Sun Screens Can Really Cost You – By the Ounce or By the Tumor

By Carrie Kirby on 31 May 2010 (Updated 30 May 2011) 32 comments
Photo: Carrie Kirby

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.

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Lynn Truong's picture

I ran into this report recently too and did hours of research to find new sunblock, bath wash, shampoo, and skin care products that didn't contain dangerous chemicals. It was HARD. I finally settled on 100% Pure products which has nice texture and safe ingredients.

Guest's picture
J

There's no such thing as an inherently safe ingredient.

Some may generally recognized as "safe" simply because they haven't been rigorously tested yet. (See PubMed.gov if you're curious about something.) Some, for instance spices like cinnamon and black pepper, may have well-known benefits and small risks. Some, like water, are very difficult to abuse.

But when considering whether an ingredient is "safe enough", get the peer-reviewed numbers on its effects /when used in the concentration and manner that you plan to use it/.

Guest's picture
J

I was rather skeptical. I've seen far too many "Ingredient X is evil! Buy this 'natural' product that doesn't have it!".

This is not /entirely/ bogus, though. Looking on PubMed.gov, I was able to find one group of researchers who did two studies on the photo-carcinogenicity of retinoids. The papers did raise some concerns, but did not compare the risks of UV exposure with and without retinoids on actual animals. http://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/2/1/147/pdf

I couldn't find any actual paper on retinoids produced as a result of the experiments on hairless mice at the NTP Center for Phototoxicology that the EWG group mentioned. Apparently the data are still very preliminary and won't be up for peer review until October.
http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/index.cfm?objectid=BD4125AF-123F-7908-7BA204D8A...

The NTP did produce another interesting paper. The found aloe to promote skin tumors in hairless mice exposed to simulated sunlight. As far as I can tell, the result never ended up in a peer-reviewed journal.
http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/index.cfm?objectid=84BA2E41-F1F6-975E-74710B380...

In any event, if you want to be safe from skin cancer, just cover up your skin. Clothes are are a well-established and safe way to do so. If clothes won't do, cover up with inorganic (mineral) substances known to not penetrate the skin, like non-nano titanium dioxide. Ebay has some for $11/lb, shipping included.
http://shop.ebay.com/?_nkw=titanium+dioxide+pound

Carrie Kirby's picture

J, that's an interesting idea. Indeed, WikiHow has instructions on making sunscreen from zinc or titanium dioxide that sounds pretty easy. I'd be nervous, though, about my homemade stuff not doing an adequate job of protection.

http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Sunscreen

Guest's picture
J

Good link. Instructables has a similar but more detailed recipe:
http://www.instructables.com/id/Homemade-Sunscreen/

To test it out, just see whether your skin tans with your homemade sunscreen on. Unlike some of the organic UV absorbers, TiO2 and ZnO block out a wide spectrum of light.

I found another rating system for sunscreens as well:
http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/browse.php?sunscreens=1&best=1

Guest's picture
Guest

I have been making my own for several years. At first I was also worried but have found that it is as effective as Badger and I can make it just a bit thinner so it spreads around more easily. I have complete control over what goes in it. If you do some research you will find that some oils have natural spf. By starting with those you have protection out of the gate, then by the time you add the mineral it works exceedingly well. We are always a little pasty looking though.

Guest's picture
Connie

Hmmm, sounds like they cause just as much cancer as they eliminate.

Guest's picture
J

I don't think there's sufficient evidence to say that, certainly not with respect to this retinol report.

Now, I feel comfortable guessing that the clothing is less risky than some of the organic UV absorbers, but who knows- big floppy hats might be dangerous too. :) Also keep in mind that a substance might raise your risk of cancer in one area but lower it overall. And finally, a substance that raises your risk of a particular cancer by 500% might sound terrible, but what if the chance of getting that cancer were only 1 in 10 million to begin with? Getting in a car is certain death by comparison.

For all these reasons, it's important to compare the numbers and not try to work out your risk management by intuition alone.

Guest's picture
Kim

I also checked the EWG site to find an affordable sunscreen with a good safety rating. After lots of searching, I was able to find the Caribbean Solutions Sol Kid Kare Natural Sunscreen for $4.78 for a 6-oz bottle on webvitamins.com. They also have the non-kids version for the same price.

Carrie Kirby's picture

Kim, thanks, that is a really good deal.

And yet ... now I'm concerned because it's only spf 25 and the dermatologists say to wear 30 or above. (http://www.aad.org/media/background/factsheets/fact_sunscreen.htm)

sigh.

