An Exhaustive Search for the Right Sunscreen

We do need to spend some time in the direct sunlight to absorb Vitamin D. Vitamin D is crucial for many bodily functions to operate optimally, but as a result of our efforts to protect ourselves against the dangerously damaging aspects of the sun's rays, many people are Vitamin D deficient. You really only need about 15 to 20 minutes of exposure per day, but that's out in the direct sun. You won't get the good kind of sun rays through glass or through sunscreens, so many people just don't ever get the rays.

That being said...

Notice that I said 15 to 20 minutes. If you're going to be out in the sun for longer than 20 minutes, you should wear a sunscreen. It takes about half an hour for the chemicals to soak into your skin and start to become effective, so if you apply ten minutes before you go out into the sun, you'll get your 20 minutes of unprotected sun rays before the screening kicks in.

By the way, the term "sun block" is out. It is misleading. Nothing blocks the sun's rays. In fact, the FDA is proposing that that term be illegal to use. Also, terms like "all-day protection" and "waterproof" are frowned upon by the FDA due to those claims being unproven and impossible, even with modern science.

Do you know what SPF stands for? Sun Protection Factor, of course, and the number theoretically stands for the number of times of protection offered by the product. But, according to the FDA, there is no evidence that SPF protects against the damaging UVA rays that cause skin cancer. It is only a measure of protection against the sun-burning rays, the UVBs; the ones that we need to absorb Vitamin D. They have proposed a four-star system indicating the product's level of UVA protection.

Did you know about a study, where The Environmental Working Group tested over 500 different sunscreens? They ended up with a recommendation for only 39 of them! The rest failed because of questions about active ingredients or exaggerated SPF claims.

For example, a product called SPF 15 blocks about 93% of the suns UVB rays, while an SPF 50 products blocks 98%. Since, there isn't much chance of getting better than 98% protection, any product labeled higher than SPF 50 is considered superfluous protection and failed for exaggerated claims.

This is interesting. Many products failed because they contained Vitamin A or one of its derivatives, in the form of Retinyl Palmitate. Tests on mice have shown it actually enhanced the rate of formation of UV-induced skin tumors. Another ingredient that failed is Oxybenzone, which is added because it increases UV protection, but it also has an estrogenic effect and is absorbed into the bloodstream via the skin. The study also noted that one brand of sunscreen labeled as SPF 100 for children, only offered about an SPF 9 against the damaging, ultraviolet UVA rays.

In May, 2010, Consumer Reports did a full battery comparing sunscreens based on UVA and UVB protection. In the study, the subjects all soaked in water for 8 hours beforehand, to factor in the products resistance to water. The top four products were:

Up & Up Sport Continuous SPF 30, by Target. It is administered by spray and costs $0.88 per ounce.
Walgreens Sport Continuous SPF 50. Also a spray. Cost, $1.33 per ounce.
Banana Boat Sport Performance Continuous SPF 30. Spray. Cost, $1.60 per ounce.
Aveeno Continuous Protection SPF 50. Spray. Cost, $2 an ounce

Did you know that the Skin Cancer Foundation gives out a Seal of Recommendation to products that it deems worthy because of the product's ability to protect? They seal will appear on the product's label and the Foundation has a list of approved products online here:

Up & Up Sport and Walgreens Sport don't appear on that list. And have you smelled the Banana Boat products? It might be OK if you're at the beach, but who wants to go around smelling like that all day? Plus they contain oxybenzone. The Aveeno Continuous Protection Spray is on the list approved by the Skin Cancer Foundation.

A quick visit to the Aveeno website is encouraging. I see flowers and grains and claims of health and naturalness. They also have a whole campaign to raise awareness of skin cancer. I'm leaning towards the Aveeno Continuous Protection for it's fresh scent, lack of unnecessary chemicals. And then I checked the ingredients list and found Retinyl Palmitate, which was shown to accelerate skin damage.

Back to the consumer reports list, the next four are:

Coppertone Water Babies, with an SPF of 50 and a cost per ounce of $1.38. It is a lotion.
Coppertone UltraGuard Continuous rated a 70+ in SPF, costing $1.62 per ounce. Spray.
No-Ad with Aloe and Vitamin rated 45 on the SPF scale, costing $0.59 per ounce. Lotion.
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist with Helioplex had a 45 SPF, costing $1.90 per ounce. Spray.

Cross-checking with the Skin Cancer Foundation:
They're all there except Neutrogena.

I'm going back to the Oxybenzone problem with the Coppertone products and No-Ad. (Strange name) The Environmental Working Group warned us it was present in about 60% of sunscreens and called it a hormone disruptor!

