How to Pick a Safe Sunscreen for Your Family

Some situations require sunscreen because it is too hot, or impractical, to wear hats and long sleeves.

Spring is here! As spring and summer arrive, we all start to spend more time outdoors. That’s wonderful, especially with all the benefits that outdoor time brings. However, if you’re spending any significant time in the sun, you’ll need some protection, and finding a good sunscreen is hard enough without having to worry about toxic chemicals. In this post I’ll break down the basics you need to know to pick a safe sunscreen you can feel good about!

THE SAFE SUNSCREEN SCOUTING REPORT

I should start by pointing out that many sources, including my go-to favorite source for product safety information, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), suggest using sunscreen as a last resort.  Using shade, avoiding the sun during peak hours, and wearing a hat and lightweight but long-sleeve clothing all go a long way towards protecting your skin from the sun.  This is especially important for babies, who absorb more through the skin compared to adults relatively speaking, and have a harder time detoxifying any chemical absorbed.

But we all know that sometimes that’s not enough, or not practical.  Whether it’s a beach vacation, a day-long summertime hike or a soccer tournament, there are times when you need a good sunscreen.  In short, the key to picking a safe sunscreen for your family is knowing which ingredients to avoid. After that, it’s a matter of preference, and what you find to be effective for you.  Read on for more details.

INGREDIENTS TO AVOID

While the science is far from conclusive, based on current research, the main sunscreen ingredients you want to avoid are oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate. According to the EWG’s SkinDeep Database:

~ Oxybenzone — “is associated with photoallergic reactions. This chemical absorbs through the skin in significant amounts. It contaminates the bodies of 97% of Americans according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” Other concerns include endocrine disruption and cellular damage/mutations.  Its EWG rank is an 8 out of 10 (10 being the most concerning, 1 being the safest).

~ Retinyl Palmitate — “Data from an FDA study indicate that retinyl palmitate, when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.”  Its EWG rank is a 9.

If possible you’ll also want to avoid octisalate (EWG rank: 4), octocrylene (EWG rank: 3), homosalate (EWG rank: 4) and octinoxate (EWG rank: 6), but they are less common, and less concerning, than the above.  While the names are similar, avobenzone gets an EWG rank of 2, so I wouldn’t be overly concerned by that.

Also note that the EWG recommends AGAINST spray sunscreens regardless of their composition because of the risk of inhaling the chemicals.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR INSTEAD

The vast majority of safe sunscreens use either zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.  These are also known as mineral sunscreens.  According to this article, these ingredients provide good sun protection (zinc oxide more so than titanium dioxide) without major health concerns.  While some sunscreen manufacturers promise “non-nano” particles, the article points out that this can be a bit misleading, as all sunscreen particles are nano in size.  However, nano or not, these minerals aren’t absorbed in large amounts, and thus a much better choice for safe sunscreen.  It should be noted that the environmental impact of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (when washed off the skin) have not been adequately studied.

THE “CASPER FACTOR”

One problem you come across in using mineral sunscreens is what I call the “Casper Factor.”  Because of the nature of these ingredients, they may leave you looking a bit white — like Casper the Friendly Ghost.  This may or may not bother you, but it’s something to be aware of.

If it bothers you, one option is to use a tinted moisturizer that has SPF.  Note this will provide light coverage only!! It’s not for a two-hour midday hike!  But the tint does override the Casper Factor relatively well.  My all-time favorite make-up brand, Juice Beauty, has one option (EWG rank: 1) that I am excited to try.  This tinted moisturizer by BeautyCounter (EWG rank: 2) is another good option — it won a “Best of Beauty” award from Allure in 2015.  I can’t vouch for it personally but I have had luck with other BeautyCounter products.

A second alternative would be to add some our your regular foundation to your mineral sunscreen to eliminate the whitish hue.

THREE STEPS TO A SAFE SUNSCREEN

1)  Read labels

The first thing you’ll want to do is check the active ingredients.  If oxybenzone is included, I highly recommend picking something else.  Retinyl palmitate may be hidden under “inactive ingredients,” so look there as well.

