Safe sunscreen. Or, Excuse Me While I Help You Avoid Toxic Death Cream Without Making You Feel Like a Horrible Person

When I first saw the title of the recent viral post Excuse me while I lather my kids in this toxic death cream, I expected a post in the tone of eye-roll, dismissing and even ridiculing the hippies and the dippies (like me) who are doing their best to use safe sunscreen, or more importantly, to:

  • do the right thing with the information they have
  • not blindly trust any old product that calls itself “safe”
  • keep an eye out for new information on how to keep their family healthy and protected

 What I actually got was a pretty decent reflection of how I sometimes feel trying to

  • do the right thing
  • keep up with and vet for accuracy the most current information available
  • be responsible for my own health and wellness rather than blindly trusting so-called “Authority Figures” who so often have ulterior motives
  • just protect my kid from all the nastiness and for-profit corporate shenanigans that fill the modern world.

When you become a parent, you really do realize how much you’re up against.

(So, summary: I feel TIRED. SIGH.)

The author pointed out, for one, the crazy, “click bait” internet headlines that really do the facts a disservice – the ones that accuse parents of using TOXIC DANGEROUS CANCER-CAUSING MUTATION-INDUCING products on their VULNERABLE INNOCENT CHILDREN WHO ARE NOW MUTATING BECAUSE OF THEIR NEGLIGENCE.

The basic tone of the post was: I’M TRYING MY BEST. I’m open to the facts in front of me. But why do you have to use click-bait scare tactics to make your point?

Welp, as a longtime blogger, I can tell you why (and at the same time, give you some pretty decent insight into why I make exactly zero dollars from advertising on my blog):

Click-bait scare tactics get EYES on the content – we call that “clicks,” and clicks make money. When you use click-bait, you can increase your revenue AND your readers by one million percent. That’s an official number.

This is also the reason why THIS VERY POST won’t be widely read or shared, even though the information in it is really important.

Click-bait scare tactics do get the point across sometimes (do the ends justify the means?) but more often than not, they actually distract from the point. By making us feel like assholes even though we’re trying our best.

Yet the fact remains: if we bought a potentially dangerous tube of toxic death cream – or, less hyperbolically, if we bought a tube of sunscreen marketed as “safe” yet containing potentially questionable ingredients – with the intention of slathering it all over our kids, we want to know.

And we want to do better once we know better.


We don’t ACTUALLY need guilt, and we don’t ACTUALLY need scare tactics. We just need information. Facts. Recommendations.

That’s what I try to do, here, with this website, my book, and my podcast. I try to check my sources, trust the right ones, and do better once I know better. And since people seem to be interested, I like to share what I discover.

So, if you will, allow me to Help You Avoid Toxic Death Cream Without Insinuating You’re a Horrible Person On The Brink of Damnation.

Here’s the quick, easy lowdown on sunscreen:

Crap, this isn’t actually quick at all. Oh, well.

The Environmental Working Group releases its Sunscreen Report yearly, after which everyone gets in a tizzy about sun protection. They skew on the very, very cautious side when it comes to chemicals, which some people don’t like; but when it comes to the kiddos, I think it’s the way to go.

We still run in to issues, however. Here’s what they are:

  • Many people don’t read what the EWG is actually sayingthey just get pissed when their sunscreen is called into question without reading everything in context. (This is human nature. When we feel we’re being accused of doing something wrong, we immediately bristle. It’s hard to admit we were wrong, and even harder to admit we didn’t know something we feel we should’ve known. This is SO me.)
  • And after getting pissed, folks continue to avoid actually reading what EWG has to say. Many people start taking potshots at funding sources, as if kind of getting funding from the organic products industry is on par with being a subsidiary of, say, Johnson and Johnson?
  • Some so-called “trusted authorities” question the EWG’s reports by cherry-picking evidence that supports their own differing conclusions. It appears they might do this to defend products that they’ve formulated that contain the very questionable ingredients we’re attempting to weed out. Example: one well-known brand (in fact, the founder of that brand was one of the first to get me thinking about what I was putting on my body in the first place, some 15 years ago) criticized research against retinyl palmitate because certain study findings hadn’t been published. Yet the FDA actually has refused to study this topic further; this is an issue of funding and bureaucratic stagnation and not proven ingredient safety.
  • Many people grab snippets out of context – like “Sunscreen should be your last resort” – and commence to righteous indignation that anyone should trust this group that wants you to sit outside all day unprotected and get burned and get melanoma.In reality, the EWG is advising you to avoid the sun, seek shade, wear protective clothing, and not rely on flawed, scientifically questionable, imperfect lotions and potions to do all your protecting for you.)

