Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Sunscreen Report

Well, here's my full report on sunscreen. I've tried to put things in an order that make sense to me and hopefully you. If you really don't care about the research and just want the bottom line then skip down to the bottom where I summarize my decision (look for the italics). I outline some terms and ingredients just so we are all on the same page while trying to understand this.

Terms we should know and understand:

SPF. Sun Protection Factor. This rates the number of times longer that you can stay in the sun than if you were unprotected. IE: if your skin burns in 10 minutes in the sun and you apply a SPF 30, you can stay in the sun 300 minutes without burning. (that would be 10 x 30= 300) The higher the SPF, the longer you can stay in the sun, if the sunscreen is still on. Is a higher SPF really better? Do the math and determine if you are sweating the stuff off and/or swimming. Some sunscreens are better than others at staying on in the water. Would you really stay in the sun for over 4 hours without reapplying sunscreen? It seems like an SPF of 30 would be plenty, but SPF 45 seems to be pretty common and certainly wouldn't hurt.

UVB rays. These are the rays that burn. (B=burn) This is what the SPF rating is talking about, the UVB rays ONLY. Too much UVB and burning can lead to certain types of skin cancer. Currently, in the United States, to claim to be a sunscreen, your product only needs to block UVB rays. Many brands are choosing to include more protection...

UVA rays. These are the aging rays. (A=age) Most importantly, the UVA rays are the ones that can penetrate the skin and affect your cells directly. Not only do UVA rays cause harm by themselves, but it appears that they can push along the effects of the UVB. Europeans are demanding that their products contain some sort of UVA protection as well as UVB. Once again, the US is behind the times and it has to do with the FDA approval process. Regardless of the FDA, there are many brands that have ingredients that block UVA rays and it will probably say so on the package. I'll address this in the ingredients list below.

Ingredients to avoid:
Look in both the active and inactive ingredient list

Taken from (I added the bold because they were ingredients I recognized readily from my research)

• Benzophenone (benzophenone-3), homosalate, and octy-methoxycinnamate (octinoxate): These chemicals are of more concern because they have shown estrogenic activity in lab tests.
• Padimate-O and Parsol 1789 (2-ethylhexyl-4-dimethylaminobenzoic acid and avobenzone): These two chemicals have the potential to damage DNA when illuminated with sunlight. On the skin's surface, these chemicals do protect from UV damage; however, once absorbed into the skin, these same chemicals can prove destructive. According to this article, parabens can really mess with your hormones. I was excited to find several fairly inexpensive sunscreens until the list of inactive ingredients had up to 5 different parabens. Yikes! AND, one regular version didn't have any, but the baby formula had 3. One company's sensitive skin formula and baby formula had identical ingredients. Don't be fooled by marketing techniques!

Ingredients that actually do the job:

Avobenzone. Absorbs the UVA rays. This is listed above that there is the possible risk that once it reacts with the sun and is absorbed into the skin it can cause cell damage.

Oxybenzone. Absorbs the UVB rays.

Helioplex. Is really just a fancy name for the process of combining Avobenzone and Oxybenzone and making it chemically stable. Whether or not the 2 ingredients are stable without the heliplex technology is beyond my scope of understanding. There are several sunscreens available with both, but Neutrogena is the proud owner of the Helioplex technology.

The key to understanding the above ingredients is that they ABSORB the rays, they do not block them. They work through a chemical reaction with the sun rays to deflect or reflect the UVA and/or UVB rays. There are only 2 sun "blocks" that actually create a physical barrier between your skin and the ultraviolet rays.

The 2 true Sun "Blocks":

Titanium dioxide. The best I can tell from this site:

is that titanium dioxide is OK as long as it is not "micronized" or presented in a nanoparticle form (that would be less than 100nanometres). Basically, the smaller the particle, the easier it is to absorb in the skin, penetrate the cells, and possibly cause mutation and then cancer. This site uses titanium dioxide in their organic skin care products but has refused a number of requestst to use the micronized version. I have no idea how to determine the size of the particles being used in the different sunscreens on the market.

Zinc Oxide:
this is the same ingredient used in Desitin for diaper rash. The same nanoparticle concern is apparent for zinc oxide as was true for titanium dioxide. For me, this puts the 2 equally as potent (good and bad) on the ingredient list.

Here are the products:

(listed in no particular order)

Blue Lizard: Has the good stuff in varying degrees. The BabySPF30 has 10% zinc oxide and 5% titanium dioxide which is fabulous. At $9.95/5oz it is reasonable in price. It does contain parabens so I wouldn't use it on a continual basis, but might recommend it for a super day at the beach.

Burt's Bees: SPF30, 8.5% titanium dioxide. All natural ingredients, none of the above mentioned bad chemicals. $15 for 3.5 oz.

