If you’ve read the Environment Working Group (EWG)’s list of sunscreens to avoid and thoroughly panicked because your tried and true brand is on there, you’re in good company. I’ve been that guy. How could I be slathering my child in this literal poison?
If this is you, put the bottle down (sunscreen and wine you’re using to forget your sunblock transgression) and take heart: The EWG is full of it. No really, they are so entrenched in pseudoscience that not even the most virgin, cold-pressed, organic coconut oil infused with turmeric could save them.
So why do they keep suckering us in? As well-respected science writer Kavin Senapathy states, they “ooze credibility.” Or at least they do on the surface. In actuality, the organization is mostly funded by the companies whose products they recommend. In a vacuum, this isn’t terrible.
Lots of very valid studies are funded by companies with a vested interest, and the results are still scientifically accurate and valuable. Often, these funded studies yield results that place the benefactors in a bad light. Funding sources alone are not enough to discredit research.
But that isn’t the case with the EWG. Their science is bad. The EWG operates on the false principle that natural is safe and synthetic is dangerous. The best illustration of the ridiculousness of this belief is the sun. There is nothing more natural than the sun, our entire solar system literally revolves around it. But there are few things more carcinogenic. It’s a giant ball of radiation. Whether something is natural or synthetic says nothing of its value or safety, nor its effectiveness. Speak to a chemist, including an organic chemist, and they will be happy to put that rumour to rest.
So if the EWG is useless as a guide to keeping our kids safe in the sun, what should we be doing?
The most important thing to remember when it comes to sunscreen is to use it. Period. Don’t let fear mongering stop your slather. Rub those kiddos down, and then get yourself too.
There's a lot to consider (and a lot you don't need to care about!) when it comes to sunscreen.
The first thing to look for are the words “Broad Spectrum.” This means it protects against UVA and UVB rays.
Then check the SPF rating. SPF 15 is the minimum. SPF 30 is better. Each increase after that increases protection a small amount, but all SPF is affected by how often it is applied, how thickly it is applied, water exposure, etc. Broad Spectrum is more important than SPF rating above 15.
Some sunscreens are water-resistant for 40-80 minutes, and will specify on the bottle. Regardless of water-resistance, get into the habit of reapplying after swimming or sweating.
Reapply at least every two hours and after swimming or sweating. Don’t be stingy, give a good coat. And don’t forget to check the expiry date.
The Mayo Clinic breaks down the differences between organic and inorganic ingredients:
“Sunscreens contain filters that reflect or absorb UV rays. There are two main types of sunscreens:
Often sunscreens include a combination of organic and inorganic filters.
This is the least important factor in choosing a sunscreen. Brand doesn’t matter nearly as much as broad spectrum, SPF, or water-resilience.
Lotion or spray? Spray can be easier and faster, but is has pitfalls. It can be harder to get a good coverage, and there is some evidence that inhaling it could cause problems, particularly for people with asthma. Dr. Jeremy Friedman from Sick Kids Hospital states, “The concern is not so much the content of the sunscreen but more the potential for children to inhale the sunscreen.”
Like baby formula, sunscreen creation is best left to the professionals who can test it properly for SPF and broad spectrum. If you are buying a “natural” or non-mainstream brand, check to make sure it is properly tested and regulated. Consistency and effectiveness are key when it comes to sunscreen, and they outweigh the urge to buy natural.
Sunscreen is one of the important ways to guard against the harmful effects of the sun, but other measures are necessary as well.
Wear protective clothing, including lightweight pants and long-sleeves, sunglasses, and hats (wide-brimmed is best.)
Stay out of the sun during peak hours (Usually 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
Check the UV reading for the day – don’t let clouds fool you, UV rays can go through them.
Seek out shade, particularly for children who are too young for sunscreen – but never place a blanket or cover over a car seat or stroller. It blocks the sun, but it traps heat and can raise the temperature inside to dangerous levels.
Stay hydrated, and take breaks from the sun to cool off.
Now throw out that EWG report (on sunscreen and anything else), grab your safe, effective sunscreen, and head out to enjoy the sunshine.