Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff

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Jan
25

Sunscreens

Make sure you check out my disclaimers here!

For the last three decades, we’ve been encouraged – implored, really – to use sunscreen all over our bodies and at all times. The message is to apply it heavy and apply it often. Dermatologists, government agencies and, of course, every company that makes sunscreen, has told us that if we didn’t use it, we were destined to get skin cancer.

Lately, we’ve also been told that the chemicals in sunscreen might be dangerous to our bodies and to the environment. Further, recent studies have shown that the likelihood of contracting skin cancer may be more related to our behavior in the sun decades ago than it is from what we do in the sun today.

It’s soooo confusing.

Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of information, much of it contradictory, available via the Internet. I struggled to parse it all, so I spent some time putting together a consolidated look at what is known about sunscreens at this time so I could create bite-sized guidance for how to best use sunscreens . . . or not. As part of this effort I’ve also compiled a short list of products that you might want to consider as well as some you probably want to avoid.

I’ll start off with some background information. Sorry, the explanation involves some science, but I’ll keep it to a minimum. If you’re interested in the science, though, I link to many research papers and articles which formed the basis of this summary.

tl;dr If you just want to see the product recommendations, go here.

UV-A vs UV-B

Ultraviolet light is radiation that comes primarily from the sun and is invisible to humans. The wavelengths of ultraviolet light that hit earth from the sun are between 280nm and 400nm, shorter wavelengths are only found in space or are blocked by the ozone layer (UV-C, for example). The ones we’ve heard a lot about, UV-A and UV-B, have wavelengths of 320nm-400nm and 290nm-320nm, respectively.

Why are wavelengths (the distance between the waves of the radiation) important? Because they impact the way the radiation penetrates the skin. Longer wavelength radiation, which has a lower concentration of waves, penetrate into the skin deeper than shorter wavelength, higher concentration, radiation. So, UV-A penetrates the skin deeper than UV-B radiation.

As a result, UV-B causes sunburn and its associated redness and soreness at the outer layers of skin, but UV-A causes sun damage in deeper layers of skin as a result of cellular damage. So, we get a classic sunburn from UV-B radiation, but many signs of aging are a byproduct of exposure to UV-A radiation.

And yes, just in case you were wondering, you can get sun damage through windows. UV-B wavelengths are absorbed almost completely by transparent glass, but about 70% of UV-A rays penetrate transparent glass. Laminated glass, found in the windshields of cars, blocks almost all UV-A and UV-B light. Tempered glass, found in the side windows of most cars absorbs about 60%-70% of UV-B light, but does not block most UV-A light.

It’s even a worse problem in planes. While the windows in most planes effectively block UVB rays, UVA radiation can still penetrate through and, in fact, may be much more intense at higher altitudes with less atmosphere to filter the radiation.

Furthermore, once either type of UV radiation penetrates glass, it can bounce off reflective surfaces like concrete and metal and scatter throughout a room. As such, you don’t need to have direct sunlight on your skin – even inside – to be subject to some level of UV radiation. Although it degrades quickly .

So, while you’re safe from skin damage behind your car windshield, and you likely won’t get burned through glass, damaging UV-A radiation reaches your skin through most other glass or plastic, even when you’re not directly exposed to the visible light.

Cancer

We wouldn’t even be having this discussion if it weren’t for the threat of the C-word, right?

The big three types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. The first two, basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, make up 95% of all skin cancers and are much less serious than melanoma. They metastasize slowly and are highly curable when found and treated early. Melanoma, on the other hand, is the cause of 75% of all skin cancer deaths. Unlike the other two, it can metastasize rapidly when left untreated and may cause other cancers as a result.

Cumulative sun exposure mainly causes basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer, while frequent sunburns, usually before age 18, can increase the likelihood of developing melanoma. In studies, there is a strong correlation between the number of sunburns that a person had as a child and the incidence of melanoma. It’s not the burn itself that causes skin cancer, it’s the penetration and absorption of radiation from sun exposure that’s associated with that burn. The reason that early exposure has a greater impact is that the damaged skin cells have longer to cause downstream problems.

All that said, the exact causes of melanoma are not completely understood. But there are a variety of risk factors that, of course, include ultraviolet radiation. And, the genetics of skin color, freckles, and moles all highly influence the chances of getting cancer.

FWIW, there is no evidence that sunscreen lotions cause cancer (that may not be the case for nano-particle-ized or sprayed versions – see below).

SPF

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. It’s a less than perfect measurement of the ability of a sunscreen to protect skin from burning from ultraviolet light because it doesn’t control for sun intensity, time of day or other chemicals applied to the body. Roughly, it’s supposed to indicate the amount of additional time one can spend in the sun without burning relative to how long it usually takes them to burn.

