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A few days ago, the Environmental Working Group released its 2009 consumer guide to sunscreen. As the cosmetics industry's most nit-picking non-profit, the EWG pushes for national policy change by wheedling out the most offending ingredients in consumer products. You have to be a step away from sainthood to win EWG's approval, so you know that its picks for top sunscreen products must be impeccable.
EWG tested 902 sunscreens and SPF moisturizers by running ingredient lists from manufacturers through extensive databases to evaluate their active components. Of these, only 5% met the EWG's criteria (which includes broad-spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB rays, stability of the formula, and safety of the individual ingredients). As regular Truth in Aging readers know, our widely popular Five Best posts round up an authoritative mix of approved products in any one category. We now give the Environmental Working Group the floor to present its top choices for sun protection. On its scale of 0-9, a score of 0 is the EWG's top safety rating.
EWG's Five Best sunscreens for outdoor sport and swim:
Soleo Organics Chemical Free Sunscreen SPF 30+ (score of 0)- 22.3% non-nano zinc oxide
Badger Sunscreen SPF 30 (score of 0)- 20.5% zinc oxide
Purple Prarie Botanicals Sun Stuff SPF 30 (score of 1)- 10% zinc oxide, 10% titanium dioxide
UV Natural Sunscreen SPF 30+ (score of 1)- 24.8% nano zinc oxide
Mexitan Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 (score of 1)- 22.5% non-nano zinc oxide, 6% non-nano titanium dioxide
EWG's Five Best moisturizers with SPF:
Keys Soap Solar Rx Cosmetic Moisturizing Sunblock SPF 30 (score of 1)- 18.5% nano zinc oxide
Marie Veronique Organics Creme de Jour Tinted SPF 30 (score of 1)- 20% non-nano zinc oxide
Devita International Daily Solar Protective Moisturizer SPF 30 (score of 1)- 14% nano zinc oxide
Sweetsation Therapy Organic Sun*Brella Triple Action Moisturizer with SPF 30+ (score of 1)- 6.5% non-nano zinc oxide, 2.5% non-nano titanium dioxide
SanRe Organic Skinfood Supple Sunshine- Rosemary and Lavender Day Creme SPF 30 (score of 1)- 9% nano zinc oxide
What we can learn from EWG's assessment of commercial sunscreens and daily SPF face lotions?
The good: Last year, only 29% of sunscreens contained strong UVA filters (which the FDA does not require as an active component of sunscreens). This year, that number has gone up to 70%, meaning that you are now more likely to be protected against melanoma (the most deadly form of skin cancer), as well as skin sagging and wrinkles. Some of the top brands that were reformulated to address UVA protection include Hawaiian Tropic, L'Oreal, Nivea, Zia Natural Skincare, and Solbar.
The bad: The barrier against UVA rays in many of these sunscreens is too weak to provide full protection.
The good: 19% fewer sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a derivative of benzophenone that has been causally linked to melanoma (by increasing production of free radicals), breast cancer (by mimicking the hormone estrogen), and contact eczema.
The bad: 3 of 5 brand-name sunscreens (led by mainstream labels like Banana Boat, Coppertone, and Neutrogena) either don't protect skin from sun damage or contain hazardous chemicals.
The Good: All sunscreens sold in the U.S. are subject to regulation by the FDA as over-the-counter drugs, which involves rigorous safety and performance testing and a lengthy approval process before the products may go to market.
The bad: Lagging behind other countries, the FDA has only approved 17 sunscreen chemicals for use in the U.S. (compared to at least 29 in other countries) and still has not set comprehensive safety standards for the sunscreen industry.
As with most of the ratings and rankings on the Environmental Working Group's website, the 2009 sunscreen report should be taken with a grain of salt. The only real consideration that went into EWG's findings is each product's ingredients, which do not tell the full story of comprehensive sun protection or personal skin preference. Adequate application (and re-application) and appropriate protection based on length of exposure are just as important.
When choosing sunscreens, TIA prefers physical agents like zinc oxide (see our Five Best zinc oxide sunscreens) and titanium dioxide (which certainly has its detractors). We suggest avobenzone or mexoryl for chemical alternatives with thorough protection. Finally, see our round-up of moisturizers with built-in sunscreen for a daily lotion that will do good while at the same time blocking evil.