First and foremost, spring and summer mean sun. We all know we need some of it (sunshine enables our body to absorb vitamin D, which is essential for bone density and a strong immune system), but there’s also the sun’s not-so-healthy aspect: skin cancer. Since 1975, rates of melanoma—the deadliest kind of skin cancer—have tripled, reaching nearly one-quarter of the population, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Adolescents and young adults have been particularly hard hit, with the rate of the cancer among teens growing at a rate of two percent per year between 1973 and 2009, according to one 2013 study. Using a tanning bed and as little as one bad sunburn can dramatically increase your lifetime risk.
Fortunately, a good sunscreen can help. (The best defense against skin cancer, though, is still avoiding the sun, especially during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) But for the times you do need or want to be outside, how do you choose a good sunscreen? The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has made that task easier with its just-released EWG’s 2013 Guide to Sunscreens. Unlike a lot of other “best of” roundups, this list of top-rated sunscreens and related products—it includes moisturizers, lip balms, and makeup—not only features products that work to protect you against some damaging UV rays, but also the best of these products—the ones that have earned the EWG’s lowest ratings—that are also low in harmful chemicals.
One of the lines featured in three out of four of the EWG’s categories is Ava Anderson NonToxic, a line of 122 personal care products and cosmetics developed by 19-year-old Ava Anderson. When she launched in 2009 with her mom, Kim, then-15-year-old Ava wanted to create skincare that really worked, but without toxic ingredients. Her inspiration? Mother and daughter had watched a news segment highlighting an EWG study of chemicals found in teenagers. “Every teen tested positive for every ingredient,” says Ava. “We were both shocked,” Kim remembers.
After seeing the news report, Ava went to a local drugstore and health food store figuring that, as she says, “I could buy my way out of this. But then I started researching ingredients.” Her research went on for the better part of a year; when she was done, she told her parents, “I’m not satisfied with what’s available. I want to start my own line of nontoxic products.”
Ava now hosts house parties sponsored by her brand to help people learn about toxins and to sample and buy healthy nontoxic products at reduced cost. Ava and Kim have also made numerous trips to Capitol Hill to educate legislators on the toxins in personal care products, which are neither regulated nor adequately tested for their health effects. “Most people, even Congresspeople, have no idea of the chemicals we are exposed to and their risks to our health,” Kim says. If it’s passed, the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2013 will introduce these protections for the first time.
If it's passed, the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2013 would help make clear to consumers which harmful chemicals are in the products we use.
When it comes to choosing healthy sun-care products, it helps to have a bit of information about what’s in these products so you can purchase wisely. First, both traditional sunscreen and other products with SPF contain many of the same questionable chemicals found in other personal care and cosmetic products, such as parabens (which are carcinogenic) and retinyl palmitate (which actually increases sun sensitivity, yet is used in many products). The active ingredients in sunscreens are either minerals—principally titanium or zinc oxide—or chemicals like oxybenzone and oxtinoxate, which are endocrine (hormone) disruptors that “are toxic to reproductive systems or interfere with normal development,” EWG researchers found. Choosing products with a score of two or less on the EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens will help you avoid them. The lower the number on the EWG’s list, the less toxic the product; all of Ava’s products are rated by EWG as a “one,” for nontoxic, and are available on her website.
It’s important to understand, too, that many sunscreen products simply don’t do the job. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved a few of the many effective chemical ingredients that are available in sunscreens in other countries, and the formulations used in the U.S. don’t actually screen skin-damaging UVA rays. Nevertheless, the FDA allows product manufacturers to market their products with claims that they provide “broad spectrum” coverage—even though they do not contain ingredients that screen UVA radiation effectively. Simply put, American sunscreens are weaker.
Yet instead of avoiding the sun, people use them believing they are protected. A high SPF number does not guarantee protection. In fact, Ava warns that, “it may mislead you into baking longer believing you are safe, when you aren’t.” Also, higher numbers aren’t better: An SPF of 30 is as effective as a supposedly higher SPF if you reapply it as the label suggests.
And for true UVA protection, higher molecule-sized zinc oxide is the most effective sunscreen ingredient. Zinc oxide’s ghost-white appearance in sunscreen may make you look like a lifeguard, but most products are now formulated so that they’re a barrier to the sun without giving you that chalky look. Ava’s line, and some other on EWG’s new list, have it, while also omitting harmful ingredients that increase sun sensitivity. While none of the products will protect you if you bake in the sun during the hours of highest UV radiation, they will help to minimize exposure. Sun avoidance remains the best protection.
If you want to do more to ensure that cosmetic and beauty products are better studied, formulated, and regulated for safety, Ava and Kim suggest going to the Campaign for Safer Cosmetics, as well as the EWG’s site.
Here’s how to find the product you’re looking for on the EWG’s new list of top-rated sunscreens and sun-protection products:
Beach and Sport Sunscreens (184 products meet the EWG’s criteria)
Moisturizers with SPF (22 products meet the EWG’s criteria)
Lip Balms with SPF (18 products meet the EWG’s criteria)
Makeup with SPF (16 products meet the EWG’s criteria)
What’s your favorite sunscreen? What chemicals do you avoid in personal care and cosmetic products?
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Alison Rose Levy has covered health, food, and the environment on Huffington Post, AlterNet, PsychologyToday, and Intent.com. The writer of two best-selling health books, Alison talks to health and eco leaders on her weekly radio program, Connect the Dots on the Progressive Radio Network. @alisonroselevy | TakePart.com