So, if a person usually burns in 10 minutes, a product with SPF 15 will allow that person to stay in the sun for 150 minutes – 10 X 15 = 150. More technically, an SPF 15 sunscreen will only allow 1/15 of the burning rays of the sun to reach the skin, assuming the application of 2mg/square centimeter of the sunscreen is applied.

In reality, this level of protection never happens. Sweat, water, poor application, and insufficient application all lead to far less coverage than the SPF prescribes.

To make matters even more complicated, the SPF scale is not linear:

  • SPF 15 blocks 93% of UV-B rays
  • SPF 30 blocks 97% of UV-B rays
  • SPF 50 blocks 98% of UV-B rays

So, SPF 100 gives you very little more protection than SPF 50 and is not that much more than SPF 15.

All that is enough to make the SPF scale almost irrelevant, but the nail in the coffin for it is that it only covers skin burning. That is, UV-B blocking or absorbing. It completely disregards protection from UV-A radiation. Even when the sunscreen says “broad spectrum” implying that both UV-A and UV-B radiation is blocked or absorbed, the SPF on the label almost never applies to the amount of UV-A protection.

Yeah, really.

Two Broad Types of Sunscreen

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of sunscreen – mineral sunscreens (also called physical sunscreens) and chemical sunscreens. For the most part, mineral sunscreens block, deflect or scatter the sun’s rays. They sit on the skin and prevent radiation from entering the skin. Think of mineral sunscreens as liquid clothing. They usually use a combination of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as their active ingredients.

Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, usually absorb the sun’s rays, converting the energy into other forms or other chemicals. Unlike mineral sunscreens, they don’t sit on the skin. Instead, they get absorbed into it. Chemical sunscreens use a combination of usually two or more of the chemicals oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.

Some of these chemicals are chosen because they absorb well, others because they react to specific wavelengths of light and some because of their stability. In all cases, absorption is key. They only work when absorbed. One of the advantages of this is that they go on clear and can be formulated to be dry to the touch and not leave a shiny, sticky layer on the skin. They also generally spread easily and are relatively easy to use so that they provide complete skin coverage.

The mineral sunscreens are barely absorbed and sit on top of the skin. Since they form a physical block, they usually go on thick, like a film or paste. They are much harder to spread than chemical screens and, therefore, are harder to apply for complete coverage. Aesthetically, they’re more noticeable too and this sometimes keeps people from reapplying them as often as they should.

What Can Go Wrong?

The problem with mineral sunscreens is that they don’t cover well, so people often leave parts of their body with little or even no protection. Sometimes, this inconvenience keeps people from using mineral sunscreens. There is also some data that shows that Titanium Dioxide can be found in the bloodstream in small amounts after applying. But, in very small amounts and with no known deleterious impact on the body.

Chemical sunscreens are far more problematic. It all starts with absorption into the skin which is required for them to function. Like many things applied to the skin, components of them ultimately get into the bloodstream and work their way to other parts of the body. To be clear, this isn’t unique to sunscreens. Much of the makeup, moisturizer, cologne, perfume, and topical medications you use find their way inside your body.

Most of the chemicals used in sunscreens can be found not only in the blood, but in urine and breast milk after being used. Some of them can be found days and even weeks after the sunscreen is applied.

According to a recent randomized study that involved people applying sunscreens as specified on the bottle,

  • Researchers found that all of the active ingredients in chemical sunscreens had concentrations greater than 0.5 nanograms (ng) per millimeter (mL) of blood plasma soon after application, which is the FDA’s threshold.
  • All of the ingredients remained above the threshold at day seven, and plasma levels of homosalate and oxybenzone (two of the nastier sunscreen ingredients) continued to remain above the threshold on day 21.   
  • The highest number seen was the plasma concentration for oxybenzone (see more about oxybenzone, below) on day four, which was 180.1 ng/mL after some participants used an aerosol spray with the ingredient.

The fact that these chemicals get inside is important. The fact that they stick around, even more so. But the real issue is what they do once they get inside. While there’s a lot of data on this, some of it is contradictory. Some studies show that all of them create problems and some show that some of them are safe. The FDA is of little help in this matter (see more below) saying that more research is required to pass judgement on most of them.

There seems to be three problems that are precipitated by most of the sunscreen chemicals in use.

