Twenty years ago, it was cool to bake yourself in the sun until you were a toasty shade of brown. I never made that shade. I went from white to red in a matter of minutes outside without sunscreen. Needless to say, despite my mom’s best efforts to keep me slathered up, I had my fair share of sunburn when I was younger.
These days there’s been almost a complete reversal in how we think about the sun and skin care. Days of baking in the sun without protection, or worse, doused in baby oil, are gone. Tanning salons are getting the hairy eyeball from the media. Even the “safer” alternative to tanning, the “spray tan” is coming under fire for toxicity. So what do we do when we want to enjoy the great outdoors and not end up fried?
Common sense tells us to avoid the sun when it’s highest in the sky, generally between 11am and 4pm. We also know that its best to cover up with sunglasses, light-colored clothing and headgear to reflect the sun’s rays. That’s all well and good, but not necessarily plausible if say, you’ve got a wedding to go to in July at noon outdoors. Good luck finding shade and a full-coverage dress and matching hat that you won’t sweat to death in or have to explain in the wedding photos! The next best option is, of course, sunscreen.
But, what kind of sunscreen should you use? Unfortunately, sunscreen and skin protection is not an exact science and ultimately, its best to take everything with a grain of salt and some common sense. With all the emphasis in the past few years on sun damage and skin cancer prevention, companies have been pumping out “new” and “better” skin care options every season. There are sticks, sprays, lotions, creams, and wipes; SPFs to 100+; “natural” vs. conventional; waterproof, water-resistant, sweat-proof, even some you can apply to wet skin. With so many options, its easy to get overwhelmed.
Here’s the quick and dirty – your best bet of all the options currently available is a lotion or cream mineral sunscreen. Creams and lotions offer you the best coverage (as long as you apply it correctly) – sticks are okay, but really only useful for small areas like your face, lips, ears, and hairline. Wipes haven’t really been lauded for their effectiveness since it’s highly unlikely that a little napkin can cover your whole body. Spray on lotions, while convenient, really (in my opinion) should be avoided and not just because you can catch fire from them. Aerosol sunscreens spray chemical particles into the air that you can inhale and besides potentially causing lung irritation, there hasn’t been enough research on the long term effects.
Chemical sunscreens are the most commercially popular and prevalent (kudos to their marketing departments). The problem with chemical sunscreens is that, well…they’re chemicals and in many cases, toxic ones. One of the biggest offenders is the hormone-disruptor oxybenzone, used in sunscreen to absorb UV rays. It gets absorbed into your skin and enters the bloodstream and is also known to cause skin allergies. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is also alerting people to the potential danger of the addition of Vitamin A to sunscreen. Listed as retinyl palminate, its primary purpose in sunscreen is as a moisturizer to make it creamier, but its been linked to skin cancer!
Given the issues with conventional chemical sun protection, mineral sunscreens are the best sunscreens available in the US. Generally zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, mineral sunscreens are listed as some of the best by the EWG because they sit on top of the skin rather than being absorbed, don’t break down in the sun like conventional sunscreens, and don’t cause disruptions to hormones. In the 80s zinc oxide was that thick, white stuff equated with lifeguards. They tried to make it cooler in the 90s by adding colors like purple and blue…it didn’t help. Today, mineral lotions use nanoparticles rendering them almost clear. They tend to leave a slight whitish-purple sheen on the skin, but nothing like the white goop of yesteryear.
I personally use California Baby and Badger brand sunscreens, both zinc oxide sunscreens. I like them – I’m already pasty white so I barely even notice the slight haze it leaves behind and frankly, I like knowing where I’ve applied so I don’t miss a spot. I also have these brands in stick form for ears, face, hairlines, etc. I have to admit, I prefer the California Baby over the Badger brand in sticks. The California Baby glides on a little easier with less rubbing in, whereas the Badger seems to have little chunks in it.