Sunscreens that Save Your Skin Without Hurting the Earth

In this particular household of Earthlings, we all have about the same color of skin, and if we wanted to wear makeup we’d get the second-lightest shade in most brands: We are not the palest people on the planet, but we’re fairly fair.

That said, we’re not especially prone to sunburn, so we don’t wear sunscreen for our normal daily activities, when we’ll be outdoors for less than an hour at a time, moving in and out of the shade and avoiding long exposure to direct sunlight.  We want to give our bodies a chance to make Vitamin D. By this point in the summer, our arms and legs are lightly tanned.

We do need sunscreen when we go swimming or spend a whole day mostly outdoors.  We had 5 days in a row like that on our recent trip to Disney World! So we covered our exposed skin (and about an inch past the edges of shirts/dresses, to allow for clothing shifting around) with sunscreen every morning and did touch-ups later in the day.

The result: We came home looking only a tiny bit different than before we left. All of us except the 5-year-old had a spot somewhere around the collar that got a little bit pink on one day or another–that must have been the spot where we applied sunscreen too thinly or where we happened to rub it off somehow. My 5-year-old Lydia and I developed just enough new freckles to be noticeable. The backs of my calves tanned more deeply. Maybe all our faces were a bit pinker. (We didn’t take Before pictures.) But that’s about it. Nobody got a painful sunburn.

We would have gotten even better protection if we’d actually followed the instructions and reapplied sunscreen every two hours, putting it on nice and thick. But doing this the convenient, lackadaisical way is really a better test of how well these products work in real life!

The result was the same as our typical past experiences with conventional sunscreens made with chemicals that kill coral reefs.  But for this trip, we used only “natural” sunscreens from the selection at our food co-op.

Katie at Kitchen Stewardship has tested over 100 natural mineral sunscreens on her family (after several years of going swimming a lot more often than we do!) and has all the details on the pros and cons of each, as well as recommendations of the very best brands. Conventional chemical sunscreens typically contain parabens, endocrine disruptors linked to reproductive health problems and cancer, and ingredients that kill coral reefs after they rinse off swimmers’ bodies into the water supply. Check out Katie’s thoroughly researched and annually updated article!

But if all you have time to do right now is look at a picture so that when you go to the store, you might be able to spot a sunscreen that’s safer for your health and Earth’s oceans yet just as effective as the average conventional chemical sunscreen, you are in the right place! All of these are effective sunscreens.

The 4 varieties of sunscreen mentioned in the article.Notice the difference in SPF–that’s the main difference between the 3 lotion/creams.  My partner Daniel strongly prefers Alba Botanica Natural Sunblock sport formula because of its SPF 45 and because he thinks it spreads a little better and feels better on the skin than these other sunscreens.  This one also worked well on Lydia, who wore sundresses every day that left various portions of her shoulders bare to the sun–yet she didn’t burn! This tube is from last year; here’s the updated version.  It’s water-resistant for 80 minutes, has 100% vegetarian ingredients, and is biodegradable.

I thought Badger Natural Mineral Sunscreen Lotion with SPF 30 and Badger Natural Mineral Sport Sunscreen Cream with SPF 35 both provided proper protection to my ears and arms–but I’m pretty sure that the day my legs tanned noticeably and that spot above my collar turned pink was the day I used SPF 30.

What’s the difference between these two Badger products: Lotion and Cream?

  • Lotion is not water-resistant.  Cream is water-resistant for 80 minutes.
  • Lotion has 84% organic ingredients.  Cream has 98%; its only inorganic ingredient is zinc oxide.
  • Lotion is 15% zinc oxide and provides SPF 30.  Cream is 22.5% zinc oxide and provides SPF 35.
  • Lotion contains lecithin and glycerin from undisclosed sources, and the label says, “Some ingredients may have been processed from corn, soy, wheat, or whey.”  This could be problematic for strict vegans or people with allergies.  Cream doesn’t contain these ingredients or carry this warning.
  • Lotion contains aloe vera, elderberry extract, coconut extract, and carnauba wax.  Cream contains beeswax and jojoba oil.  Both contain sunflower oil.
  • Lotion also contains 12 ingredients with chemical names that, when searched in the Skin Deep database, turn out to be harmless and derived from plants, although some of them are highly processed.  Cream doesn’t have any of this stuff–it has a total of only 5 ingredients.
  • Lotion separates when warm, so be sure to shake and massage the tube for a few seconds and then point it upward when opening.  Cream is kind of thick, can be hard to get out of the tube in an air-conditioned room, and is so visible on your skin that you might embarrass a teenager.  (“Mom, you look blue!“)

In future, I’ll buy the Cream instead of the Lotion for its simpler ingredients, water resistance, and higher SPF.

I used All Good Sunstick with SPF 30 on my face because I wear contact lenses and have a really miserable time if even a tiny hint of sunscreen gets into my eye!  Lotions and creams tend to melt on my sweating forehead and drip into my eyes, and that’s not just a pain in the eye–my forehead gets sunburned after the sunscreen melts off!  So I wanted a sunscreen that would stay where I put it, and this one delivered.  All my life, my nose and forehead have been the parts of me most likely to sunburn, but the sunstick stuck with me all day long and bounced those rays away! Labeling and documentation don’t indicate that it’s waterproof, but it sure seems to be; we’re going to try it next time we go swimming. . . .

All Good Sunstick is in a twist-up tube like lip balm. Just press it firmly against your skin and pull it along to apply an even layer. It’s colorless and only very slightly reflective, so it doesn’t change your appearance, which is so important to my 14-year-old Nicholas that he used this sunscreen exclusively.  It’s 20% zinc oxide, and all the rest is natural ingredients.  (It hardens after about a year, becoming impossible to apply–so don’t stockpile more than you can use this summer!)

The downside to the sunstick is that it’s very difficult to wash off. It has a waxy consistency that’s impervious to ordinary soap and only reluctantly dissolves in hot water. After we got home, I found that an exfoliating cleanser (hey, I’m just now finishing that tube two years later!) removes it effectively. But while we were in Florida, I gave up on washing it all off, and it didn’t irritate my skin at all. Nicholas really put it to the teen test yet didn’t break out.

When you come home from your adventures in the sunshine, try my methods for making real food without heating up the house!Energy Efficient Summer Cooking

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