  • Allergic reactions – Not internal, but many people can have a reaction that can range from a slight rash to hives.
  • Endocrine disruption – This is the big one and the cause for greatest concern. Many chemicals used in sunscreens demonstrably effect levels and absorption of estrogen, androgens and progesterone.
  • Environmental issues – Negative effects on wildlife and fauna

In terms of the environmental concerns, a 2015 study led to a ban of oxybenxzone and octinoxate-containing sunscreens in Palau, Hawaii, Aruba, Bonaire and Key West. Other data shows that it’s pretty clear that the minerals and chemicals used in sunscreens have at least some environmental impact. Another recent study found, for example, that octocrylene caused DNA damage in various aquatic animals. And, it’s not just the chemical sunscreens that are causing problems, Titanium Dioxide can now be measured in high concentrations near many beaches harming the wildlife around them.

The evidence for hormonal disruption is, unfortunately, even stronger. Most of the testing has been in animal models, but there are several reasonable studies on humans as well. While there is clear evidence that there is disruption to both estrogen and progesterone, primarily effecting woman (although there is some impact on men as well), the most profound changes appear to be in testosterone levels, primarily in men (although changes in testosterone happen in women, but they don’t have the same impact).

Disturbingly, fetuses absorb the sunscreen chemicals when their mothers use them. This appears to be particularly bad for male fetuses because the chemicals impact testosterone production while in the womb. Additionally, women who use sunscreen while breastfeeding pass some of the chemicals to their children through their breast milk as well. The ingested chemicals along with the hormonal changes generated by the sunscreen chemicals in the mother can potentially disrupt the endocrine system of babies.

The problem is not limited to women’s bodies. There is also evidence that many of the chemicals used in sunscreens can mimic the effects of progesterone in men. Increases in progesterone has been shown to weaken sperm by changing the inner workings of sperm cells.

Ingredients

Not all sunscreen ingredients are the same. Not only is their impact on the body different, but each chemical blocks or absorbs different wavelengths of UV light. What we want in our sunscreens are chemicals working together to block a large part of the spectrum while not impacting our health in any negative way,

As you can see from the chart below, Zinc Oxide, a mineral sunscreen, blocks almost all of the UV spectrum that effects humans. It also doesn’t get absorbed into the skin and doesn’t have any health concerns associated with it. So, why doesn’t all sunscreen just have Zinc Oxide? Because you need a putty knife to put it on in most formulations and, as a result, is difficult to apply correctly. It also leaves a white cast on your skin that many find unsightly.

Oxybenzone, a chemical sun absorber, also does a good job throughout the UV spectrum. Unfortunately, it’s also just about the most dangerous chemical used in sunscreens, causing clear and profound hormonal disruption.

Image by The Environmental Working Group

Here’s a list of most of the minerals and chemicals used in today’s sunscreens and why they’re good or bad. The ratings used are from the SkinDeep Database created by The Environmental Working Group.

Minerals

  • Zinc Oxide
    • LOW RISK according to the Environmental Working Group
    • Broad spectrum UV-A and UV-B coverage
    • Does not get absorbed into the skin (nano particle versions can be absorbed – see below)
    • Goes on very thick – hard to spread
    • Leaves a white cast on the skin in most formulations
    • Is sometimes tinted, especially in moisturizers, so the color of the mineral is closer to the user’s skin color.
  • Titanium Dioxide
    • LOW RISK according to the Environmental Working Group
    • Better at blocking UV-B light than UV-A
    • Does not get absorbed into the skin (see Nano-particle versions later)
    • Goes on very thick – hard to spread
    • Leaves a white cast on the skin in most formulations
    • Is sometimes tinted, especially in moisturizers, so the color of the mineral is closer to the user’s skin color.

