Sunscreen Choices Redux

July 8, 2009 @ 8:00 pm | Filed under:

My pal Caryn wrote today, looking for a post I wrote a while back about my struggle with the question of daily sunscreen use. What’s worse, I wondered (and still do): the chemicals seeping into our skin, day after day after day? Or the dangers of sun exposure? Ever since our move to San Diego in the fall of 2006, these questions have plagued me. My kids wear hats some of the time, and I know keeping covered is the best course of action, but still: it’s short-sleeve weather here almost all year round. And hats aren’t always preferable. I can’t stand wearing a hat, myself. But we’re all fair-skinned (one of us even has albinism!) and one of us is a cancer survivor, and, and, and…I always come back to: OK, sunscreen: which one?

In the comments of that old post, a couple of people linked to the EWG Skin Deep website which ranks sunscreens based on sun protection and lack of nasty chemicals. The rankings have been updated for 2009, and there is some helpful information on the site about the difference between UVA and UVB rays (most sunscreens only protect against UVB, the rays which cause sunburn, but UVA rays are the ones that can cause skin cancer) and the hazards of certain chemicals found in many sunscreens, including oxybenzone (which I was was dismayed to see is an ingredient in the the product I’ve been using this past year, a Philosophy brand sunscreen I spent too much money on).

(Hefty price tags are the one thing most of these products seem to have in common, no matter how they’re ranked. Sigh.)

Also ranked are daily moisturizers containing SPF. This was of even more interest to me than the sunscreen evaluation, since the result of that previous round of questioning had led me to switch the kids to UV Natural, a sunscreen I read about in the Chinaberry catalog. It has a rating of 1 (0 is best, 10 is worst) from EWG. We have also used Burt’s Bee’s Chemical Free Sunscreen, which only scores a 4 in the ranking, but the only con listed is fragrance. (Another chemical? Not likely with that brand, right?)

So for the kids, I felt like I’d found some decent options. (California Baby and Badger are also ranked very high in the 2009 list, and I happened to pick up a tube of California Baby Sunscreen Lotion No Fragrance at Target today. We haven’t tried it yet to see if it leaves a residue like some of them do. (Caryn mentioned that the Neutrogena brand she tried on her little guy leaves a white zinc-y residue.)

But I’m still looking for the perfect daily SPF-containing moisturizer. I have dry skin and really need a good moisturizer. (I still lament the loss of the brilliant Carrot Moisture Cream that The Body Shop used to sell.) It seems silly to use moisturizer and sunscreen: two face creams? Who has time for that? I share Alton Brown’s distaste for the unitasker.

Around the time of that first sunscreen post, I’d been briefly interested in the SPF-containing mineral foundations that everyone was talking about—Bare Minerals and that ilk. I hadn’t worn makeup in nearly 20 years at that point, but the Bare Minerals hype made it sound pretty appealing. Glowing skin and SPF? And minerals—so good for you, right? But then I read all about how Bare Minerals contain bismuth, which seemed alarming, and my hasty explorations of the various bismuth-free mineral foundations left me muddled and overwhelmed. Too expensive, too much work, too many little brushes to clutter up the bathroom.

It’s worth noting that the powder foundations like Bare Minerals are strongly advised against by the Skin Deep folks because not only do you wind up absorbing chemicals through your skin, you inhale the tiny particles as well. This blindingly obvious fact which had not previously occurred to me made me laugh and laugh. Oh the endless ways there are to ingest toxins nowadays!

Anyway, back I went to a face cream (another Body Shop cream but, sadly, nowhere near as lovely as the old carrot cream) and a separate sunscreen—the Philosophy one I splurged on because it didn’t smell like sunscreen at all. That tube has lasted me a year, and just last week I bit the bullet and reordered—and now I see it gets a lousy 5 in the EWG ranking because of oxybenzone. I haven’t opened the tube yet; I think I’ll return it.

But what to use instead? Why do these things have to be so crazy expensive? A jar or tube of any of the brands listed in the top ten on EWG’s “Best Moisturizers with Sunscreen” list will run you upwards of $30. That’s nuts, isn’t it?

And then there’s the whole question of nanoparticles, which—well, here. In brief, EWG recommends against nanoparticle-containing cosmetics such as eye shadow, but—to the surprise of its researchers—found in favor of sunscreens containing nanoparticles of zinc and/or titanium, on the grounds that whatever health risks may be associated with nanotechnology, they are less serious than the risks posed by UVA exposure.