Guest's picture
Guest

It may have been my kids that you saw at the pool, Carrie! Sun protective clothing is safer, and with small kids, much faster than reapplying sunscreen all day. It's also more cost effective in the long run! When I talked to my pediatrician about sunscreens, she suggested that I cover the kids as much as possible with sun protective clothing. As she explained to me, if you think about what people in other countries with very hot climates wear, they tend to wear lightweight clothing that covers their entire bodies. Sun protective clothing is more expensive than regular clothing, but you don't need more than a few rash guards to get through the summer.

Guest's picture
J.

I'll second that. It's much quicker and easier to put your kids in SPF swimwear, and just put sunscreen on their face and other exposed areas. And if the kids are comfortable, what do you care what other busy-body moms think? ;-)

Guest's picture
aikanae

I think one of the problems has been that manufacturers are advertising that suncreams are a first line defense and they are not. Shade - clothing and avoiding the sun between 10 and 2 are first line defenses. There are products you can wash clothes in that gives them a higher SPF. Tshirts are very low SPF protection.

There are at least 7 additional ingredients approved for sunscreens in the rest of the world. It took Mexoryl 13 years before the FDA even considered approving it in the US - and the FDA doesn't usually get involved with suncreams (cosmetics). Other countries regulate cosmetic ingredients much more than the US - and their studies aren't subject to as much influence from companies making the products. None of the sunscreams sold in the US are safe with any tint or pigment (under, over or combined) with them. I think Australia is a leader in sun protection research and advise.

I was disappointed by EWG's ratings on Mexoryl. I order Ombrelle from Canada as a cheap alternative (Mexoryl is a generic except in the states).

I say this as a skin cancer survivor. There was a very interesting class action suit against all the major makers of suncreams in the US, including Consumer Union (CR did testing) which called it a $9 billion dollar snake oil industry. The incidences of skin cancer has risen dramatically as the public has increased usage of sunscreams! I would not recommend depending on creams as the sole defense against sun. UVA can't be seen, doesn't burn and penetrates the deepest, causing the most harm. Skin is the largest organ on your body, even a tan lowers a persons immunity and permanently alters DNA. It's quite surprising. Some of this is due to the chemicals we are exposed to that weren't in our enviroment 30 years ago.

I will fight skin cancer for the rest of my life, which isn't fun. Protection from the sun before the age of 20 (or any age) is the biggest anti-aging gift possible. The sun and the enviroment today are not the same that you or your parents grew up with.

Guest's picture
Tricia L

An option I have been happy with is Aubrey Organics SPF 20 Face and Body Unscented Sunscreen $5 for 4oz through the Vitacost website. Aubrey has a great reputation and some of the best ratings on the environmental working groups website called Skindeep. I do not go in the sun with this between 10am-2pm since it is only 20 SPF and its best to avoid those hours altogether if you can. Go to the beach or pool later in the day and save some money and your skin.

I am a cheapskate but when it comes to health $5 is a drop in the bucket. Vitacost also has flat rate shipping of $5 which is nice if you have a few things to order.

Never shortchange your health just spend extra time researching for the healthiest alternatives in your price range.

For example there are very few shampoos out there that do not have chemicals that
cause hormonal problems and cancer. Aubrey had a great shampoo that is highly rated for $10 (Blue Chamomile) and I do not even need conditioner the bottle has lasted me 2 months and I wash my hair 2 times per week (cheepskate :)

Guest's picture
cherie

Carrie I just did this this week myself LOL

I finally settled on the blue lizard sensitive skin - I bought a gallon of it at drugstore.com getting cash back from bing - it's a 3 - not ideal - but simple enough

Guest's picture

I read a ton of PF blogs every day--so itis hard to read every one of them word for word.

I did for this one.

This is some of the best info out there for parents.

I am as cheap as they come, but I already put in my order for one of those expensive ones.

With some things--not many, but some, you really have to throw the cost aspect out the window.

Who knows, maybe the report is a bucnh of garbage. But what if it isn't?

I refuse to be responsible for lesions on my son.

Guest's picture
Anara

We use Blue Lizard Sensitive Skin, a 3 on the scale. It's one of the few sunblocks that does not give my daughter a rash on her face. We do hate applying it. It is interesting to see how something that appears so simple on the active ingredients list still contains a lot of inactive ingredients that are a little less simple.

Guest's picture
sf30

Being frugal also means sometimes being skeptical. Take everything the Environmental Working Group publishes and pushes with a grain of salt. It's an activist organization with a particular agenda.

Guest's picture

My daughter is very, very fair skinned, so instead of standard toddler-style bikini or one-piece, I did purchase a t-shirt and shorts style suit with UV protection. It's cute. It has flowers and she can still move around. Best of all it was inexpensive at Wal-Mart. She doesn't look like a two year old Madonna-wannabe and she is protected from the sun! I'm just saying - there are options without looking like something out of 1896!