Chemicals

  • Oxybenzone
    • HIGH RISK according to the Environmental Working Group
    • It’s the most worrisome chemical. A weak estrogen disruptor and has anti-androgenic effects
    • The CDC routinely detects Oxybenzone in more than 96% of Americans in studies.
    • Especially bad for kids, primarily developing boys
    • Changes shown in male fetuses when used by pregnant women.
    • Shown to decrease testosterone in adult men
    • After using, it appears quickly in breast milk
    • Rapidly absorbed through skin into bloodstream
  • Octinoxate
    • HIGH RISK according to the Environmental Working Group
    • Shown to be a broad endocrine disruptor in animal studies
    • Absorbed through skin and found in urine and breast milk
  • Encapsulated Octinoxate
    • Not rated by the Environmental Working Group
    • Appears to offer the same protection – mostly UV-B – as Octinoxate, but is encapsulated in silica gel so it sits on the skin rather than penetrating it.
    • Potentially a replacement or addition to Titanium Dioxide
    • Seems a bit like a nano-particle, but the claim is that it does not penetrate the skin
    • Not a known endocrine disruptor
    • Very little data is available describing the impact of the encapsulated form
  • Homosalate
    • MODERATE RISK according to the Environmental Working Group
    • Primarily a UV-B blocker, little UV-A coverage
    • Found in breast milk and urine after use
    • Disrupts estrogen, androgen and progesterone
  • Octisalate
    • MODERATE RISK according to the Environmental Working Group
    • Primarily a UV-B blocker, little UV-A coverage
    • Often used to stabilize Avobenzone
    • Mild skin penetration
    • Traces found in urine and breast milk
    • Little to no evidence of endocrine disruption
  • Octocrylene
    • MODERATE RISK according to the Environmental Working Group
    • Primarily a UV-B blocker, little UV-A coverage
    • Mild skin penetration
    • Little evidence of endocrine disruption
  • Avobenzone
    • LOW RISK according to the Environmental Working Group
    • One of the few full-spectrum chemical sunscreens
    • Low skin penetration
    • No evidence of endocrine disruption (most studies failed to find any, but there are a couple of studies that say there is some hormonal effect)
    • Only remains protective for about 30 minutes. While it’s relatively safe, it often needs to be coupled with less safe ingredients like octocrylene, homosalate, or octisalate to extend its protection.
  • Mexoryl SX (Ecamsule)
    • LOW RISK according to the Environmental Working Group
    • Appears to block UV-B and some of the UV-A spectrum
    • Used in Canada and Europe, not in many American products
    • Does not penetrate the skin
    • No evidence of endocrine disruption (most studies failed to find any, but there are a couple of studies that say there is some hormonal effect)
  • Meradimate
    • Very little data available
    • Protects from UV-A radiation
    • Used in European sunscreens, not used much in American products
    • Not a known endocrine disruptor

Other Ingredients – Inactive but Perhaps not Benign

So far, I’ve only talked about the “active ingredients” in sunscreens, but most products have many other components.

  • Anti-inflammatories are often added to sunscreens. They’re included to reduce the redness and swelling associated with burning. As such, they effectively increase the SPF value of the sunscreen by delaying the onset of a sunburn. BUT, they don’t block or absorb the sun’s rays which still hit the skin and impact skin cells. They change the superficial reaction of the body. We think we’re protected, but we’re not. In this way, they’re very dangerous since they remove the clues that indicate we’ve been in the sun too long.
  • Some antioxidants, including vitamin A, are added to appeal to some sunscreen users. But, when exposed to the sun’s UV rays, many of them break down and produce destructive free radicals that are toxic to cells, damage DNA, and may lead to cancer. In fact, FDA studies have shown that retinyl palimitate may speed the development of malignant cells and skin tumors when applied to skin before sun exposure. So, avoid these additives:
    • Glycolic acid
    • Lactic acid
    • Retinol
    • Retinoic acid
    • Retinyl acetate 
    • Retinyl linoleate
    • Retinyl palmitate
    • Vitamin A
  • Insect repellents in combination with sunscreens are dangerous and should be avoided. The chemicals used to increase absorption of the sunscreen enhance the absorption of the insect repellent as well. This forces more of the active ingredients of the insect repellent into the body faster and at higher concentrations than intended. Applying the combination as often as sunscreen should be applied increases the concentrations of insect repellent even further.
  • The jury is out about many of the other ingredients, although it’s pretty clear that methylisothiozolinone causes an allergic reaction in many people.

Concentrations

Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are often thrown in for good measure so that the manufacturer can claim, “natural ingredients,” “mineral sunscreen” or something similar. While mineral ingredients are good, if their concentration is low, they won’t offer the coverage that’s needed.

For example, a couple of the products I reviewed below have <=5% Zinc Oxide. That’s not enough to offer the UV-A coverage that the manufacturer wants you to think is in there.

What are the right concentrations of ingredients? Well, there’s not much available information, but here are some guidelines. The right column indicates the SPF that comes from 1% of a specific active ingredient. For example, a sunscreen with 10% Octinoxate and no other chemicals or minerals has an SPF of 28. A sunscreen with 15% Zinc Oxide alone has an SPF of 22.5.

For UV-B protection:

Filter/BlockerSPF Units/1% Active
Octinoxate2.8
Homosalate1.5
Titanium Dioxide2.6
Octisalate1.6
Oxybenzone2.3
Octocrylene2.1

For UV-A protection:

Filter/BlockerSPF Units/1% Active
Avobenzone2.8
Zinc Oxide1.5

So, what does this mean? It means there needs to be high concentrations of these chemicals/minerals to get the SPF into an acceptable range. And, to get adequate UV-A protection, there needs to be a lot of Avobenzone or Zinc Oxide included as well.

