How to choose a non-toxic sunscreen

Safe sunscreens

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Sunscreen is your most important beauty (preserving) product this summer, especially while taking advantage of all the outdoor activities in our Summer Wellness Guide.

To help separate the terrific from the toxic, the Environmental Working Group’s researchers surveyed 1,700 products with SPF to produce the 5th edition of their Skin Deep Sunscreen Guide, a resource released at the end of May that does a lot of the hard work for you.

“What we found is that manufacturers still produce sunscreens that don’t provide adequate protection from UVA and UVB rays and also contain hazardous ingredients,” says Paul Pestano, a research analyst who worked on the survey.

One of the biggest problems is that SPF numbers only indicate protection from UVB rays. Many products don’t shield you from the more powerful UVA rays, which can beam through glass as well as layers of skin, and lead to melanoma without ever causing a burn.

And super-high SPFs can offer a false sense of security, encouraging people to stay out in the sun for longer periods of time without reapplying.

SPF chart

Despite what most people think, UV protection does not increase proportionately as SPF goes up.

The good news is that the researchers were able to give their seal of approval to 1 in 5 sun-protection products this year, up from 1 in 6 in 2010, says Pestano. And they found that more safer, mineral-based brands than ever are on the market—selections from Alba Botanica, Badger, Aubrey Organics, and Coola are among their favorites.

Among those that got the highest ratings for safety, included a handful of water-free sticks, some sun-care made for babies, and lots that use just the mineral zinc oxide.

Sunscreens that use nano-size zinc and titanium dioxide (the only other non-chemical sunblocking ingredient) are less well favored by the EWG, since the small particles may penetrate skin or be inhaled.

So check the sunscreen guide before you pack for vacation. If nothing else, says Pestano, avoid ingredient lists with oxybenzone (it may be a hormone distruptor, cause allergic relations, or play a role in DNA damage) and retinyl palmitate (or vitamin A, a sophisticated antioxidant and anti-aging ingredient that when used in sunscreen was found to promote skin cancer).

And make friends with shade. Your skin will thank you later. —Lisa Elaine Held

For a shopping list of six natural sunscreens we tried and love, click here.

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