A version of this article previously appeared on Ecocult.
I gave it a fair shot. I’ve been trying to make it work for probably seven years now, but it never really was right for me. Non-toxic sunscreen is like that nice guy who is also so awkward and clingy. You feel guilty ditching him because you want to be a good person, but you finally just have to come to terms with the fact that he’s holding you back from living life to the fullest.
The first time I had an inkling that non-toxic, mineral sunscreen sucked was nearly six years ago when I visited my friend Anna at her lake house. I – well, slathered is the wrong word. It’s more like trying to knead clay into my skin, which goes as well as you would imagine. I worked the thick, white, zinc paste into my skin and asked for help from my friends for my back. They giggled and made fun of my “geisha paint.” I didn’t care. I was protected and proud. But by the time we were driving the boat back in, I had a nasty, all-over sunburn.
I thought maybe it was because I was on the water and hadn’t reapplied it enough. So I kept trying, and failing, to use mineral sunscreen the correct way. Not always, though. Sometimes I used whatever conventional sunscreen was made available to me with a twinge of guilt, but that always seemed to work fine.
When I went to India last month, I brought my non-toxic sunscreen with me. I was alone, so I applied it as best I could. I got a huge sunburn. Which makes sense – I couldn’t apply it all over my body, after all. But here’s the kicker: there was literally no difference in sunburn between the places I could reach and the places I couldn’t. There were no fingerprints, blobs, or lines, except for my bathing suit lines. I was one solid red color from the tops of my feet up to my shoulders. It was as if I had never put sunscreen on at all! I came home to NYC, started peeling, and reapplied the clay-like substance for a long bike ride, during which my friends and strangers alike gently asked me WTF was wrong with my skin.
Maybe, it’s not me. Maybe I’m not a bad person. Maybe, just maybe, it’s the sunscreen. According to Consumer Reports, natural sunscreens (a.k.a. mineral sunscreens) that contain titanium dioxide and/or zinc as their active ingredients have consistently performed poorly compared to their conventional counterparts. Honest Company’s sunscreen has been dinged in a lawsuit and on social media for not doing jack.
Oxybenzone, oh my?
But, you might wonder, what is the point of protecting your skin from sunburn and eventual melanoma, if you use toxic sunscreen that will give you cancer? Well, according to a Whole Foods-shopping dermatologist (that is, a dermatologist who is not hostile to the organic movement), it would take 200 years of regular application of conventional sunscreen’s effective UV blocker oxybenzone to, “reach even questionable levels of exposure” that would cause hormone disruption which might then lead to cancer at some point down the road. (The study that raised the alarm involved feeding rats a massive amount of sunscreen, at which point their uteruses got bigger. I’m not planning on eating my sunscreen, so I’m not sure that applies to me.) Huh. If this ingredient is not so bad, why on earth am I torturing myself? Why am I aging my already sun-damaged skin in a quixotic quest to avoid what looks like a fictional toxin?
But, the plot thickens. (Pun intended.) Some people are allergic to Oxybenzone, and in that case, they have to avoid it. I’m sorry.
And then there is this list of ingredients that harm the marine environment, which basically includes anything that would protect you from UV rays. But…they caveat it by saying more study is needed. They also say that it is entirely replaceable by other ingredients that are less toxic to marine life. But conveniently leave out the fact that the FDA in the U.S. is weirdly hostile to approving these other ingredients. Concerned consumers are left in a lurch by this situation. I certainly don’t want to poison the already beleaguered coral. But I also don’t want to get melanoma.
Oh, the life of a conscious consumer.
Read about Alden’s sunscreen plan on Ecocult.
Have you tried mineral sunscreen–only to give up on it? Do you have a sunscreen (mineral or otherwise) that you swear by?
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Photo: Alden Wicker