Editor’s Note July 2017: We are bringing back this popular article just in time for summer! Find the best sun protection and share the facts with your friends and family with this sunscreen safety 101. Then, head over to Environmental Working Group for its 2017 sunscreen update.

If you’re concerned about the potential health and environmental harm caused by personal care products, the solution is pretty easy. Forgo the fancy lotions, hair gels, nail polish, and perfumes, or opt for products that are legitimately safer (this is sometimes tricky, but often doable).

But the stumbling block I can’t find a way over is sunscreens. I’m fair and have a blue-eyed, blond toddler who loves to swim as much as I do. Sunscreen is a must.

So is there a safe option out there? Yes—except it’s a shirt and hat and big umbrella. For slathered-on sunscreens, the answer is as clouded as the 4th of July in Seattle. In fact, two prominent environmental groups can’t seem to agree on sunscreen safety.

Sunblock 101

But first, let’s start with the less controversial, sun-blocking basics. Some sunscreens use the minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are opaque and physically block radiation, providing the best protection from the sun. Others use ingredients that chemically disarm the harmful rays.

A good sunscreen blocks both ultraviolet B (UVB) and ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation. The SPF rating only addresses UVB and should be 30 or higher (though anything above 30 provides negligible additional protection). For UVA exposure, check the ingredients. Make sure the product contains either zinc or titanium, or for non-mineral sunscreens, look for ingredients called mexoryl or avobenzone.

And while you’re reading product labels, the Environmental Working Group says to avoid oxybenzone (a hormone-disrupting compound) and vitamin A, or retinyl palmitate (a possible carcinogen when exposed to sun).

The sunscreen squabble

So far, so good? Well, not exactly. Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Friends of the Earth (FOE) are in serious disagreement over the mineral sunscreens, the former hailing them as the very best option for chemical safety and sun-blocking coverage, while the latter says to steer clear of the ingredients, which can kill brain cells and are linked to autism and Alzheimer’s disease.

The controversy comes from the fact that the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are nano-sized, measuring 100 nanometers (nm) or more. Why use nanotechnology? Picture a surfer dude or ski bum with a bright white nose coated in zinc oxide, and you’ll know the answer. By shrinking the minerals, the sunscreen becomes more transparent, though it often does retain a whitish sheen.

Sun shirt_Flickr_brent

Toddler in sun shirt, by Brent Roraback, used with permission.

The Environmental Working Group recently released its annual rating of sunscreens, and all of its top picks contained the nano-tech minerals. Leeann Brown, speaking for the nonprofit, explained the group’s support for the nano-tech products in a phone interview:

We looked at the literature on nano-particles and found that the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, when used in lotion sunscreens that we recommend, they don’t appear to penetrate healthy skin.

In a statement Brown emailed me, she went on to say:

Non-mineral sunscreens not only offer weaker broad-spectrum protection, leaving the consumer more exposed to UVA rays, a known human carcinogen, but they also include more potentially hazardous ingredients, many of which are linked to endocrine disruption.

Ultimately, EWG recognizes that sunscreen is a necessary part of full sun protection. We encourage continued research into the safety of the use of nanotechnology in personal care products and will update our recommendations as that research becomes available.

Looking at FOE’s reports, it appears the group’s concerns are based on only a very few studies, which doesn’t mean that more research won’t strengthen these initial findings. There’s also some question about how “nano” is defined and at what size the minerals become a danger. FOE applies it to particles under 300 nm; the ingredients in the sunscreens are 100 nm or larger.

Personally, I’m not sure how to come down on this. EWG is a long-standing leader in reviewing, testing, and rating personal care products. I’ve always seen them as the go-to source if you want to err on the side of caution when it comes to choosing safer shampoos and makeup. But I balance that against a healthy skepticism about how well we understand nano-particles and their lasting effects on human health and the environment.

The pro and con bottom line:

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide:

  • Best protection from the sun
  • Endorsed by a well-regarded, scientifically oriented nonprofit
  • Health safety lambasted by a second environmental nonprofit
  • Less pleasant product to use (this is from a lot of personal experience; I’ve used these sunscreens from a couple of brands, and they’re thick and can be challenging to apply unless you’re aiming for a white-faced Insane Clown Posse look, plus they’ll stain swim suits and shorts)

Chemical sunscreens:

  • Less protection from the sun, particularly UVA
  • Health/environmental risks from chemicals (namely, potential hormone disruption)
  • Easier application

And the best sun protection is…

On a recent trip to Kauai, I determined that the best answer for sun protection for me is a long-sleeved swimming top commonly called a “rash guard” (that name is so yuck—where’s a good marketer when you actually need one?). Mine is from SCUBAPRO and built from a Lycra top with a neoprene front and back for added insulation. It’s warm and, frankly, pretty sexy as sun cover-ups go. My daughter has an iPlay top, also long-sleeved.

That still leaves a need for sun protection for your face, and my toddler was not keen on keeping a big floppy hat on all of the time. For that, I used one of the mineral-based products but am going to buy one of the chemical sunblocks recommended by EWG, so that I can switch back and forth depending on the situation.

Unfortunately, the folks at the US Food and Drug Administration aren’t doing anything to clear the air on all of these questions. Here’s how EWG summarizes the FDA’s role in sunscreen regulation:

The FDA first issued draft sunscreen regulations in 1978 and last updated the draft in 2007. The regulations are still not final, despite multiple announcements of impending completion. Until the agency formally issues its rule, companies are not required to verify that their sunscreens work, including testing for SPF levels, checking waterproof claims or providing UVA protection. Nearly 1 in 8 sunscreens does not block UVA rays.

Additionally, the agency has failed to get retinyl palmitate, or vitamin A, out of the products, despite the fact that it’s carcinogenic when exposed to sunlight. That leaves consumers totally on their own or dependent on research by groups such as EWG and FOE for policing their sun safety.

(Quick post script: I had a friend ask whether sunblock stops the production of vitamin D, which many of us could use a little more of. Here’s an answer from the New York Times.)