Sun Screens Can Really Cost You – By the Ounce or By the Tumor
If you've been paying extra for sun products containing Vitamin A — often marketed as preventing your skin from aging — you might as well save your money. In fact, you may need it for future surgical bills. A new report from the Environmental Working Group cites “new government data linking a form of vitamin A used in sunscreens to accelerated growth of skin tumors and lesions.
Yikes. And that's not all. The report also warns that at least 26 "for babies" sunscreens contain a chemical that scientists specifically warned against using on children more than a decade ago.
Another yikes: What you're buying with sunscreens that list really high SPFs like 100 is a false sense of security, because they do not perform up to that level. The report also warns that even with lower SPFs, most people never get the amount of protection advertised on the bottle because in order to get that, we'd have to slather it on super thick.
(I know. We're frugal. We don't slather. But the experts say that an SPF 30 is not truly SPF 30 if it is spread thin.)
This is a good news, bad news report for cheapskates. The good news is, we don't have to feel guilty about not springing for SPF 100 for our kids or feel like we're missing out if we don't invest in the “age-defying” sunscreen for ourselves.
But here comes the bad news: The sunscreens that received the EWG's top safety rating all cost more than $4 an ounce.
I'm a cheap mom. As a rule, I will not shell out for high-end children's toiletries, foods, or gadgets unless someone proves to me that there's a compelling need for that upgrade. You're not going to find Mustela diaper cream in my bag, since CVS' facsimile of A&D does just fine at preventing diaper rash.
For sunscreen, I use the CVS brand — which I usually get for free. At the end of every season, they'll put this stuff on clearance, and combined with a coupon I can bring home multiple tubes for free. And, before you interrupt me, it's a myth that you have to buy sunscreen fresh each season. As long as it's not expired or more than three years old, it should be effective, according to MayoClinic.com.
The EWG report's site has a handy — but disheartening — feature that allows you to look up your sunscreen in a database of 1,381 products, and find out its rating. A score of 0-2 means the product is recommended, 3-6 means “caution,” and 7-10 means “avoid.”
Here's how mine rates:
CVS Fast Cover Continuous Lotion Spray Suncscreen, SPF 50
Score: 7 (Avoid) because it contains oxybenzone, “a potential hormone disrupter (that) penetrates the skin in relatively large amounts” — that's the chemical a scientist warned against putting on children's skin back in 1997. This product also lost points because it's a spray, which is more likely to be inhaled.
CVS Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Score: 7, because it contains oxybenzone and vitamin A.
(Note: I didn't buy any of the “baby” or “kid” sunscreens because I am generally skeptical of products so labeled, but those CVS products are also rated 7 for the same reasons.)
So what does the EWG recommend? Only mineral sunscreens like titanium dioxide, which are not only pretty expensive but generally thick and pasty. Instead of using chemical blockers, these products physically block the sunlight from hitting your skin.
Here are the Amazon.com prices on some of the sunscreens that got the green light:
Badger SPF 30 Unscented Sunscreen $16.99 for 3.5 oz. ($4.85/oz.)
California Baby SPF 30 + Sunscreen Lotion - Super Sensitive, 2.9 oz $21 for 3.2 oz. ($6.56/oz.)
Loving Naturals Organic SPF 30 Sunscreen Zinc Oxide 2 oz UVA/UVB $12.51 for 2 oz. (on sale!) ($6.25/oz.)
Sunscreen, SPF 30, 2.6 oz ( Multi-Pack) $35.78 for two 2.6 oz. tubes ($6.88/oz.)
Now, keep in mind that doctors recommend that an adult use one ounce of sunscreen for every few hours of sun exposure. Even assuming I use 1/3 ounce on each of my three kids twice a day, that means I could be spending more than $10 protecting them from the sun every single day.
This makes the EWG's recommendation that you just cover your skin with clothing sound a lot more attractive. But I just don't know. I saw two kids at the public pool today wearing “bathing suits” that went from their necks to their wrists and ankles, with matching floppy hats that they kept on while in the water. I have to say they looked bubble wrapped. Would you rather wear a bathing suit of Victorian proportions, and put your kids in them, than risk cancer with sunscreen you can afford?
I guess I will spring for the titanium dioxide stuff, and try to keep those sunhats on the kids this summer. But with three little wigglers to cover every time we go out, I am really going to miss the convenience of the spray-on stuff.
P.S. Trader Joe's sell sunscreen with zinc oxide that did not list oxybenzone or vitamin A. At only $5.99 for a hefty 6 oz tube ($1 per adult application if used as recommended), I thought it would be at worst a stopgap measure until I could find the best price on a fancy sunblock, and at best a bargain solution.
Well, more of a stopgap, it turns out. The EWG rates Trader Joe's Face & Body Sunscreen at 4, in the caution range. Apparently it does contain vitamin A, which goes by the chemical name retinyl palmitate and is listed under “inactive ingredients.” It also contains several other chemicals considered to pose “moderate” health risks.
Note: This post contains affiliate links to Amazon.com.