April 8, 2011

Sunscreens - avoiding allergies and questionable chemicals

Though they do cover up with crazy orange hats, sometimes it's just necessary to slap on the sunscreen!
With spring finally here, the sun has begun to shine brightly in my neck of the woods. I find myself breaking out the sunscreen once again.  I don't know about you but finding the perfect sunscreen has not been an easy task for our food-allergic family.  Eczema and food allergies came hand-in-hand for our eldest child and it is very common for him to develop a bumpy rash from sunscreen or lotion.

Although we do have a favorite sunscreen (California Baby), I like to shop around in case there is a newer, better, and (yes) cheaper alternative on the market.  I always consult the Environmental Working Group (EWG) first for their top sunscreens based on low toxicity and effective sun protection.  It saves me from blindly diving into the seemingly bottomless pool of sunscreens.

EWG has taught me that finding a non-toxic sunscreen is as equally important to my kids' health as an allergy-free one. As EWG recommends, I always look for a brand that offers mineral-based UVA/UVB (broad spectrum) protection.  Minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can be effective sun blockers and, so far as current research finds, do not seem to penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream.  Research, however, has shown that chemicals such as oxybenzone (a common ingredient in sunscreens, moisturizers, and makeup) can cause allergic reactions, hormone disruption, and cell damage. 

Following are a few mineral-based brands that I have recently tried, all receiving high praise from EWG.  FYI I eliminated a couple affordable and highly-touted brands off the bat, Soleo Organics and Loving Naturals, because of the presence of ethyl macadamiate, derived from macadamia nut oil.  Although I don't *think* my kids have macadamia nut allergies, I really don't want to risk setting off an allergic reaction in them or any severely nut-allergic friends, classmates, and sharers of public pools.  The brands reviewed here are free of nut oils though some contain oils from seeds like sesame, safflower, or sunflower.

California Baby Super Sensitive (No Fragrance) Sunscreen
I love all-natural, fragrance-free California Baby, which relies on micronized titanium dioxide to protect against harmful sun rays.  It is highly water-resistant and it is the only brand that hasn't made Ryken break out in rashes while preventing him from sunburn and brown spots.  We reapply California Baby (and any other sunscreen) every three hours for the best protection.  I wouldn't have any complaints about using California Baby all the time if it weren't for fact that my husband has minor heart palpitations over the $20 price tag per tiny tube.  Knowing how costly sunscreen can be for a fair-skinned family of four in sunny California, I do feel the need to continue shopping around for less expensive skin protection.

Jason Naturals Sunbrellas Family Natural Sun Block SPF 45
Jason Naturals goes on thick.  It's a little creamier than California Baby so it's a little easier to rub into the skin to prevent a pasty white sheen.  It seems like it provides good sun protection.

A few things are working against Jason Naturals.  Ryken's skin did seem to get irritated by Jason Naturals once but on another occasions he seemed to be fine.  (I wonder if it's a sensitivity to zinc oxide?)  This sunscreen can sting your eyes so be careful during face application, when you wipe hair, sand, or sweat away from your face, and when you finally have to scrub the stuff off at the end of your sun day.  The product does separate so do try to shake it up before use or else your first squeeze might result in a palm full of oil.  It also smelled like bananas which wasn't a deal-breaker but my kids weren't too pleased. 

Episencial Sunny Sunscreen SPF 35
Episencial sunscreen is paraben, PABA, and hormone-free.  It is gentle enough for my son, who has always battled with eczema and breaks out in rashes with most sunscreens. It was very easy to apply (not super thick). It isn't as sticky white or stinging to the eyes as California Baby or Jason Naturals.

I reapply after about 2 to 3 hours.  Frankly, Episencial feels very light so I worry about how long its protection will last. So far it has staved off full-on sunburn. However, when using Episencial on really hot days, I noticed that my kids did develop some brown spots, which is another form of skin damage.

Blue Lizard Sensitive Suncream SPF 30+
Blue Lizard offers very long-lasting, waterproof protection against sunburn and brown spots although, like many protective sunscreens, it does leave you a little ghost-like.  It uses mineral-based zinc oxide and titanium dioxide for broad spectrum protection but, contrary to its claim of being "chemical-free", there are plenty of chemicals listed as ingredients.  (Maybe they mean "harmful-chemical-free"?)  It is PABA-free but it does contain parabens.  As much as I liked its sun protection, we stopped using it on Ryken because it caused skin irritation on repeat occasions.

Still on my list of to-try's is Badger SPF 30 Unscented Sunscreen.  It's more affordable than California Baby, which makes it an enticing possibility.  However Ryken's rashy reactions to other sunscreens that rely on zinc oxide, I'm not rushing out the door for Badger.  If you have used Badger, please let us know how you like it!

Before you slap on the sunscreen, do remember that a daily dose of sun exposure is necessary for our bodies because it boosts Vitamin D levels.  And when considering your choices, know that long-sleeve clothing, hats, and sunglasses are terrific defenses against the sun's powerful rays, too.


  1. My children have very sensitive skin, so even if an over the counter product says "hypoallergenic" (esp. Sun screen), i am hesitant to try it at the high prices. For over 2 years we went w/o sunscreen and just stayed covered, until our allerigist gave us samples of VANICREAM sunscreen. We've tried the spf 60 and the sport spf 35 and no itching or hives!
    However, we are still looking for a moisturizer that has no petroleum or nut products.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Sandra. Vanicream is now on my to-try list!

  3. By accident I recently tried California Baby (regular formula, not the sensitive/no fragrance variety). It had a strong smell to it and my sensitive skin reacted to it in the hot weather.

    I have also tried the California Baby sunstick, which has also garnered top ratings from EWG. To be honest, I don't trust the stick (or my application of it) because it's impossible to see the stuff!

    Now that summer has officially arrived, I was able to find my old but expensive standby, California Baby no fragrance sunscreen, at our local Target.

  4. What can you expect once the allergic reaction is on? We are in day 3 after the sunscreen was applied.