So, steps one through three to navigating this whole ingredient safety Fire Swamp are:

  1. use the EWG’s report as a starting point;
  2. look at their source material, and
  3. understand what sunscreen ACTUALLY is and how it ACTUALLY works

And make your decisions from there.
(What sucks is that this requires time and effort, and most of us really just want to believe that the sunscreen buyer at Walgreen’s has done this work for us. Sadly, this isn’t the case.)
What we need to know first is the difference between physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens.
FYI: I know, I know: everything on the planet is technically a “chemical.” When I talk about PHYSICAL vs. CHEMICAL sunscreens, I’m talking about the means by which these products block rays. To the best of our knowledge, physical sunscreens do not undergo the chemical changes that the active ingredients in chemical sunscreens do when exposed to the very light they’re supposed to protect us from.

PHYSICAL SUNSCREENS (These are awesome)

PHYSICAL sunscreens use zinc to block the sun’s rays in a way similar to tightly-woven clothing. It’s like clothing in a bottle! …Well, the kind of clothing you have to re-apply every hour.
(Avoid the ones with both zinc and titanium dioxide, or titanium dioxide alone – they aren’t as good.)
Physical sunscreens use zinc as their active ingredient, and no avobenzone or oxybenzone or other chemicals to block rays. Physical sunscreens might be called “broad spectrum,” but really, that’s just a marketing term for “offers both UVB and UVA protection.”  
FYI, the term “Broad Spectrum” means something a little different when it comes to chemical sunscreens. I talk about that (and more sunscreen stuff, including more recommendations) in this possibly hyperbolic but hopefully not click-baity post.
Overall summary from that post: I recommend you use a physical sunscreen STICK to make sure your zinc NEVER separates from the rest of the formula.
The physical sunscreen sticks I love are:

  • Badger Balm
    Pros: simple ingredients, affordable and effective.
    Cons: it’s WHITE. Very white.
  • Babo Botanicals
    Same pros & cons as Badger
  • Beautycounter (this is what I use for face and body)
    Pros: it goes on clear! No 80’s lifeguard face
    Cons: pricey, often sold out

Another option that isn’t approved for an SPF label (FDA makes that REALLY hard) is the amazing, regenerating, nourishing Sun Stick Ultra from Primal Life Organics.
PLO Stick

This thing is FULL of some of the most amazing protective ingredients on the planet, including Zinc and Raspberry Seed Oil, which is studied to have an incredibly high natural Sun Protection Factor.


…but we kind of just realized that, so again…know better, do better.
CHEMICAL sunscreens use chemicals like avobenzone or (most often) oxybenzone to ABSORB rather than block the sun’s rays. Sunscreens with these ingredients and a few others usually make the EWG’s “Worst” list…and sadly, most of the “kid’s sunscreens” parents buy (Banana Boat, Neutrogena and Coppertone) are on this list.
Unfortunately, we have research that suggests that these substances MIGHT not be ideal for sun protection.

  • Avobenzone can break down with exposure to light.
  • Oxybenzone is easily absorbed into the bloodstream and might cause hormone disruption
  • Retinyl Palmitate might affect the skin negatively when exposed to light (which is…um…the whole point of sunscreen?)

So, with all that said, to exercise caution (I don’t play around with sun overexposure) and to NOT play the “which chemical is safe today?” game, I say…just opt for the PHYSICAL sunscreens.
Furthermore, most chemical sunscreens really only do a good job of blocking UVB rays – the “burning rays” – which gives us a false sense of security as to whether our cells are overexposed to the sun. Why? Because UVA rays – which are the ones that cause deep DNA damage and malignant cancer – can still get through, even with a so-called “broad spectrum” chemical sunscreen.
This is a fact, and it’s scary. And it’s also something that has been true for a long time – we just didn’t know it until recently.
So, I’m telling you a scary fact; I’m not using a scare tactic.
To get technical, the SPF designation actually requires that the actual protection against UVA is only a percentage of the product’s protective factor against UVB. This means that chemical sunscreens don’t offer the same level of protection against both types of rays, even though the label only uses one number to designate SPF.
Conclusion: The SAFEST sun protection is PROBABLY ALMOST DEFINITELY a zinc-based stick sunscreen. Luckily, there are lots of those out there, many of them are affordable, and ALL of them are effective.
If you want to read lots more (and honestly, maybe I got a little hyperbolic and scare tactic-ish in this post, but I can’t change it now) check out this post that explains a LOT more about stick sunscreens and why I recommend the ones I do.
So there’s my non-clickbaity post. I hope it helps somebody pick a better option for their dear ones.
Lotsa love, and thanks for reading!

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6 Responses

  1. THANK YOU. I so so so so so appreciate this! As a mom, its like.. okay, well.. I get that sunscreen is bad.. but I can’t just let a baby crisp up in the sun sooo……. I will have to check out the ones you listed- right now I’m slathering him in coconut oil (spf4 woot woot), & wearing hats and sun-blocking outfits. I need something for when he is in others care (aka daycare- where coconut oil will NOT fly), so the timing of this list is perfect! Amy

  2. Thank YOU for this thoughtful response to that post. I wanted to respond with a post as well, but there was no way I could have done it as well as you did. Thank YOU! I will be sharing this!!!

  3. Thank you for sharing these insights. I guess it’s time bid adieu to all the artificial skin care products and reap the amazing benefits of these ingredients. Can’t wait to try them.

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