cover your body with clothing.
In 1978, the Food and Drug Administration launched a process to begin regulating sunscreens for safety and effectiveness. However, the FDA had not reached consensus about safe sunscreen production standards. In June of 2011, 33 years later, the Agency issued new sunscreen labeling and marketing rules. The regulations (which apply to all but the smallest manufacturers) provide that by December 2012, manufacturers claiming that their sunscreens are water resistant must pass a standardized performance test. However, some, including the Environmental Working Group, hold that the regulations do not go far enough to protect consumers. For example, the EWG states that the FDA’s new sunscreen rules fail to address the use of toxic chemicals in the sunscreens and have inferior requirements for UVA protection.
It is important to note here that to be effective, a sunscreen must provide protection from both UVA and UVB rays; in other words, it must provide “broad spectrum” protection. UVB rays are responsible for skin burns, and SPF value indicates the strength of UVB protection. UVA protection is not linked to the SPF value; in other words, the higher SPF value does not mean better UVA protection. That’s why sunscreens with SPF higher than 50 are potentially dangerous as often their UVA protection is, by far, less powerful. However, sunscreens with high SPF allow our kids to spend a long period of time under the sun without burning their skin. The damage done by the UVA radiation is not noticeable but is potentially even more harmful than UVB radiation because it penetrates the skin deeper and subsequently increases the risk of skin cancer. So, what can we do about it?
That’s where the EWG comes in. Every year the EWG publishes the results of its effectiveness and safety study of the sunscreen products currently on the market. The 2012 Sunscreen Guide includes 197 best beach and sport sunscreens. Any of these sunscreens would not be a bad choice. Their active ingredients are titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, relatively safe minerals. According to the EWG, these minerals offer the best UVA protection without potential hormone disruption, a harm potentially done by oxybenzone, octylmethoxycinnamate, octrocrylene and others. These chosen sunscreens provide good broad spectrum protection; their SPF is not higher than 50; they are in the form of creams or lotions as opposed to sprays or powders that may harm lungs; they do not contain any fragrance, and they do not have vitamin A (retinyl palmitate), another controversial ingredient. According to FDA studies, in the presence of UV light, retinol (a component of retinal palmitate) may break down and produce toxic free radicals that may damage DNA and increase the risk of cancer.
I looked through the 197 sunscreens and chose three based on the following criteria:
- non-nanoparticle zinc oxide (the size of particles more than 100 nanometers)
- absolutely no toxic inactive ingredients
- excellent UVA protection
- good UVB protection
- reasonable price
My picks are as follows.
Badger Baby Sunscreen – Safe Sunscreen
My first pick is Badger Baby Sunscreen, Chamomile and Calendula, SPF 30+. The sunscreen’s UVB protection (i.e. what prevents sunburn) is good and the UVA protection is excellent. The active ingredient of this sunscreen is 18.75% non-nano uncoated zinc oxide. Nano means very small and non-nano means not very small (bigger than 100nm). It is virtually impossible to guarantee that 100% of zinc oxide is non-nano. However, Badger is striving to achieve at least 90%. Badger defines non-nano as being when “the primary particle size is greater than 100nm with no more than 10% falling within the upper nanoparticle range,” which is in line with the most strict international definitions. Why is non-nano is so important? It is a controversial issue. More studies have to be done, but there is public concern that if the particles are too small, they might penetrate the skin and damage DNA and skin cells. Others suggest that if the skin is healthy, the nanoparticles should not penetrate it. There seems to be more consensus about damage that nanoparticles can do to marine life. In the presence of a controversy, I always tend not to take my chances, and I definitely do not want to contribute to the harm done to the environment. The bottom line is the Badger Baby Sunscreen is mostly nanoparticle-free and that’s one of the reasons I chose it.
The inactive ingredients in this sunscreen are safe. The EWG has given the best rating to all of them except for vitamin E because if it is synthetically derived there is a chance that it may be contaminated with hydroquinone. However, Badger states on its website that the vitamin E is natural and derived from sunflowers.
Further, I wanted to say that I like the fact that Badger is very good about not only disclosing information about their products but also educating consumers about safe and toxic ingredients. They have a very well written website that you can access at http://www.badgerbalm.com. There is also a lot of useful information right on the sunscreen tube, from the application instruction to the ingredients.
As for the application of the sunscreen, there might be some minor inconveniences. First, because it is natural, some separation might occur, which will require kneading of the tube. Second, the downside of non-nano zinc oxide is that it leaves a whitening effect. But in my experience, the whitening effect is not too bad; with extra rubbing it almost completely goes away. I personally do not mind extra rubbing knowing that I am applying a safer product. What is more important – health or taking an extra couple minutes? Also, some Amazon reviews said that the sunscreen is too greasy. For me, it works fine because my skin is on the drier side. I suspect this might be true for a lot of people. Plus, the thickness of the sunscreen keeps it on longer in water, which saves time on re-application. And lastly, the price of Badger Baby Sunscreen is good, only $15.99 for 2.9 oz (cheaper on Amazon).
Where To Buy:
You can buy the product from its manufacturer directly at BadgerBalm.com or Amazon