Sunscreen Woes – What’s Safe?

Growing up, I was the kid on the beach wearing a long-sleeved, button-up shirt. Being that it was the 70’s, you can rest assured that I was the ONLY kid on the beach with a shirt on. The fact that it was button-up only added to the humiliation.

I don’t recall be coated in sunscreen, although I’m sure I was. I DO recall everyone else on the beach glistening in oils and SPF 0-4 sunTAN lotions. The smell of fake coconut and lemon juice drifting by in the breeze.

Thanks to my mother, I learned early to protect myself from the sun. I’m usually pretty good about protecting myself – sticking to the shade, lots of sunscreen, not too much skin exposed, hat – but I’ve had my lapses. My teen years were not sunscreen years. And there was the time I ate too many “special” pancakes on the shores of Lake Malawi and fell asleep in the sun for about a day. Or the time we tubed down the Nam Song river in Laos and I burned my shins so badly that I couldn’t walk for 2 days. I know I’ve done some damage, but I keep my fingers crossed that my “most of the time” protection is enough.

Like my mother before me, I diligently protect our 19 month old son, Zander, from the sun. Usually, he’s well covered with cool clothing and a hat, but if skin is exposed, it’s smothered with sunscreen. Lately though, I started wondering why the “tear-free” sunscreen irritated his eyes.

I found a lot of information on the internet, but the most useful was the 2010 Sunscreen Guide provided on the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website.

The EWG Guide has a cool tool that allows you to look up your sunscreen to see how it rates. Turns out that the “baby-friendly” sunscreen I’d been using on Zander contains Vitamin A (labeled as retinyl palmitate), which is believed to hasten the development of skin damage and tumors when exposed to the sun!

WHAT?!?!!

We have an array of sunscreens in our house (for the face, for the water, for sports, for baby, etc.). Checking them, I saw that they ALL list vitamin A in the ingredients. Most also include oxybenzone, a synthetic estrogen that penetrates the skin and contaminates the body. It’s also linked to allergic reactions and hormone disruption in children.

In fact, most of the sunscreens we own are on the EWG “use with caution” list.

As you can imagine, this is discouraging information for someone who thinks they’ve been doing (almost) everything right for 30-odd years.

But I know I’m not alone. I saw an ad on television the other night claiming that Coppertone was voted “Canada’s Most Trusted Sunscreen”. Interestingly, of Coppertone’s 41 sunscreens,

  • none are on the EWG recommended list
  • 17 are on the “use with caution” list
  • 24 are on the “avoid” list.

The EWG Sunscreen Guide provides a list of recommended sunscreens, but also states that NO sunscreen is perfect:

An ideal sunscreen would block both UVA and UVB rays with active ingredients that do not break down in the sun (so that the product remains effective), and would contain active and inactive ingredients that are proven to be safe for both adults and children. Unfortunately, there is no sunscreen that meets all of these criteria, and no simple way for consumers to know how well a given product stacks up on any of these fronts — which is why EWG created this guide to safer and more effective sunscreens.

So what’s a conscientious, protective mother to do? Arm herself with information, shade, protective clothing, and the healthiest sunscreen available. It’s summer, and like every Canadian, I want my fair share of sun exposure before the cold, dark days of winter return. So Zander and I took a drive to the Extraordinary Baby Shoppe in Waterloo last week and picked up a tube of Badger Sunscreen. It’s on the EWG “recommended” list. I know it’s not perfect, but on those days when we simply must bask in the sun, I’ll know I’ve made the healthiest choice as I lather it on Mr. Z and myself.

If you have time, I recommend taking a few minutes to look through the EWG 2010 Sunscreen Guide. It provides sun safety tips, ingredients to avoid, a list of recommended sunscreens, a “hall of shame” list, and a search tool to find your sunscreen and all it’s dirty little secrets.

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