2) Know where to look

Sunscreen aisle in major grocery store
It’s often difficult to find safe sunscreen in the sunscreen aisle. Head to the baby section instead!

Online is a great place to shop for sunscreen, since you can examine the ingredient list at your leisure and check reviews to see whether others found the sunscreen to be effective and not too Casper-y.  But we all know that tubes of sunscreen tend to go missing when you’re an hour from your weekend campsite (and 3 hours from home), or just arrived at the beach.  In this case, see if you can find a local Target, Whole Foods, or health food store.  They usually tend to have the best “more natural” options.  You’re much less likely to have luck in the sunscreen aisle of a typical grocery store.  Even at Target, skip the sunscreen section and head to the baby aisle.  You should be able to find The Honest Company or the Babyganics stick — both good choices — more below.

3) Download the EWG app

This app is great.  It links to the Skin Deep database and allows you to spot check products in the store if needed.  Enter the product name and you’ll get a numerical rank score (1-2 is best) with a color (green is best) as well as a list of every ingredient in the product and what the concerns might be.

A COUPLE OPTIONS TO GET YOU STARTED

I like the Honest Company sunscreens because they are effective, easy to find, and reasonably priced.

As mentioned, I like the sunscreen from The Honest Company (EWG rank: 1).  There are an increasing number of mineral sunscreens out there, and that’s great.  I am confident that there are many brands that work well while providing a safer product.  But I like this brand because it’s effective, reasonably priced, and easy to find.  In addition to Target, Costco also carries it, often for a great price.  They have a cream and a stick, which can be helpful for little faces.  It does leave you looking a bit white, but it’s not terrible. (*Please see update at end of post). 

If you’re looking for something in store and can only find Babyganics, I would feel comfortable using it in a pinch, but after searching it in the EWG database, the information is a bit confusing.  It appears they have updated their formula.  One cream formulation does have octisalate in it, while this formula does not.  BUT — the EWG actually ranks the formula with octisalate better (EWG rank: 2) than the one without it (EWG rank: 3).  Honestly, a three isn’t great, especially with so many “one” or “two” options out there.  The Babyganics stick (EWG rank: 1) is better.  Read labels!

Of note, I personally did not have luck with Goddess Garden (EWG rank: 1) or Badger (EWG rank: 1) baby sunscreen.  I tried their products in 2015, and they left a very noticeable white film while the skin underneath appeared to turn pink after sun exposure.  It is possible they have or will update their formula — and they get fairly good reviews on Amazon — but at this time I personally would not recommend them.

MY RECOMMENDATION FOR A HAT

Boy wearing hat
Big Munchkin usually doesn’t mind wearing his Sunday Afternoons hat.

Hats for small children are hard.  They don’t want something on their head, and if they want to wear it, it falls off right away.  I’ve had a lot of luck with hats by Sunday Afternoons.  They come in a number of colors, patterns and sizes.  The hats are lightweight enough that they don’t really bother my kids.  They don’t flop and get in their eyes, and they have a strap.  And the head size is adjustable so kids can wear one size for a while.  These hats are usually my first defense, especially if we’re just out for a little while or it’s not too hot/sunny.

What’s your go-to safe sunscreen for your family? Post in the comments!

Update (5/24/17) — Because of the controversy regarding the effectiveness of Honest Company sunscreen, we have switched to Juice Beauty as our go-to.  However, I have never had trouble with the Honest sunscreen, and would still use it in a pinch.  For the latest on safe sunscreens from the EWG, see their 2017 sunscreen guide, which was just released.  

SOURCES

“How to Pick a Good Sunscreen,” The Environmental Working Group — http://www.ewg.org/sunsafety/tips-how-to-pick-a-good-sunscreen.php

“The Trouble with Oxybenzone and Other Sunscreen Chemicals,” The Environmental Working Group — http://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/

“Nanoparticles in Sunscreens,” The Environmental Working Group — http://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/nanoparticles-in-sunscreen/

Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, The Environmental Working Group –https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/

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