The Scoop on Sunscreens

Not all lotions are created equal. Here are five top approved products that pass the test for safe, effective sun protection.


Whatever the destination, the traveler’s wish is always for good weather. But sun worship packs a major risk for skin cancer, and especially if, like me, you come from a long line of fair-skinned freckling types, you’re probably packing a bottle or two of sunscreen every time you leave the shade of your home.

While UV-protective clothing does the trick for many parts of the body, those of us who like to bare a little skin in the summer months rely on lotions for more complete protection. For children and teens—those less likely to suffer the indignity of a sun hat, but whose young skin is more at risk for long-term damage—sunscreen is a must-have accessory. But how safe and effective are these products? As it turns out, the answer could use some daylight itself.

Sunscreens have come a long way since the white-nosed zinc-oxide days of yore—today they are sold in foam, spray and powder forms, as well as lotion; they absorb quickly; and they resist water and sweat. Many use synthetic chemicals, while others rely on tiny nanoparticles of zinc or titanium that offer quick absorption without leaving a visible residue. But oversight of the industry has not kept up with scientific and market advances. Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally proposed last August new regulations for sunscreens that would require a rating system and better labeling, it has stalled on putting the plan into effect while it wades through public comments on its plans.

The Not-So-Sunny Side of Sunscreen

In the meantime, companies have been left to self-regulate. In July, the nonprofit consumer organization, Environmental Working Group, released a report that analyzes nearly 1,000 available sunscreens and found that most overstate their effectiveness and contain potentially hazardous chemicals, such as oxybenzone, a possible hormone disruptor, or ensulizole, which produces cancer-causing free radicals when exposed to sunlight (oh, irony). EWG’s worst offenders include top-selling products from brand leaders like Coppertone, Banana Boat and Neutrogena.

Some studies have shown that UV-blocking compounds in sunscreens contribute to the bleaching of coral reefs when it inevitably washes off and ends up in the ocean (including from your post-beach shower). Still other groups have raised alarms about the safety of nanoparticles, particularly in sprays that are more likely to be inhaled. Industry and brand representatives have countered that their products are safe, far safer than going without, and who can argue that?

Smart Sun Protection Shopping

So much debate over a product designed for protection is troubling, but it’s no reason to give up the bottle. Many good options are out on store shelves, and the EWG lists 143 low hazard products on its Web site, from brands including California Baby, Skinceuticals, Lavera, Kiss My Face, CVS and Walgreens. Here are a few other tips for your sunscreen shopping:

  • Be aware of misleading language on product packaging. No sunblock blocks all sun, is completely waterproof or chemical-free.
  • SPF numbers refer only to sunburn-causing UVB rays, not to equally damaging UVA rays. Even products claiming “broad-spectrum protection” may not have the ingredients to back that boast up.
  • Applying a sufficient amount of sunscreen, and reapplying throughout a day of activity, is more important than using a high SPF—products graded higher than 30 offer limited additional protection.

Safer Selections

These products ranked in the green zone on the Environmental Working Group’s sunscreen database:

California Baby Sunscreen Lotion No Fragrance, SPF 30+

Perfect for sensitive skin, this popular sunscreen uses titanium dioxide and is water-resistant for more than an hour of swim time.

Lavera Sunblock Baby & Children, SPF 30

German cosmetics company Lavera makes this kid-friendly lotion, which provides UVA and UVB protection and uses organic peach and apricot oil, as well as calendula. The company does not use nanoparticles in its products.

UV Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30+

UV Natural contains all-natural, vegan ingredients and is good for up to 40 minutes in the water. Lotion contains nanoparticles of coated zinc oxide.

Badger Sunscreen, SPF 30

Badger uses zinc oxide and a mix of aromatic organic ingredients in this water-resistant balm, including shea butter, blood orange oil and seabuckthorn berry extract.

Skinceuticals Physical UV Defense, SPF 30

This oil- and fragrance-free option is formulated to reduce the whitening effect when applied. Active ingredients include both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

Themes: Family Travel

User Comments

Protect Your Epidermis! I had no idea that "safe" sunscreen contained so many potentially hazardous chemicals. I tend to lean towards more organic, natural products in general, but I'll definitely be more conscious about my skincare purchases in the future. Great article.

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