A mineral only sunscreen, for example, needs to be 20% Zinc Oxide to reach SPF 30 if that’s the only ingredient. If it has less than 20% Zinc Oxide, Titanium Dioxide (or Encapsulated Octinoxate – which, as mentioned earlier, is a new form and has very little data to support it’s safety or efficacy) has to be added to compensate for the shortfall. Titanium Dioxide offers a higher SPF per percentage of ingredient, but does not provide UV-A coverage. The two ingredients must be combined to make a good mineral sunscreen.

For chemical sunscreens, the SPF per percentage of active ingredient is higher, so lower percentages can provide higher SPF ratings. That said, some Avobenzone must be included to provide UV-A protection in all-chemical sunscreens since it’s the only solid chemical UV-A absorber.

Nano-Particles (aka Micronized Formulations)

In order to deal with the problems of mineral sunscreen application – thick and hard to spread – as well as the white cast the minerals leave, many manufacturers nano-particle-ize their mineral formulations. All that means is that they make the particles of their sunscreens really, really small. That makes them easier to spread and keeps them from creating a white mask when they’re applied.

The problem with nano-particles is that by making the particles very small, much of the protection available by the mineral is lost. Nano-particle-ized Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide, for example can get absorbed into the skin defeating their advantage of blocking the sun before it gets to the skin in the first place. Consider also that Titanium Dioxide in nano-particle form is believed to induce oxidative stress resulting in cellular damage.

Nano-particle-ized formulations may also provide less coverage because the transparency of the formulation encourages the user to apply a thinner layer than prescribed.

So, while nano-particle formulations seem to offer the advantage of easy to apply mineral sunscreen, in fact, they do so only by reducing coverage and making the product more dangerous.

Where Does the FDA Stand?

FDA regulation is between weak and non-existent, although it appears to be improving. Some literature indicates that the FDA is so afraid of scaring people away from sunscreen that they are hesitant to make any broad proclamations.

Earlier this year, the FDA released a proposal for new sunscreen regulations. For the most part, it says that more study is needed before they pass judgement. This, unsurprisingly, puts the US way behind Europe, Australia and Canada in regulating sunscreens.

The Agency still offered a few conclusions that are important to consider now:

  • The FDA says 12/14 chemical filters are GRASE (Generally Recognized as Safe and Effective)
  • Aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and Trolamine Salicylate are unsafe according to the FDA
  • Cinoxate, Dioxybenzone, Ensulizole, Homosalate, Meradimate, Octinoxate, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Padimate O, Sulisobenzone, Axybenzone, and Afvobenzone are all considered to have insufficient data to pass judgement.
    • Somehow, Oxybenzone, which is clearly bad, still doesn’t warrant an unsafe designation.
  • Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide are GRASE
  • The maximum labeled SPF is SPF 60+

I’d encourage you not to wait around for the FDA and don’t follow labels that state a product is FDA approved. That’s almost useless. There is plenty of data around to remove some chemicals from the GRASE list. Just ask your favorite lobbyist.

Aerosol Sunscreen

I’ve broken out aerosol sunscreens because they deserve a category of their own. They are the least studied of all delivery methods, but everything that has been researched is very bad. It’s not only that they’re bad because of what’s in them or what’s used to aerosolize them, but in addition to their impact on the skin, they get inhaled and sprayed into the environment.

We barely know what the many sunscreens do on our skin, we know much less about what they do once they’re in our lungs. It’s not gonna be a good thing. For example, research shows that Titanium Dioxide nano-particles, when inhaled, can cross the blood-brain barrier.

We do know that sunscreens that are sprayed on the skin appear in the blood for longer periods than those spread on. By itself, that might not be a problem, but with all the evidence about the chemicals in sunscreens causing hormonal disruption, having the stuff stick around probably isn’t a good idea.

Did I mention that you inhale these chemicals too? Yes, of course I did, because it deserves to be mentioned multiple times. The interaction between the chemicals in sunscreens with the tissues of our respiratory tracts can’t possibly be good.

Lip Balm

Lip balm also gets its own category. The chemicals in lip balms with sunscreen have all the same issues as those you put over the rest of your body, but they have the additional complication of being ingested. At the very least, they make it into your mouth and probably esophagus. There is very little research on the effects of these chemicals when inside your body, as I’ve mentioned, but it can’t be great.

