Unfortunately, I have become a sunscreen expert since my first skin cancers were removed at 32 years old. It was a side effect of growing up in Florida with pasty skin plus dumb high school sun “tanning.”
There are two types of harmful rays – UVA and UVB. The easy way to remember how they affect us, is A is for Aging and B is for Burn. Burns show up right away so if we don’t burn many assume their sunscreen is working. But, the UVA penetrates deeper in the skin and is believed to cause skin cancers as well as premature aging.
Until recently sunscreens focused on blocking UVB rays, but with increasing linkages between UVA and skin cancer, sunscreens are adding UVA protection. These are called “broad spectrum sunscreens.” The most effective sunscreens combine ingredients to absorb and reflect the UV rays. The American Academy of Dermatology has a great summary, including the ingredients to look for on their website.
I am sure you know this already but here are the basic sunscreen rules:
1) Apply liberally a half-hour before going outside. Use more than you think you should.
2) Reapply every two hours. The chemicals that protect you from the sun break down in the sun.
3) Reapply after swimming or sweating because water-resistant and sport sunscreens do wash off.
4) Throw out sunscreens that are over one year old. The chemicals that protect you from the sun lose efficacy over time.
5) Sunscreen only works if you use it – keep a bottle, tube or stick everywhere: one in car, purse, diaper bag, stroller, beach bag, etc.
Finding the best broad-spectrum sunscreens
At the time of my skin cancer discovery, the best broad-spectrum sunscreens were available only outside of the US, combining micronized titanium dioxide and a chemical with the brand name Mexoryl. I stocked up on Anthelios when traveling and found a source on EBay. My doctors were doing the same thing.
Mexoryl is now available in the US through L’Oreal owned brands and Neutrogena has introduced Helioplex, another advanced broad-spectrum sunscreen booster. Oxybenzone and avobenzone (Parsol 1789) also provide UVA protection so I made sure all of my sunscreens had at least one of these listed in the active ingredients.
Sunscreens for my baby
Along came my red-haired, blue eyed, pasty skinned daughter and I used the imported sunscreens on her with nary a freckle. At her 18-month check up, the doctor noticed she was growing boobs! I quickly learned that there are lots of chemicals that act like estrogen.
First, we had to get rid of products with parabens, which are common preservatives in most sunscreens (and lotions and butt creams and shampoos.) Second, it turns out most of the actual sunscreen chemicals are estrogenic. The Sprecher Institute for Comparative Cancer Research at Cornell Univeristy was a great resource for learning about the links between chemicals and breast development.
Using the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database and reading a lot of ingredient lists, we started finding paraben-free physical sunscreens which use zinc and titanium dioxide to reflect sun. There is mixed information on the safety of avobenzone, so I have avoided it for the time.
If you have tried a “baby” sunscreen, which are often free of chemical sunscreens (though many have parabens), most have the consistency of toothpaste. Have you ever tried covering a toddler in toothpaste? Sunscreen only works when it applied thoroughly and liberally, so consistency becomes an important factor in sunscreen selection.
Also, it turned out that the right ingredients and a high SPF do not always mean the sunscreen works. Both Consumer Reports and the EWG found this in their testing. It cost us a few freckles testing new sunscreens.
Finally, as these are “niche” products, they cost a lot more than store brand sunscreens using less expensive parabens and chemical sunscreens. The trial and error was expensive, and we have yet to find a bargain sunscreen that is chemically OK, a reasonable consistency and effective.
There are many sunscreens we tried that failed because they were too thick, too greasy or just didn’t protect from the sun. I am also constantly on the lookout for new sunscreens, especially in spray bottles that work for us a reasonable price.
Our sunscreen arsenal
Vanicream – SPF 30 & 60. My dermatologist recommended Vanicream for me because it did not cause breakouts. After the boobs diagnosis, I began using it on my daughter. It is on the thick side and seems greasy at first but rubs in well on light and mid tone skin. I use SPF 30 daily and the SPF 60 on our faces when we are in sun intensive environments like the beach or pool. $12.99-$16.99 for 4oz tubes (drugstore.com)
Lavera Sun Spray SPF 30 Neutral. This was the first spray/pump bottle sunscreen that met our criteria. It has a nice watery consistency, goes on quickly and easily, is not greasy and is effective. It is also water resistant and most of the ingredients are organic. The downside is it’s frighteningly expensive so I am on the lookout for an alternative. $31 for a 6.6oz bottle (lavera.com)
TruKid Sunny Days SPF 30+ Natural Mineral Sunscreen Water Resistant Face & Body Stick. I love stick sunscreens because you can stash them everywhere and your preschooler can self apply with supervision. They work best on the face and in emergencies elsewhere. TruKid is a little greasy but effective. From $7.99 for a 0.64oz stick (toysrus.com)
Sunforgettable by Colorescience SPF30 Brush. This powder sunscreen goes on dry and was another product I used to avoid breakouts. It comes in different form factors, but I find the brush most convenient and carry it with me everywhere. It is expensive but lasts over a year with frequent use. $50 for a 0.23oz brush (check colorescience.com for locations).
Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby SPF 60+ Sunblock Stick and Lotion: I plan to test this new line this summer as it passes the ingredient screen. It is priced similar to Vanicream but is widely available so can be picked up on the go and more importantly on sale. $8.99 for the stick and $10.99 for 3oz.
Not only is summer almost here, May is National Skin Cancer Awareness Month. Please protect your family’s skin.