10 Tips for Swimming Through Sunscreen Controversy

I’m a redhead which puts me in the high-risk category for skin cancer. If anyone should wear sunscreen, it’s me. I spent most of my childhood as orange as a carrot thanks to a strange sunscreen my dermatologist dad slathered on me.

I’ve since spent my adulthood trying to find the perfect sunscreen. This is no easy task as the more you learn, the more the facts tend to contradict themselves. Eventually I came to the conclusion that there is no perfect sunscreen. It’s a matter of finding the one that’s right for you, depending on your skin type and preferences.

Here are a few things you should consider on your quest:

1. I tend to be suspicious of all those unpronounceable chemical ingredients in mainstream sunscreens, such as oxybenzone and benzophenone, substances suspected of causing cell damage. Another problem ingredient is paba which is thought to do damage to DNA. More studies still need to be done.

2. Of course, dermatologists will tell you that it’s worse to get sunburned than to worry about what’s in your sunscreen. “There’s really no evidence that the chemicals in regular sunscreens are dangerous or cancerous,” says Dr. Jensen Yeung, of Sunnybrook Hospital. “In fact chemical sunscreens offer superior protection against the sun and skin cancer than do the non chemical brands.”

3. But if you are allergic to regular sunscreens, natural, non-chemical versions are a good alternative, says Dr. Yeung. “[These] physical blockers are inert substances and therefore don’t cause allergic reactions.”

4. A good physical blocker should contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. These block both UVA and UVB rays.

5. However, titanium dioxide was rated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a Group 2B carcinogen, meaning, “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. This mostly applies to the powder form, which can cause respiratory problems. The studies are not necessarily conclusive.

6. Zinc oxide comes with less health concerns, but keep in mind it is thick, white and pasty. And be careful where you sit, since it may rub off on your furniture.

7. Dermatologists recommend a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30.

8. “And you should be using about one shot glass of any sunscreen to cover the whole body,” Dr. Yeung warns. That’s right. A whole shot glass.

9. Drugstore brands Neutrogena and Avène both have mineral-based sunscreens for sensitive skin that are recommended by Canadian dermatologists.

10. The Environmental Working Group has a website that rates the toxicity of products, including sunscreens. Their research rates Soleo Organics, Badger, UV Natural, Lavera and Mexitan lotion, all with SPF 30, as the top five sunscreens on the market. These are mostly available in health food stores.

I now use Badger SPF 30, which contains zinc but not titanium dioxide. It is ridiculously thick. So now, instead of appearing orange as I did when I was a child, I’m corpse white.