Products

Finding good products is difficult. First, you have to have the basic information that you’ve read here. Then, you still need to look at each product to apply what you’ve learned. There are no good brands, unfortunately, each product is different. It’s not unusual, for example, for one product from a company using only Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide and the one right next to it on the shelf from the same company using Oxybenzone as its main ingredient. You have to read the ingredients.

After reading this far, you may be saying to yourself that you’re just going to look at mineral sunscreens because they’re the safest. For the most part, they’re also hard to apply and getting good coverage, especially on squirmy kids, can be a major challenge. Also, they can make you look like a white ghost on the beach. You might as well just wear clothes, which is, of course, a reasonable option (don’t forget to supplement with vitamin D, though).

When evaluating products, I’d suggest that you use the following criteria:

  1. Does it do a good job protecting you?
    • Does it offer full UV-A and UV-B protection
    • Is the SPF at least 15 (remember that this doesn’t say anything about UV-A protection)?
    • Does it use anti-inflammatories to artificially increase the SPF value? It shouldn’t.
  2. Will it harm you
    • Is it an endocrine disruptor?
    • Will it harm the environment?
    • Does it contain antioxidants, especially vitamin A? It shouldn’t.
    • Do you get an allergic reaction from any of the components of the sunscreen?
    • Are you pregnant or breastfeeding? Just stay out of the sun, if so.
    • Will you inhale it? Don’t use aerosols.
  3. Will it harm the environment? Sprays are the worst, but other chemicals come off in the water.
  4. What form does it come in?
    • Lotion? The best and pretty standard.
    • Aerosol? Bad. Just bad.
    • Powders? Not enough data.
  5. How does it spread?
    • Does it go on easily and cover well or is it thick and difficult to apply (do you need a trowel to apply it?)?
  6. How does it look and feel?
    • Does it blend into your skin transparently or does it leave a residue?
    • Does it leave a greasy or sticky feel after spreading?

I used this criteria to select several products to find the best combination of protection, safety, application, feel and look. I included chemical and mineral-based sunscreens and some that contain both. The list is hardly complete. I focused on full body sunscreens and facial moisturizer/sunscreen combinations. The latter one because people often want to wear something on their face to protect it all day whether or not they’re spending significant time in the sun.

The notes section in the table will explain what I think is good and bad about each product. The tests were not done in a lab, but I used data from scientific experiments involving the products as well as widely available reviews of each product to guide me in my choice of options. FWIW, I’ve actually tried each of these products and have added my thoughts to the descriptions of each one.

If the spreadsheet is unwieldy in your browser setup (the second icon from the right at the bottom left of the spreadsheet will expand it in it’s own browser tab, if you’re interested), you may want to skip it and check out the text descriptions below it.

Lip Balms

  • Blistex Medicated Balm
    • Labeled SPF 15, Calculated SPF 9
    • Little UV-A Coverage
    • Endocrine disruptor
    • Easy to spread, no color cast
    • Low SPF, little UV-A coverage and an endocrine disruptor. Move on.
  • Burt’s Bees 100% Natural All-Weather
    • Labeled SPF 15, Calculated SPF 18
    • Reasonable UV-A Coverage
    • Not an endocrine disruptor
    • Easy to spread, leaves a white cast
    • A bit of white cast and doesn’t moisturize well, but the best lip balm I’ve found.
  • Badger Balm Broad Spectrum Sunscreen Lip Balm Stick
    • Labeled SPF 18, Calculated SPF 13
    • Reasonable UV-A Coverage
    • Not an endocrine disruptor
    • Difficult to spread, leaves a white cast
    • The white cast is really annoying and it tastes bad. Don’t bother.

