I was lucky to take a last-minute trip to sunny Puerto Rico last week to celebrate a sister’s birthday and get out of the cold.  In the process, I made (or so I thought) a discovery worthy of sharing with the TIA community—but on my return, I also found myself faced with a dilemma.

But more on that later.  First of all:  My main worry in getting ready for this trip wasn’t, remarkably, fitting into a bathing suit.  It was what to do about sun protection.  I have very few good habits, but one I’ve maintained fervently for the last twenty years is avoiding sun exposure.  I was panicked at the thought of subjecting my mid-winter-white, 55-year-old face and body to Caribbean skies.

So with only hours left to pack, I dashed to the most upscale of my local pharmacies and surveyed several shelves of elegant lotions and creams.  Maybe it was the tropical association evoked by the aqua blue tubes, but the Coola line caught my eye.   Looking more closely, I saw that Coola Suncare is from LA (southern California obviously a US sun capital); its packaging announced it free of paba, parabens, and petroleum; and it trumpeted its use of certified organic ingredients.  There were several options, both sunscreens and sunblocks, and I quickly selected the SPF 45 “Sport” moisturizing sunscreen--available in an unscented formulation (why do these products always smell like Juicy Fruit?), which closed the deal.

I expected a lot from this $32, five-ounce tube.  Coola touts its “eco-friendly” approach, vitamins and antioxidants, and anti-aging and anti-inflammatory ingredients, and says that Sport is “crafted with over 70% certified organic extracts including ginseng, evening primrose, and amica.”  After four days of walking on the beach, lounging by the pool, and rediscovering daiquiris as a food group, I wasn’t disappointed.

The product has a nice texture, absorbs well with a pleasant feel, and is duly moisturizing as promised.  (The beach was windy, too, so that quality was really put to the test.)  And I didn’t burn—not even a little.  I did get just a touch of color, but only just. I came home with skin feeling better than when I’d left.

The complete product line includes sunscreens and blocks for the face; body sunscreens and blocks (SPF 30); the “sport” offerings (longer-lasting, SPF 45) I sampled; lip balms; and what they call “lotion bars” for sun-exposed skin.  Coola also offers a sunblock for babies, and several kits and travel sizes.  The site provides additional information on the product line and philosophy (including its eco-friendly focus), links to lots of media coverage, a guide to retailers (more in the West than East; many spas), and online shopping.

But here’s the rub:  when I enthusiastically started to write this post to share my good news about Coola, I found an earlier piece Marta wrote on TIA in May 2009 about the safety and potential toxicity of several of the active ingredients in Coola (and lots of other brands)—see below—specifically, Octocrylene, Octinoxate, Oxybenzone, and Octisalate.  The write up on the first three certainly gave me something to think about, including effects like “reproductive toxicity” and increased production of free radicals, as well as environmental effects (like absorption by fish).  Read the whole post for the details.

What’s maddening, of course, is that no one knows how much of this stuff gets absorbed, and how much is truly dangerous. On the one hand, I hardly ever sit in the sun and seldom use heavy doses of all-over sunscreen (so how much damage can my very occasional use do?).  And overall, the penalty for forgoing sun protection altogether is clearly more severe than the risks of these ingredients.  On the other—this does not sound like it’s good for people or for the world around us!  And that’s the dilemma. Using Coola seems better than going without, yet now I’m unsure about unintended consequences—all the more since the brand seems to want to bask in an eco-conscious and natural (i.e., safe) glow.

I’d welcome advice on how to deal with this conundrum, and whether there is more research or new formulations on the horizon.  I’ve now read the TIA “Five Best” zinc oxide sunscreens post of June 2009 and I definitely look into those products.  But I’m hoping for an update at TIA before this winter (finally) ends and I can think about the sun again.

Ingredients in Coola Spf 45 Unscented Moisturizing Sunscreen:

Active ingredients: Octocrylene (Sunscreen) 7.50%, Octinoxate (Sunscreen) 7.50, Oxybenzone (Sunscreen) 5.0%, Octisalate (Sunscreen) 5.0%, Homosalate (Sunscreen) 5.0%, Avobenzone (Sunscreen) 5.0%

Inactive ingredients: Water (Aqua), C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Dimethicone, DEA-Cetyl Phosphate, Cyclopentasiloxane, PVP/Eicosene Copolymer, Acrylates Copolymer, Glycerin, crylates/Steareth-20 Methacrylate Copolymer, Stearic Acid, Sorbitan Stearate, Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A Palmitate), Panax Ginseng Root Extract, PEG-100 Stearate, Nylon-12, Glyceryl Stearate, Arnica Montana Flower Extract, Allantoin, Tocopheryl Acetate (Vitamin E Acetate), Dog (Rosa Canina) Rose Hips, Cucumis Sativus (Cucumber) Fruit Extract, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter) Fruit, Beeswax, Borage (Starflower) Seed Oil, Oenothera Biennis (Evening Primrose) Extract, Linum Usitatissimum (Linseed) Seed Oil, Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate, Prunus Serotina (Wild Cherry) Bark Extract, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Extract, Lawsonia Inermis (Henna) Extract, Hydrastis Canadensis (Golden Seal) Extract, Humulus Lupulus (Hops) Extract, Equisetum Hyemale Extract, Calendula Officinalis Flower Extract, Arnica Montana Flower Extract, Phenoxyethanol, Zinc Oxide.

Organic ingredients: Sesamum Indicum (Sesame) Seed Oil, Helianthus Annus (Sunflower) Oil, Carthamus Tinctorius (Safflower) Seed Oil, Cucumis Sativus ( Cucumber) Fruit Extract, Beeswax (ORGANIC Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter)