God help me, I am so confused about sunscreen!

The summer of 2008 was a big travel summer for my family. Of the 10 weeks of vacation allotted to us by the school district, we gleefully hit the road for 5 of them. And we went to sunny places.

A week before our trip, I steeled myself and went sunscreen shopping.

I looked for something with high SPF (duh), broad spectrum-protection (take that, sneaky UVA rays), and a noncomedogenic formulation (no zits for us, thanks). Furthermore, it had to smell nice, soak in, last a long time, and not cost a fortune.


The winner was a Target knockoff of a Neutrogena sunscreen with Helioplex. Though it smelled a little citrus-y for me, it checked all my boxes. I slathered it on the kids all over Europe , made them wear hats and swim shirts, and felt exceedingly pleased with myself for being an informed consumer.

Not so fast.

I came crashing down to earth when I got home and stumbled upon a new sunscreen study from the Environmental Working Group. They investigated 952 name brand sunscreens and found that 4 out of 5 offered inadequate protection from the sun or contained ingredients with significant safety concerns. Allergens, release of cancer-causing free radicals, and hormone disruption to name a few.

Study in hand, I went shopping again. Of the top ten safest sunscreens, I was able to find two (in the local health food store). One cost $15 for a 5oz bottle. The other was $18. Ouch.

Next I went to my dermatologist.

According to her, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the safest active ingredients. Studies show that they aren’t absorbed into healthy skin in micronized form. The problem is that most sunscreens have complicated and changing formulations, so good luck reading the labels.

I asked her what she was using on her own kids, and she ran her hand through her hair.

“I’m using the Neutrogena stuff with Helioplex,” she said. “I feel like it’s the best I can do with the information available.”

Anyone else confused?  What are you doing?



  1. says

    Unfortunately, I have become a sunscreen expert. I started having skin cancers removed at 32yo. (pasty white skin & growing up in florida). Consumer reports evaluated sunscreens long before EWG and turns out my favorite Neutrogena was not living up to advertised SPF. (plus there were those stupid teenage tanning years)

    Chapter two – I started buying sunscreens in Asia & Europe that used micronized titanium dioxide & chemicals not approved by the FDA. (Able to order through ebay). The mix of “chemical & physical” sunscreens are the most effective.

    Chapter three – my even more pasty daughter with red hair came along and I used the European stuff on her as well. At the 18mo check up it turns out she was already growing boobs!! Turns out there are lots of chemicals in personal care products that act like estrogen. First we had to get rid of products with parabens which are common preservatives and in most drugstore/target sunscreens (and lotions, and butt cream and shampoo…). Second, it turns out the chemicals in sunscreen are also estrogenic. (http://envirocancer.cornell.edu/research/endocrine/videos/makeup.cfm#article) The EWG list was a great start for us.

    Of the Physical only sunscreens (zinc & titanium dioxide), without paraben preservatives: 1) Not all work as well as they should – you try rubbing paste on a toddler 2) They are way more expensive and hard to find. I love California Baby products, but it did not work well on my DD so we had to give away and move on.

    Right now we are using Vanicream, which my dermatologist had given to me to avoid breakouts cause by a lot of sunscreens. It it free of lots of stuff, rubs in OK, and is reasonably priced at drugstore.com ($15). We also are using Lavera which is an expensive german brand, but comes in a spray bottle and is a lotion rather than a cream ($25).

    I also buy SPF50 sun-suits (cheap on ebay) and SPF50 hats and clothes when canbana life has sales to supplement sun protection.

  2. says

    Wow. I just kind of reach for whatever is in the cupboard on this one. Now I’m feeling a little guilty.

    On a different note, I do find that if I don’t use a kind that’s advertised as “baby no tears” sunscreen on faces, woe unto me. I did that one day to my own children as well as some of their friends. After two minutes in the sprinkler they were all running around the yard with their eyes scrunched up and tears running down their faces looking for all the world like I had taken a hot stick and poked their eyes out.

  3. says

    Meg: Okay, obviously YOU should have written this post. Thank you for such a great comment. I’m going to try Vanicream. Are the sensitive skin formulations noncomedogenic?

    Also, (now that I’ve found an expert on hormone disruption) what HAIRcare products do you use on your daughter? Are you worried about pthalates?

  4. says

    I was feeling all guilty since I forgot sunscreen for this trip. Luckily, Chet’s Venezualan and Mexican genes mean he *never* burns. So no immediate harm (though, yes, I know that it’s later I’m slathering for).

    But if regular sunscreen use is this confusing and means that he could grow boobs, maybe I can feel a little better about forgetting this one time.

  5. says

    Well, this is an eye-opening post!
    I’ve been using Coppertone’s Faces SPF50 lotion for years. We are pale and freckled people in my family, so maximum protection is always needed.
    Now I find out from the EWG study you cite, that it’s full of noxious chemicals. Sigh. At least it started raining in Seattle today, so I know I don’t have to think about sunscreen again until next June.
    In the meantime, I’ll be throwing out the leftover sunscreen from this year and stocking up on sunshirts for my kids in the end-of-season clearance sales at Land’s End and REI. FWIW, I’ve been buying sunshirts from Land’s End for the past 3-5 years and I’m impressed with the sun protective quality – at a price significantly lower than more salubrious brands such as Quicksilver.

  6. says

    Like many people, I can’t afford even the $15 sunscreen (unless the bottle’s a lot bigger than I think it is). So we just make do as best we can. I have purchased Alba Botanica on sale before, and I may check out that faux Neutrogena.

  7. says

    Like Meg, a local mom here in Seattle did a bunch of research and then tried several brands on her kids, and settled on Vanicream. She shared her information on a local moms group, and now I use Vanicream too. It’s not cheap, but you can order it on Drugstore.com (so at least I don’t have to search around town for it)

  8. says

    The follow up:

    So I followed Meg’s advice and bought some Vanicream Sensitive Skin formula SPF 30. I got it online at drugstore.com, where it was $12.99 for 4oz (no tax, and free shipping on orders over $25). It came today, and Eureka! It smells good and rubs in.

    I know that’s a lot of money for a lot of people, but I wanted to report back. We’re going with it (at least until the next scary study comes out).

  9. Dana says

    I have SCOURED the EWG’s website and done tons of reserch and the best sunscreen out there is the Badger. Great for all over the body. Great for kids.

    On my face I use Sun Science Organic Daily Wear.
    You’ll love it!

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