Thanks for the piece, though - it was certainly an eye-opener.

Guest's picture

My daughter is very, very fair skinned, so instead of standard toddler-style bikini or one-piece, I did purchase a t-shirt and shorts style suit with UV protection. It's cute. It has flowers and she can still move around. Best of all it was inexpensive at Wal-Mart. She doesn't look like a two year old Madonna-wannabe and she is protected from the sun! I'm just saying - there are options without looking like something out of 1896!

Thanks for the piece, though - it was certainly an eye-opener.

Guest's picture

My daughter is very, very fair skinned, so instead of standard toddler-style bikini or one-piece, I did purchase a t-shirt and shorts style suit with UV protection. It's cute. It has flowers and she can still move around. Best of all it was inexpensive at Wal-Mart. She doesn't look like a two year old Madonna-wannabe and she is protected from the sun! I'm just saying - there are options without looking like something out of 1896!

Thanks for the piece, though - it was certainly an eye-opener.

Guest's picture
Aaron

I'm certain that no one can honestly claim that sun screen actually prevents skin cancer. Sun screen and sun glasses inhibit your body's ability to adapt to increased sun exposure. While applying dubious products, people are also weakening their natural defenses. Just let your skin darken gradually, and don't spend too much time in the sun.

Guest's picture
Guest

Thanks for all this info. My doctor, too, warned me that most people don't use enough sunscreen. She said it should actually be visible, not rubbed into the skin.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for writing about this topic -- I recently read a magazine article that covered this topic and had been meaning to examine all my sunscreens.

The "baby" mention is of special interest to me but not b/c I have a baby. In the past (up until last year it seems), I've been able to use baby sunscreens on my face because they have been tear-free, no-run type products. This has come in handy if I'm on a long bike ride, miles from home, and it starts raining -- sunscreen in my eyes makes it impossible to see. Ditto if I'm swimming or canoeing or whatever around water. B/c of the changes in formulation (baby doesn't equal tear-free anymore) I'm back to square one in picking sunscreens -- or I was until I read your article. Thanks for the tips.

Guest's picture

As the old people say, "Too much of something is bad enough." Use Sunscreen accordingly.

Guest's picture
Guest

I would have commented on your Frugalista blog, but I can't remember my password (or user id for that matter). Anyway, I am the guest who posted on this website about rash guards. Based on the swimset that you posted on Frugalista, I can see why you wouldn't want to put your girls in those! There are much cuter options out there. Landsend and Coolibar both have cute sun protective swimwear for girls (and some are cheaper than your Amazon example). I got my boys rashguards at gap, but I have to admit that I don't like gap's selection for girls.

If we let our kids know that it is "uncool" to wear rashguards, then they won't want to wear them. It's just like wearing helmets when riding bikes and seat belts in a car . . . what was once "uncool" has become the norm.

Guest's picture

There is only one foolproof way to avoid skin cancer and that is to avoid direct sunlight at peak UV times. No sun screen will give you total protection and anyway, by avoiding UV rays and using fake tanning solutions instead, your skin will look far better in old age than those people who bake themselves in the sun.

Guest's picture

Suncreen works well on me. I have read many magazines and books saying that it helps avoid getting sunburn and other skin diseases. Good Lord, i don't want skin cancer. LOL

Guest's picture

Wow, I have researched this topic forever and this is the most useful information I have ever seen. I bought a 2/1 deal on sun screen at kmart the other day and went to take them back because the safety label had already been broken. what a waste.

Guest's picture
Guest

After hearing a comment on an Oprah show 25 years ago that sunscreen was the best wrinkle preventer, I've worn sunscreen every day since then. (My students have commented over the years that I smell like I've been to the beach.) I'm now 53 and don't have a single wrinkle on my face or neck. My hands look pretty good too! I wear whatever brand that is on sale, though I'm partial to SPF 30+.

My daughters are lifeguards and wear 80 SPF spray sunscreen and my husband the farmer has ALWAYS worn a long sleeved shirt with a collar, a hat, and jeans. He wears this garb in the throes of summer and the dead of winter. He does have more wrinkles than I do because he doesn't wear the sunscreen as much as I do, but because of his protective clothing looks younger than his farming peers.

Guest's picture

Just wondering what's the best alternative for sun screens protection lotion.

Guest's picture
Guest

Are we, as a species so messed up by profit and misunderstandings that we cannot come to a definitive answer on whether these ingredients are harmful or helpful? Perhaps I do not appreciate how difficult these studies are, but every time I hear the results of a study, there is always some organization, person or university disputing the findings. It seems that where science used to be all about the truth, now it is muddled by so many other factors. We need to get beyond this situation so that we can make good decisions about our and our love one's health.