choosing a sunscreen that's safe and effective

Last summer I stocked up on tons of sunscreen. Living in Colorado we're at about a mile's elevation (that much closer to the sun!) and it can be brutal, especially for someone as fair-skinned as our oldest daughter. With everything else we were concerned about I was pretty worried that we were coating our children with something several times a day and felt that since I was bothering to buy organic produce I should really be similarly concerned about the safety of our sunblock.
Ideally, a sunscreen would be block both UVA and UVB rays (UVA causes invisible damage while UVB causes the red burn that you see), contain ingredients that don't break down in the sun (since once the active ingredients break down you're at risk for sunburn), and all ingredients would be proven safe for both adults and children. After looking a bit, I found no sunscreen that met all of these criteria. Big surprise. In the end, I had to prioritize, so I made a list of what was really important to me.

Here were my requirements:
  • easy to apply, preferably a lotion/cream for faces and a spray for the rest of their body so that I could reapply often, even if the kids were busy
  • SPF 30 or better
  • something non-stinging since it inevitably finds its way into their eyes
  • a water-resistant formulation since we spend a lot of time in the sprinkler
  • something that didn't contain really concerning ingredients
  • reasonably priced, since we need to buy it by the gallon
Sounds easy, eh? It actually wasn't too bad once I found the right resources. The Cosmetics Database provides a list of children's sunblocks with separate ratings for effectiveness at preventing sunburn as well as safety of ingredients. Since I just didn't have the energy to remember that MEXORYL SX degrades quickly or that OCTINOXATE may have estrogenic effects...let alone to consider how various combinations may be better or worse, I appreciated their simple color-coded guide to product safety. Referring to their list, many of their recommended choices met my requirements but were still really expensive. Since I need to use about 1/2 oz per child per application to get the recommended whitish coating (and I'd bet on at least 2 applications per child on an average day) I was looking at about 20 oz per week through the summer. The Cosmetics Database's top choice was Badger, but at $14/2.9 oz (at REI) I didn't even want to do the math. We'd go through that in a day.

In the end, I simply couldn't afford to spend a few hundred bucks on sunblock for the summer, so chose one lotion for the big kids (it got a green rating overall in spite of having some questionable ingredients) and and a more expensive one for our infant since she (a) doesn't use much and (b) is tiny and seems particularly susceptible. I skipped the spray since there was no reasonably priced choice that was also sufficiently safe. Hopefully that will change by next summer.

Finally, while I was looking through their database I checked into the safety of the sunblocks I already had on the shelf. I was surprised to find that the Neutrogena I had bought for myself didn't stand up to the SPF rating on the bottle--explaining why I got a light sunburn (and extra freckles!) on my face a couple of times last summer. If nothing else, you might want to check into the actual efficacy of the sunblocks that you already own to avoid a surprise sunburn.

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