Listen to me talking like some kind of beauty blogger. Ha, far from it: I’m just a fair-skinned, freckled 40-year-old who lives in a sunny climate. So: have any of you tried any of the products on this list? Or does the idea of shelling out that kind of dough make you howl with laughter?

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23 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. sarah says:

    Wow, my head is spinning!

    Up until the past couple of years, I just ensured Rose was covered up. We have a big UV problem here in NZ but I also didn’t like sunscreens. For one thing, they usually give her a rash. Now I try to do my best to choose a safe one that won’t irritate her skin. The one we had this summer gave us a weird purplish glow, but it was “natural” and “low irritant” so who cares about looking like a child who’s been naughty in Wonka’s Factory? But it sure is worrying. Either way, its worrying.

  2. Kathryn says:

    Ha! You have made me realise there may actually be advantages to living in a country where hot sunshine is a very limited commodity. Our main issue with sunscreen is wondering how old the open bottle is … last year? the year before? some unspecified date in the distant past? A year when we get through a whole bottle between us is rare.

  3. Christie says:

    “EWG’s “Best Moisturizers with Sunscreen” list will run you upwards of $30. That’s nuts, isn’t it?”

    Not if it lasts you a year.

  4. Rebecca says:

    I’ve gone with the “sun is less harmful than sunblock” notion for quite some time, except in situations (rare for me) where I know I’ll have excessive sun exposure, such as if swimming, when I’ll just give in and wear sunblock. How great to have this website, as I never knew there were alternate options available.

    But your question about laughing about paying that kind of money for things? The way I see it, if it works, and it’s not poisoning me with its toxins, it is far far far less expensive to spend $40 per bottle on a good sunblock than the medical bills for the cancer treatment are going to be if I don’t. And I get the added benefit of good health along with it.

    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and in my opinion, is a much wiser financial investment, as well.

  5. Sara says:

    Here’s a link to what a very smart friend of mine has to say on the subject of sun: There are lots of posts on that page with scientific links to back them up.

    She and and her kids are very fair-skinned and they just use olive oil! There’s your moisturizer and sunscreen in one! I’ve done the EVOO on a day with long, unavoidable sun exposure and it worked as well as anything.

    I think it’s practically impossible not to get a little burned when we do crazy stuff like stay at a lake all day in a swimsuit. So, on rare days like that, covering up is a good option, but I, too, firmly believe that sun exposure is critical for us, so we go out and never use sunscreen unless we’re at the beach or something similar.

  6. sarah says:

    Echoing everything you said in your post, here is what we have come up with: We switched exclusively to Blue Lizard sunscreen (sensitive skin formula) this summer. It is a zinc/titanium combo. It does go on with a gloppy feel, which is kind of gross, but once it dries, it is actually lighter and less greasy than nearly anything we have tried which is a good trade-off for us. It gets a 3 on the EWG scale, but the affordability factor is much higher than those on the scale above it. Even with swim shirts, pool in the evening hours and playing in the shade, we go through bottles and bottles of sunscreen as we are outside all year long, so paying $20-30 for a few ounces, which is what many of those that rank 0-2 on the EWG list cost is nearly cost prohibitive. Coolibar and have the best BL prices that I found for the larger, eight ounce bottle.

    Anxious to read the Olive Oil option. TGTBT? I just cannot imagine that working with my red head but, I’m always open to new options! Especially cheap ones.

  7. Jennifer says:

    I love all the California Baby products. Even the sensitive skin Neutrogena makes my son break out in red spots (VERY sensitive skin). He also tolerates Arbonne. I don’t know where that fell on your list. And I find the sales pitch a bit much sometimes, but their products are awesome.
    Didn’t think about the Bare Minerals issue. I use that makeup and like it. Maybe I’ll look around a bit more.

  8. Marielle says:

    Is is enough to make your head spun isn’t it? Although I’ve found an option that brings my penchant for doing things myself way better than I could buy via the wabi sabi blog:

    She has a good bit of info regarding the natural suncscreen debate but takes it one step further and teaches you how to mix up your own. The best part about that is you mix up your base lotion as rich or as thin as you’d like then add in the zinc oxide.

    Since I was mixing up lotion for my eczema prone middle child I purchased some micronized zinc oxide from garden of wisdom to add to the next batch I make.

    I also use mineral foundation and when I’m not up for putting it on with a brush (thanks for the EWG warning on that LOL) I sometimes put a dab of lotion on my finger and dip it in the mineral makeup then smooth on my face. Instant tinted moisturizer.