Facial Moisturizers

  • Skincare Physician’s Skincare Prescription
    • Labeled SPF 15, Calculated SPF 21
    • No UV-A Coverage
    • Endocrine disruptor
    • Easy to spread, non-greasy, no white cast
    • This was recommended and sold by a dermatologist. No UV-A coverage and an endocrine disruptor. Pass on this one.
  • Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer
    • Labeled SPF 15, Calculated SPF 27
    • Little UV-A Coverage
    • Potential endocrine disruptor
    • Easy to spread, non-greasy, no white cast
    • As chemical sunscreens go, this may be the best. Not enough UV-A coverage, Avobenzone needs to be applied frequently and it interacts with Chlorine.
  • Cerave AM Facial Moisturizing Lotion
    • Labeled SPF 30, Calculated N/A
    • Reasonable UV-A Coverage
    • Endocrine disruptor
    • Easy to spread, non-greasy, no white cast
    • Endocrine disruptor. Don’t bother.
  • Eucerin Daily Protection
    • Labeled SPF 30, Calculated SPF N/A
    • No UV-A Coverage
    • Endocrine disruptor
    • Easy to spread, non-greasy, no white cast
    • Little data available on Ensulizole. No UV-A coverage and Endocrine disruptor. Don’t bother.
  • COOLA Mineral Sun Silk Cream
    • Labeled SPF 30, Calculated SPF 24
    • Good UV-A Coverage
    • Not an endocrine disruptor
    • Easy to spread, greasy, sticky, slight white cast that can be rubbed in
    • Uses anti-inflammatories to increase SPF
    • Can get a little greasy on people with oily skin and lower SPF than advertised, but the best overall moisturizing facial sunscreens I’ve found.
  • Garnier Skin Active Clearly Brighter
    • Labeled SPF 30, Calculated SPF 36
    • Insufficient UV-A Coverage
    • Endocrine disruptor
    • Easy to spread, non-greasy, no white cast
    • Little UV-A coverage and endocrine disruptor. Don’t bother.
  • Cerave Ultra-Light Moisturizing Lotion
    • Labeled SPF 30, Calculated SPF 34
    • No UV-A Coverage
    • Endocrine disruptor
    • Easy to spread, non-greasy, no white cast
    • No UV-A coverage and endocrine disruptor. Don’t bother.

Facial Sunscreens

  • COOLA Mineral Sunscreen Matte Labeled SPF 30, Calculated SPF 20
    • Reasonable UV-A Coverage
    • Not an endocrine disruptor
    • Easy to spread, goes on dry feeling
    • A good sunscreen with lower SPF than advertised. Make sure you get the new formula with 8.3% Zinc Oxide. Among the best available.
  • Think Sport Mineral Sunscreen Tint
    • Labeled SPF 30, Calculated SPF 32
    • Excellent UV-A Coverage
    • Not an endocrine disruptor
    • Reasonable to spread, tinted to avoid white cast
    • A very good sunscreen with good SPF and high UV-A protection. You have to be OK dealing with the tint. They have lots of tint color to match your skin. Among the best available.
  • CyberDerm Natural Every Morning Sun Whip Facial Sunscreen
    • Labeled SPF 25, Calculated SPF 45
    • Good UV-A Coverage
    • Not an endocrine disruptor
    • Not much information available about Encapsulated Octinoxate.
    • Needs a little rubbing in to avoid a white cast, but not difficult to spread.
    • Solid UV-A coverage. High SPF. Goes on a little oily, but remains fairly dry. If you’re OK with the lack of information on encapsulated Octinoxate, this is a winner.

Body Moisturizers

  • La Roche-Posay Anthios SX Daily Moisturizing Cream
    • Labeled SPF 15, Calculated SPF N/A
    • Minimal UV-A Coverage
    • Possible endocrine disruptor
    • Easy to spread, non-greasy, no white cast????
    • One of the few products using Ecamsule. Not much data.
    • This could be good, but too little data.
  • Olay Complete Sensitive
    • Labeled SPF 15, Calculated SPF 7
    • Minimal UV-A Coverage
    • Endocrine disruptor
    • Easy to spread, non-greasy, no white cast
    • Very low SPF and an endocrine disruptor. Don’t bother.

Body Sunscreens

  • La Roche-Posay Anthelios 50
    • Labeled SPF 50, Calculated SPF 24
    • Minimal UV-A Coverage
    • Not an endocrine disruptor
    • Easy to spread, non-greasy, no white cast
    • Nano-particle formulation
    • Nano-particles make this a non-starter.
  • Cerave Hydrating Sunscreen
    • Labeled SPF 50, Calculated SPF 35
    • Reasonable UV-A Coverage
    • Not an endocrine disruptor
    • Difficult to spread, a bit greasy, white cast
    • A good sunscreen with lower SPF than advertised, but difficult to use.
  • Banana Boat Simply Protect Sport
    • Labeled SPF 50, Calculated SPF 26
    • Reasonable UV-A Coverage
    • Endocrine disruptor
    • Difficult to spread, a bit greasy, white cast
    • Lower SPF than advertised and an endocrine disruptor. Difficult to use.
  • Blue Lizard Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen
    • Labeled SPF 30, Calculated SPF 29
    • Reasonable UV-A Coverage
    • Not an endocrine disruptor
    • Difficult to spread, a bit greasy, white cast ?????
    • A good mineral sunscreen with solid SPF and adequate UV-A coverage. A bit difficult to apply, but does rub in clear with a little effort. One of the best available.
  • COOLA Organic Mineral Body Sunscreen
    • Labeled SPF 30, Calculated SPF 22
    • Good UV-A Coverage
    • Not an endocrine disruptor
    • Difficult to spread, a bit greasy, white cast ?????
    • A good mineral sunscreen with solid UV-A coverage, but lower than advertised SPF. Goes on relatively easily and blends in. Among the best available.

