The Environmetal Working Group database is a great way to look for a sunscreen that is as non-toxic as there are in the marketplace.
Over 170 meet their criteria for beach and sports sunscreens.
The issue, even with this great tool, is the lack of available information on ingredients. There are always new ones and studies on their effects and the effects of their interactions with other chemicals are insufficient. When the public becomes aware of certain tip-off words, such as parabens, the manufacturers often replace these ingredients with either lesser-known but equally problematic chemicals. And label the their products parabens-free. It is often difficult for the layperson to know whether it is greenwashing or the attempt to make safer products for consumers.
Manufacturers often even use known allergens and hormone disruptors, like oxybenzone, making most conventional commercial sunblock products undesirable. We are not saying to forgo sun protection completely but to understand what are the major ingredients and what we can watch out for on a broad level.
The two most common blockers used today are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These receive a rating of 2 by EWG. Find out more about their potential effects on EWG. The issue with titanium dioxide lies mostly during its manufacturing processes, which require stringent health practices to ensure workers do not inhale these fine particles.
A form of Vitamin A called retinyl palmitate is added to some sunscreens. Avoid those with Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate or retinol). Studies show that when applied in sunlight skin tumours and lesions can develop more quickly. Vitamin A is good for health, just not in creams.
Like fragrance? Use Lavender essential oil instead. Fragrance in commercial products most likely contains unsavory chemicals. Best to skip. Look out for the words “fragrance” or “parfum”.
Because of inhalation risks, EWG also recommends against the use of sprays and powders.
Whether you use commercial or homemade sunscreens, the most common product fail is not re-applying often enough and missing out spots on the body. Burn factor is not the way to gauge when to re-apply. If you are sweating excessively or in the water, apply more frequently and immediately after swimming.
Be sure to apply your sunscreen 15+ minutes prior to exposure to allow for skin absorption of the product. Ears, feet, and hands are often forgotten. Ask a buddy to cover your back, literally.
The best way to protect against the sun is shade. Covering up with a wide-brimmed summer hat or a cap and sunglasses can be healthy and fashionable. Keeping the sun off the skin also keeps you cooler, making it more comfortable for when you sightsee.
Infants below six months aren’t protected by melanin so shade is the best for them. For kids “old enough” to use sunscreen, be sure to patch test for allergies prior to use.
For more information, check out EWG’s 2014 Guide to Sunscreens.