  9. Mamalion says:

    We camp out firmly in the ‘a little sun is good for you camp’. My kids only use sunscreen if we’re at the beach/pool during high-sun hours of 10-2. That said, my oldest dd who is working as a lifeguard this summer is using more sunscreen.

    Also, a couple of ‘facts’ (I use that loosely, since info is always changing) from an ex-lifeguard/current WSI- Is everyone aware that sunscreen expires after 2 years of use? So use a Sharpie to date the bottom of the bottle/tube, and make sure to toss it. Also if you leave it in the hot car, the chemicals will break down, and aren’t as effective. (This is also true of the plastic in carseats, which is why they make you replace them in 5 years.) And the number on the sunscreen doesn’t really mean much. A sunscreen of SPF 15 is as effective as any other, and going above 30 is a waste of money.

    So to sum up, a little sun is good- we need it to make Vitamin D, just don’t burn. When you use sunscreen, make sure it hasn’t been kicking around in the car for the last 5 years, and you really don’t need the SPF 70 that is being advertised so heavily.

  10. mylittlesoapbox says:

    I’m in the I can’t shell out big bucks so I buy a couple of tubes of the regular bad stuff with titanium dioxide for the pool and a bottle of the spray on kind for long sun visits like to the fair.

    Everywhere else I make – as in give no choice – my boys wear wide brimmed hats. (I also make myself too to be fair). In the garden we try to remember to add lightweight long sleeve shirts over top. And then its just keep an eye on the time under the rays. We’re going for gently baked not fried crispy.

  11. Jamie says:

    We use the California Baby tube and it seems to work fine. I definitely think the added safety is worth the cost. But we only use it when there is a chance of burning… I am a big fan of getting safe amounts of sun exposure!

  12. Theresa says:

    Oh, gee. Scary stuff! I never know what to do about this stuff. We wore sunscreen when we first moved here to the keys, but gave it up after a few weeks when we got so tan we no longer burned. Now that it is the height of summer we just basically stay in during the hottest part of the day, saving the beach for late afternoon when the sun’s rays are low. If we do happen to go on an outing that takes us out mid-day we will do a bit of sunscreen on our most vulnerable parts (shoulders and cheeks, and ears, ya know).
    Covering up just isn’t an option here. The humidity will kill you before the sun has its chance!LOL!
    I do think I’ll look into some of those chemical-free alternatives for those times when we do need it.

  13. Melissa Wiley says:

    I guess I figure we get plenty of sun exposure (for Vit D production) in regular comings and goings, since we aren’t sunscreening arms & legs for everyday jaunts (to and from activities, etc). I’m more concerned about the hazards of sun exposure than Vit D deficiency, especially since we’ve had two good friends have run-ins with skin cancer in the last month.

    Thanks for the link to the Love Your Mother site—very interesting info there, and I hear what she’s saying, but gosh is it hard to imagine sending the kids outside greased up with olive oil! LOL. Especially on faces (re my quest for the perfect facial moisturizer with non-hazardous SPF).

    Thanks for all this info, everyone; your feedback is much appreciated.

  14. Beth says:

    We use the Banana Boat Baby 50spf, UVB/UVA. It doesn’t makes us break out (super-crazy sensitive skin here), doesn’t make me feel like I’ve been dipped in slime, and it works. (So many other suncreens don’t prevent me from being burned in the first half-hour: this one does).

    I’m a redhead, Joshua (7) is strawberry blond — that list you linked to gives this sunscreen a 5 but for me, the fact that we’re not getting burned outweighs that. I wouldn’t say that I live in fear of skin cancer, but it’s a concern: we use sunscreen like we use carseats/belts, and bike helmets. It just makes good sense to me.

    I’ll have to read this post more thoroughly another time, just wanted to quick comment for now.

  15. Dani says:

    I was perusing that sunscreen list a couple weeks ago and driving my husband crazy with all my talk of nanoparticles, etc. BUT I did discover that the CVS brand of sunscreen containing zinc oxide scored a 2 and, while still more expensive than all the cheap sunscreens that seem to score 6 or 7 and above, it was far cheaper than Badger and California baby, etc. So I felt it was a happy compromise.

  16. Karen says:

    Hi Melissa,

  17. Karen says:

    Sorry about hitting ENTER too soon in the previous post….

    Did you know that coconut oil is a natural sunscreen?
    And it is awesome as a skin moisturizer. It takes very little and does not leave your skin feeling greasy.

    Go to:
    to find out more about the many blessings of coconut oil.

    Another helpful site is:

    I love your blog, by the way; and your Martha and Charlotte books are favorites of ours! God’s blessings to you and your family!