Back to the consumer reports list for the next four:

Badger scored a PDF of 30, costing $4.83 per ounce. Lotion.
La Roche-Posay Anthelios 40 with Mexoryl SX, scored a 40 SPF, costing $18.82 per ounce. Cream.
Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus IR3535 Expedition scores a SPF of 30, costing $3.50 per ounce. Pump spray.
Burt’s Bees Chemical-Free with Hemp Seed Oil got a 30 SPF, costing $4 per ounce. Lotion.

And what does the Skin Cancer Foundation say...?

Nix everything but La Roche-Posay.

So, on the La Roche-Posay website I find that this product looks pretty good, but has a hefty price tag. (A 1.7 ounce bottle was $32.) And I looked up the ingredients list, which doesn't contain any of the chemicals warned against by the EWG, but does contain Aqua, Cyclomethicone, C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Glycerine, Sorbitol, Triethanolamine, Octyl Cocoate,
Aluminum Starch Octenylsuccinate, Stearic Acid, PVP/Eicosene Copolymer, Potassium Cetyl
Phosphate, Glyceryl Stearate, Peg 100 Stearate, Aluminum Hydroxide, BHT, Butylparaben, Carbomer,
Cetyl Alcohol, Dimethicone, Disodium Edta, Ethylparaben, Hydroxypropyl, Methylcellulose,
Methylparaben, Phenoxyethanol, Propylparaben, Tocopheryl Acetate, Parfum. F.I.L. 4747/1C.

What caught my eye was the Aluminum Hydroxide, knowing that Aluminum accumulates in your system and is a major suspect in the onset of Alzheimer's Disease.

That, plus the price, is making me balk.

So, after all this, I don't know what to choose. This is going on my skin. All the experts say to use it very generously; to apply often in large amounts. It seems logical to me that we should put a great deal of thought into what we choose to slather liberally over the largest organ in our body. I was getting frustrated and considering just buying a cave, when I noticed a product that seemed to be present on all of the good lists and none of the bad lists:

Alba-Botanica by Hain Celestial Group makes a whole line of products that pass everyone's tests except Consumer Reports. It provides broad spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays. It doesn't contain aluminum, retinyl palmitate, or oxybenzone. It also claims to be fragrance-free.

The prices I saw online aren't the best, but now that the field has narrowed so drastically, I'm willing to pay a little bit to get what I want.

At Amazon, you can get two 4 ounce bottles for $32, which is about four times cheaper than the second most expensive sunscreen, the La Roche - Posay.

The only thing it has going against it is the label uses the soon-to-be-outdated "sun block" phrase. I'm going to look the other way on that minor faux-pas for now.

A little further research and I find that the Hain Celstrial Group has their fingers in a lot of good, healthy stuff. They are a parent company of many familiar health-conscious brands like Celestial Seasonings®, Terra®, Garden of Eatin’®, Health Valley®, WestSoy®, Earth’s Best®, Arrowhead Mills®, DeBoles®, Hain Pure Foods®, FreeBird™, Hollywood®, Spectrum Naturals®, Spectrum Essentials®, Walnut Acres Organic™, Imagine Foods™, Rice Dream®, Soy Dream®, Rosetto®, Ethnic Gourmet®, Yves Veggie Cuisine®, Linda McCartney®, Realeat®, Lima®, Grains Noirs®, Natumi®, JASON®, Zia® Natural Skincare, Avalon Organics®, and Queen Helene®. Anyone with a product line called "JASON" is OK with me. LOL

Anyway, I'm still going to look around to see if I can find it cheaper somewhere. (I think I'll be able to find the stuff at Ricky's here in New York, or at health food stores.) But in any case, I'm certainly happy to have found a product that I can live with. Literally.

I still recommend limiting the amount of time you spend in the sun to less than twenty minutes per day. And, I'd say, if you want to just skip the sunscreen altogether and you not have to worry about all that pore-clogging, chemical-laden gunk at all, you should be fine if you're careful. Be sure to limit your time in the sun to no more than twenty minutes daily.

If you absolutely have to be out for a long time, apply a sunscreen without vitamin derivative, retinyl palmitate, or oxybenzone. And I'd also advise steering clear of aluminum and parabens. Apply it in advance, knowing that it takes about 30 minutes to become effective at blocking the sun. Look for a sunscreen that says it offers 'broad spectrum' protection, but keep in mind that there are no official criteria in place for being allowed to claim that on the label. Keep on the lookout for the FDA's new four star system, rating for protection against cancer-causing UVA rays.

So enjoy the sunshine a little bit without any sunblock. The same chemicals that offer SPF, also block the Vitamin D absorption. Wear a good, safe sunscreen the rest of the time. In the meantime, you may want to ask your doctor to check your vitamin D levels at your next check up.

See you in the park.


Thank you so much for your exhaustive search and your detailed results. I'll be posting your blog on my FB page.

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