Complexion Dermatology

Top 10 Things You Need To Know About Sunscreen


Remember that scene in Hurt Locker when Jeremy Renner finds himself in the cereal aisle, lost, confused and alone?Jeremy

That is how I feel about sunscreen.

I’d like to kick sunscreen out of my bathroom, but knowing the sun stimulates my melasma and that melanoma is on the rise, skipping it is not an option.

Plus, I just learned that sunburn in childhood doubles the chance of getting a melanoma in adulthood, so as a mom, I’m not messing around with my cub’s well being.

Skin cancer aside, I get smug satisfaction after slathering my face and family in sun goop every day.

But the new news that’s blowing my mind is the emerging evidence about just how toxic some of the ingredients in sunscreen might be.  I cleaned out over three-quarters of my sunscreen products after doing research for this article.

So in the spirit of simplicity and sanity, I present my Top 10 cheat sheet on the FDA guidelines compliments of and new learning around which ingredients and forms are safe from Environmental Working Group, my new favorite website for healthy living.

Here we go:

1. On the label look for broad spectrum (this means they protect against UVA and UVB rays), SPF 30 or above and water-resistant, because if it’s hot we’re sweating and that equals water.

2. Look for active ingredients zinc 5%-20% (particularly great as a melasma defense), avobenzone and Mexoryl SX.

3. Avoid the ingredients retinyl palmitate, retinol, vitamin A and oxybenzone.  Retinol is a great anti-aging ingredient, but use it only at night. When it’s exposed to the sun, retinol has been suspected of stimulating carcinogenic activity in the skin.  You might ask, what sunscreen manufacturer would use it, but these ingredients are found in over 25% of all sunscreen.   Three of my favorite brands had it.

Even more prevalent is oxybenzone, a synthetic estrogen that’s been suspected of messing with your hormonal balance.  All but two of the sunscreen brands my family use have this.

4. Get your hands dirty and use creams, not sprays. Not only are the nano particles in the aerosol sprays dangerous to your lungs if inhaled, they are highly flammable, even after applied to your skin.

5. Skip sunscreens with insect repellent.  Apply them separately.  The thinking behind this is that bugs are less active during prime UV hours (not sure I agree), but that you’re also less apt to reapply every few hours.  More worrisome is that the insect repellent absorbs more easily into your skin.

6. No sunscreen wipesIn 2011, the FDA banned them from all but the smallest manufacturers as being ineffective in terms of delivering the amount of sunscreen you truly need.

7. Caution: sunscreen powders are being reviewed. I’m a huge fan of Color Science, but there’s speculation as to whether the small particles can do the same damage as the aerosols. For now this is on my list because at least my family and I reapply it during high sun activities.

8. Avoid SPF less than 15. These will do diddily squat when it comes to protection from the sun.

9. Avoid the terms “SPF over 50”, “sunblock”, “sweat-proof” and “waterproof” as these have been deemed misleading.  Oh and there is no such thing as a sunscreen that is effective for more than 2 hours, so keep reapplying the stuff.

10. Lastly, apply a glob about the size of nickel to your face (or a shot glass size to all exposed areas of the body) at least a half hour before going outside.  Hey, I know it’s a drag, but there are so many good formulas these days that there’s not excuse for just making it a habit.

OK, let’s go shopping. Here’s a list of sunscreen brands that don’t have any of the bad stuff mentioned above. My first crack at the list was triple the size, but once I looked for the ingredients to avoidretinyl palmitate, retinol, vitamin A and oxybenzone, it shrunk to this tiny size.

A few things to note; sunscreen isn’t one size fits all.  What works for a daily face sunscreen under make-up may not be great for a high sun day at the beach where water resistance is a premium.  What works for your body, might to be great for your face. Find a brand you like and then buy a few products in the family for different needs.  The good news is many of them are organic and paraben free.

Best Safe Sunscreens 2013

1. Supergoop SPF 30+ City Sunscreen Serum with Uniprotect PT-3.   I haven’t used this personally, but my friends who have, love it.  And who can blame them, it boasts avobenzone and also claims to protect from environmental damage.  They also have a CC cream that has zinc. About $42.

2. Coola Liplux SPF 30. Contains sunscreen darling avobenzone and like everything else from this wonderful line, is 100% organic and paraban free.

3. Vanicream SPF 35 Sport Sunscreen. Designed for sensitive skin, water-resistant for 80 minutes PABA free and a favorite of EWG. Better yet, it has 11% zinc which is great for melasma prone skin like mine.