Mexitan: SPF 30, 6% titanium dioxide and 6%zinc oxide. All natural. Online/mail order only. $16.95 for 8 oz.

Neutrogena: Ultra Sheer Dry Touch SPF 55+. Helioplex technology is all I can find out on it via the internet. It bothers me that I can't get a list of other ingredients, even from their own website. This is number one on Consumer Reports as far as protection from UVA and UVB rays and for staying power. It is waterproof and sweatproof and paba-free. $8 for 3 oz.

No-Ad: 2% zinc oxide plus a host of other active ingredients. It has parabens and lists titanium dioxide in the inactive ingredients which makes things a bit confusing for me. I don't know why you would put it in the bottle if it wasn't going to be effective. Consumer Reports liked it for a budget buy, listing it right under Neutrogena because it doesn't stay on as long. At $11 for a 16 oz bottle however, I'd say keep reapplying!

UV Natural: a whopping 24.8% zinc oxide as it's only active ingredient puts this baby at the top of the "block" list. Vegan formula, SPF 30 for 4 hours of sun, and repels water for 40min. It also tops the list on price at $32 for a 4.4 oz bottle. There are several UV Natural products, but I can't get a list of ingredients so I don't know how the baby version compares and don't know about the inactive ingredients. I'll let you know if I stop by REI for a peek (and a sample application?). I'm thinking that this stuff is similar to the thick white stuff life guards wear.

So what will I be using?!
I have a bottle of Burt's Bees that I will be applying to Tasha before she leaves in the morning for a fun-filled day of camp activities. She will be indoors, outdoors, and possibly in water if she chooses to do so. It is too expensive for me to send to camp with her to be oozed out over the floor and smeared into the carpet so I have a small bottle of Coppertone that I will send "just in case" she/they find it necessary to reapply later in the day. It has oxtinoxate and probably parabens, but I don't think a few applications are going to kill her. When this runs out I may get some No-Ad since it has worked for me in the past.
I am definately going to check out Mexitan for future purchases since it seems to be good for us and eco-friendly. They currently have a $4.95 flat rate for shipping so if anyone else is interested please let me know so we can split that cost. Go to and tell me what you think.
For now I'm going to stay away from the super high-priced products. I'll also try to keep the kids in the shade as much as possible.

Something I did not address at all was the texture of the products. I believe that the "blocking" products are more difficult to rub in and thicker. That is what makes them good. Please give me your feedback as you try them so we all can know without wasting our all-mighty dollar. I worry that the newer zinc oxide and titanium dioxide products that are not as white as they used to be are easier to use because of the nano-technology which is bad for us.


H said...

I did forget to mention specifically that there isn't anything in particular that you should worry about if your baby is over 6 months old. (infants should just plain be covered up and stay out of the harshest sun!) The biggest concern is sensitivity to the bad chemicals, and (in my opinion) keeping the hormones off them.

Also, I'm not nursing so I didn't look into the effects of mom's sunscreen making its way into breast milk. I hope one of you super mommies will check that out and post a comment! (actually, one of you might already know)

Hope this helps!

The Turley Times said...

Wow, thanks for all this information! I read the whole thing, and it sounds like if I stick to No-Ad we won't die? (or go bankrupt) When my kids were really little I used to use Baby Magic in the pink bottle (SPF 50) which I thought was good because of the Titanium Dioxide, but apparently the Octinoxate and Oxybenzone cancel that out? The last thing we need is more "estrogenic activity" in our kids!

H said...

No-Ad still has parabens, like most lotions...but if you're not slathering it on daily I think you're OK.

Check out that article from The Good Human.

Davey said...

Dang girl, dang. That is awesome researching and a HUUUUGE thank you for sharing it with us in such a reasonably easily way to read. I am a-struggling with this one. I bought the only baby sunblock Rite-aid had, $12 for 8 oz and after comparing it to your list I see that it's FULL of chemicals to avoid. Sweet. But she's developed a hatred for her hat and pulls it off whenever I carry her on my back and really anytime she's out of my reach even for a minute, and when it's on she just fusses and whines. It drives me crazy cause she's burning EVERY single day and I'm out maybe an hour or two total. I guess I need to go buy a hat she can't get off or something? People always comment on how cute her roseey cheeks are, NO they are burned and that is NOT cute! I wish I could just lather on sunscreen everyday instead. Darn those chemical happy producers!

H said...

Rachel, I'm sorry for your pink-cheeked baby! Maybe try to just put the good stuff on the spots that burn. Or make her look like those life guards with the white on their cheeks and nose :)

H said...

FYI: We've been using Burt's Bee's sunblock and it really is a pain to put on. It is thick and hard to rub in, even on little girl hairy legs. I'm sure this is the case with all good, paraben-free sunscreen. :( We're sticking with it though, no burns so far.