Just Tell Me What To Buy

Damn it! Just tell me what to buy already (if you haven’t looked at my disclaimers , now would be a good time) …

For lip balm, get Burt’s Bees 100% Natural All-Weather. It goes on a bit white, but blends in with a little rubbing. It also doesn’t moisturize for an extended period, so you’ll need to re-cover, which is probably appropriate anyway. It’s the best balance of ultra-violet coverage and aesthetics in a lip balm.

For a facial sunscreen, Think Sport Mineral Sunscreen Tint, has the best ultra-violet coverage and goes on fairly easily. You have to deal with the tint, though. It’s not bad, but it’s a personal choice. As a backup, try COOLA Mineral Sunscreen Matte. Like the Think Sport, it goes on dry and doesn’t get greasy. It also blends well without a tint. For a facial moisturizer, COOLA Mineral Sun Silk Cream is the best one I’ve found. It goes on easily, but gets a little greasy after a while on people with oily skin. Keep in mind that you can use a non-sunscreen moisturizer on your face, then apply one of the facial sunscreens. Also, both COOLA products have anti-inflammatories that increase the perceived SPF without giving you more protection.

Finally, for a full body sunscreen, both the Blue Lizard Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen and the COOLA Organic Mineral Body Sunscreen offer a good combination of ultra-violet coverage, ease of application and transparency. As with the other COOLA products mentioned, the actual SPF is lower than what is on the label because of the addition of anti-inflammatory ingredients. Still, when applied frequently, it offers enough of both UV-B and UV-A coverage in an easy-to-apply formulation.

The Blue Lizard offers great protection across the UV spectrum. It’s a bit more difficult to apply than the COOLA, but with a moderate amount of rubbing, loses it’s white shade and remains clear.

Conclusions

Yes, you can find sunscreens that work well, apply relatively easily and don’t make you look like a circus clown or The Joker. Generally speaking, they’re not the ones you normally find on the shelves at your local CVS or Walgreens. Still, they’re relatively easy to get when you know what you’re looking for.

Here are some overall sunscreen guidelines:

  1. Use sunscreen when you need to. It’s not worth the cancer risk.
  2. Don’t use sunscreen if you don’t need it. It’s just not worth exposing your body to the chemicals in it (even the minerals) if you don’t need protection.
  3. SPF ratings have nothing to do with UV-A coverage. Make sure you get both UV-B and UV-A coverage in your sunscreen (the broad spectrum label is virtually meaningless).
  4. Very few sunscreen ingredients offer UV-A coverage. Make sure there is adequate Zinc Oxide or Avobenzone in the product to protect against UV-A radiation.
  5. Most sunscreens have chemicals that absorb into your bloodstream and are endocrine disruptors.
  6. Mineral sunscreens are often hard to apply and leave a white cast on your skin. That’s more than an aesthetic problem. It makes it difficult to fully cover and, therefore, protect your body with the product.
  7. Some sunscreens contain anti-inflammatory ingredients that artificially boost the SPF rating without adding more protection to your skin.
  8. Apply sunscreens frequently for best protection

For those of you who really want to geek out, read this excellent article.

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 January 25th, 2020  
 Will  
 Health and Fitness  
 ,   
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What do you think?

Disclaimer 1: This is not medical advice. I'm not your doctor. In fact, I'm not anyone's doctor. And, really, should you be taking advice about anything, let alone stuff you put into your body, from strangers on the Internet? These are experiments I've run on myself to see what will happen. If you choose to follow my lead, you do so at your own risk. YMMV. Even significantly.

Disclaimer 2: I am not affiliated with the companies or individuals who offer any of the products I mention here. If I've said I've tried something, I mention it without encouragement from the supplier. If I say I like something or that it worked for me, I do so without even a pat on the ass for doing so. If you’re one of the suppliers I mention, I'm completely willing to be rewarded for the mention. It won't change my opinion, or what I say about your product, but it would be an equitable exchange. Don't you think? Just sayin'.

Disclaimer 3: If you click on any of the links about products and you ultimately choose to buy one or more from the site the link forwards you to, I may get a small percentage of the price of that product as an affiliate or associate. Right now, this is only true with Amazon. All the money - and I mean all the pennies I get - will be donated to various appropriate charities at the end of each year. I'm a lab rat for my own personal interest, not to make money.