4. SkinCeuticals Sheer Physical Defense SPF 50. Great for even the most sensitive skin, this is paraben free and has 6% zinc and 5% titanium dioxide. About $32.

5. Shisheido Sun Protection Eye Creme SPF 34. There aren’t many eye cremes out there with SPF, but I’ve used this on occasion and think it works when I’m in high sun situations without stinging my eyes. For the day-to-day, I rely on my prescription sunglasses. About $33.

6. Anthelios 50 Mineral Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid. One of my personal favorites, it has titanium dioxide, goes on sheer and works beautifully with your make-up. Note that the mineral formula is the only one that does not have oxybenzone. About$33

 7. EltaMD UV Daily Broad Spectrum UV 40.  I’ve been living off samples I got from my dermatologist and love this.  It’s as moisturizing as it protecting, especially with 9% zinc oxide.  Great under make-up.

 8. Dermaquest ZincClear SPF 30. The highest concentration of zinc out there with 18%. Dr. Irwin recommends highly recommends it for melasma sufferers like me. About $50.

9. Coola Classic Unscented Body Moisturizer SPF 30.  All natural ingredients, super water resistant, paraban free and packed with good stuff like avobenzone. And kids love it, especially the scented versions. About $32.

10. Color Science Sunforgettable SPF 30 Powder. None of the bad stuff, but all of the good like titanium dioxide and zinc.  The best part about this is that you pack in your bag and it’s easy to reapply.  I like that it absorbs my sweat on gross days and even my son uses it. About $50.

Lastly, I’m finding rash guards with SPF are not only a nice way to wear a bikini AND hide bulges, but if you like to play in the waves like my family and I do, they’re a necessity.  Fortunately, now they’re super cute like this one from J. Crew.  Another great source for all things sun is Coolibar (thanks to Dr. Michelle Greene for the suggestion) where you can get space age sun umbrellas that come in handy at picnics, the beach and soccer games.

If you have any other good brands to add to the list, please let me know.

Stay pasty my friends.


  • Reply
    July 13, 2013 at 1:15 PM

    Hi there! Love reading your blog but something is up with you and the email notifications of your new posts. I have 4 notifications for what appears to be the same post but with different titles? Just thought you should know.

    I love Jan Marini’s sunscreen. Doesn’t have any of the active ingredients you list but I wear it every day on my 40+ acne prone skin.

    • Reply
      July 14, 2013 at 2:49 AM

      I’m so sorry about the duplicate emails. I was trying out something on Polyvore not realizing I hadn’t unchecked the box that said “share with friends”, so I accidentally spammed everyone. Thanks for the tip on Jan Marni. The one thing you may want to think about in the future is that Jan Marni does have oxybenzon 6% which was on the list of potentially harmful ingredients, although it doesn’t sounds like they understand exactly how harmful it is.

  • Reply
    July 13, 2013 at 3:35 PM

    I’m glad to see that Elta MD UV Lotion is on your list–in other words, glad I’m using something effective and relatively safe!

    But I think it should be on your “Face” list. The label says “face-body sunscreen,” and I have found it’s the perfect daily moisturizer. I use it on my face, neck, and decolletage; and with a little cream blush and a dusting of powder on my T-zone, I’m ready for the day.

    • Reply
      July 14, 2013 at 2:43 AM

      Noted. I use it too and love it. You may notice I revised the list from earlier after noticing half the sunscreens I had on there had the ingredients specifically called out as bad. Elta remained though, it’s a keeper.

  • Reply
    July 14, 2013 at 10:10 AM

    Another thoroughly awesome post…thank you!!

    I use Blue Lizard’s baby sunscreen and scanned the ingredient list and didn’t see any of the harmful stuff you mentioned. I especially like it because it’s a physical barrier from the sun, as opposed to a chemical.

    • Reply
      July 15, 2013 at 8:11 PM

      Ah, you are right! Blue Lizard Baby, Sensitive and Face are all great. The only Blue Lizard watch out are the “regular” and “sport” which have oxybenzone.

  • Reply
    July 15, 2013 at 10:52 AM

    A shot glass full to one’s face? Is that a typo? I’ve always been told a shot glass (1 oz) for your entire body. I’m not sure it is possible to get this much on your face.

    • Reply
      July 15, 2013 at 8:08 PM

      Yes mam, that was a typo and it’s been corrected. Thanks for letting me know.

  • Reply
    July 17, 2013 at 5:34 PM

    Very useful. I am at a complete loss every Summer, staring dumbly at bottles and picking randomly.

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