  18. Mary says:

    Thanks for the information. I worry about sun exposure more than the chemical exposure. I must confess. I too have albinism, and therefore have been warned my entire life about sun exposure. I have a yearly check-up with a dermatologist, now that I’m older. I have come to appreciate hats, not only to protect my skin but also my eyes. I use a daily moisterizer with SPF 15 from Kiehls. We, my children and I, use Waterbabies, probably not the best to avoid chemicals, but it’s a spray and it goes on easily and smoothly. We use the stick for our faces. I insist on the sunscreen for my kids when we know the exposrure will be prolonged. However, foy youngest, I have started using it almost daily, because he loves being outside. I also heard that Vitamin C will protect against some exposure. Just another thought, my children tan nicely, especially my boys, but I still insist on protection for them. The boys have my dad’s complexion, but my dad saw a dermatologist yearly and had numerous pre-cancerous lesions removed. Finally, I have to share another concern for us in the deep south. I use mosquito repellant daily too, because my son had a round of MRSA from a mosquito bite. I have tried the natural stuff, but he hated it. I worry about the chemical exposure from such products, but I fear the MRSA more. Good luck finding what works for you.

  19. Jenn says:

    My father and his siblings grew up just out side of Los Angeles county in the 1950’s (Irish/Scotch/Polish/German heritage). With the exception of my father, my relatives on that side of the family have all had moles and spots removed. While these procedures have been relatively minor, I do think it is important to acknowledge that the sun DOES pose a real threat.

    That being said, I am a non-product person. If I do use a product, I require that it have 5 pronounceable ingredients or less: pure aloe vera gel and Vit. E oil for facial moisturizer, rosemary tea & castile soap for shampoo, geranium oil for tick repellent, lavender water for mosquito repellent, mint on the floor to repel ants, etc. So when it comes to sunscreen, my solution is to take one cup of very simple lotion that I trust and add one table spoon each of pure, non-micronized powdered zinc oxide and titanium dioxide purchased from a cosmetic supply company. It makes somewhat streaky non-waterproof SPF 30.

    Also, some research does indicate that topical application of vit. E and C may help counteract the effects of sun damage. Unless, of course, there is an allergy in question.

  20. Kathy says:

    This is something I’ve given a fair bit of thought to, as I live in the southern part of Australia, right underneath that big ol’ hole in the ozone layer, where we just survived a summer of record high temperatures (including 5 days in a row of temps above 45 degrees celsius). Skin cancer is a huge problem here – some of our leading oncologists estimate that 1 in 3 Australians will have at least one skin malignancy in their lifetime. On the other hand, people are becoming so hyper-aware of the problem that the opposite effect is also being experienced, with a large number of Australians now vitamin-D deficient due to sun avoidance.

    With my fair-skinned children, and a family history of skin cancer (fortunately non-fatal in every case), I tend to err on the side of protection, but that doesn’t actually mean a lot of sunscreen. In the summer, we live a “Middle Eastern” life – very active and outside from 6:30am breakfast until about 10am, then inside, in the shade, or indoors at another venue until after 4:30-5pm, then outdoors again for the late afternoon and dusk (and often eating dinner outside). That way our sun exposure is limited to the gentler light of morning and evening. When outside at other times, we wear long sleeves and wide-brimmed hats and try to stick to the shade.

    If circumstances dictate that we *must* be outside and unshaded in the heat of the day, we sunscreen up. I tend to use Banana Boat Kids 30+ (it’s an Australian line: It doesn’t irritate our skin or activate my 4-year-old’s dermatitis, it works well, and it washes off easily. Also, it’s not too expensive – about $15AU ($12US) for a bottle that lasts us a summer for the whole family.

  21. Jean says:

    Cetaphil Daily Moisturizer– SPF 15… inexpensive, non greasy, great for everyday use!

  22. Jordin says:

    I love all the information on the post and the comments here! There are some really amazing links. i have been trying for years to look into making my own sunscreen, and i have so excited to see the link for it.

    One thing that no one has mentioned is the shirts (among other clothing) that is SPF protective. There are some great companies such as Please Mum for kids
    and Billabong for adults. I know that sometimes they arent ideal, but they prevent the need for sunscreen, no need to reapply, it is reusable.

  23. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve been debating this for awhile, though it’s not a major concern in the grey land of England! We tend to use a hat for the kids and some SPF 15 if we are going to be out in full sun. I prefer to cover up or stay in the shade, but as we are sun-deprived, we need as much vitamin D as we can get. Though I will look into some of the SPF with fewer chemicals.