Every green blog/site/publication seems to have sunblock suggestions up now. Makes sense it's summer. But the frustrating thing is that they're all over the map. Sure, there is some overlap. But it's hard for a parent to know what to use or whom to trust.
People who trust me have been emailing me of late to question my sunscreen recommendations. I have used and suggested others use Dr. Hauschka and Lavera for several years now. Including on this site. But the Environmental Working Group (whom I trust) put out a new sun care ranking system that deems both of these less safe than certain creams containing chemicals I don't and won't put on my family's skin. Dr. Hauschka is BDIH-certified natural (this is a very strict German cosmetic standard) and is what I use daily, and on my daughter daily. But on the EWG ranking, it gets a whopping 7 hazard rating for the children and sensitive skin SPF 20 cream!? Lavera (also BDIH), which is harder to find near where I live (its often sold out), comes in at a 2 rating for the baby and children SPF 30, and the same whopping 7 rating for its two other sprays. Nevertheless, I do still use Lavera when I can find it.
The second reason Dr. H, for one, scored poorly is fragrance. The EWG database rank products based on their ingredient list. A complication arises because they do not make a distinction between fragrance/perfume that is natural and/or organically certified and one that is synthetic. Synthetic fragrances often contain hormone disruptors, so the EWG ranks them all as hazardous. Not making this distinction, a crucial nuance, makes screwy rankings for a lot of natural brands that contain essential oils and the like. Dr. H's fragrance is certified natural, so absolutely safe.
Meanwhile, to add to the confusion (can you even follow this?!), the EWG's best sunblocks list contains products with ingredients they themselves say are hazardous in other areas of their Skin Deep database. Take, for example, a Walgreens' block that gets a very low #1 hazard rating. Any greenie worth her weight in eco anything knows a Walgreens house brand product isn't likely to be particularly pure or safe. And sure enough, the ingredients list says it contains a whole host of chemicals that could never be certified organic let alone certified natural, ingredients the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics advised Whole Foods to ban from its Premium Body Care requirements. These include PEGs, parabens, propylene glycol and other unsavories. These are also ingredients anyone versed in cosmetic label reading knows to avoid.
Frustrated - how could my certified natural sunblock get a worse rating than something with parabens? - I contacted the EWG for help. How best to explain this to conscientious consumers, how best to help them (and me) navigate the unregulated Wild West of safe cosmetics if the number one place most people turn to for advice (even the New York Times did an editorial based on their sunblock ranking) is offering up contradictory information?
As with most things green, they admitted there are shades of gray. Sonya Lunder, senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group, sent me the following email, which I'm printing in full. Turns out their ranking for the skin protection is different than for other cosmetics:
"The skin protection score accounts for 2/3 of the overall score, with the health score accounting for 1/3 of the score. We prioritize skin protection due to the high incidence of skin cancer.
Our executive summary links to the 28 products with green ratings for both skin protection AND ingredient hazards. But due to the complexity of our ranking system product containing certain parabens can score well if the other ingredients are pretty benign.
The question about ingredients in Dr. Hauschka products strikes at the heart of a difficult issue. The product you mentioned includes "perfume" as well as 2 fragrance ingredients that have concentration restrictions in the EU and are known irritants. Oddly, the product may have scored better if all components were listed, or alternatively if everything was hidden in the catch-all "fragrance" term. But incomplete labeling leaves us in a tough spot when attempting to fairly score products. The company is welcome to join the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, and provide EWG more detailed information about their products. But in the interim, we will continue to score ingredients based on the information available to consumers.
A related issue is the variable quality of organic and natural certification systems. BDIH is known to set a high standard in many regards. Despite this their list of allowable preservatives, includes benzyl alcohol and salicylic acid which score poorly in our database."
I find this response compelling but still problematic as a consumer. It still doesn't tell me what to do in black and white. I still have to do the work to find the best product. My sunblock doesn't happen to contain any of those allowable preservatives on its ingredient list, there is no explanation of what the concentrations Sonya mentions are, and I'd much prefer to be "irritated" by a BDIH-certified product than to wipe petroleum derivatives on my child, so I'll stick by my choices and my recommendations for now. But I have also alerted the good people at Dr. H to the EWG's suggestion on how to fix their ranking on the EWG site. Dr. H customers have often done their own research and are very comfortable using their products, so I'm not sure the company will even bother. But the EWG is really the one place many concerned consumers go to make sure their products are safe, so if natural products don't want confusingly bad EWG scores, it seems they're going to have to provide more information and/or the EWG will have to change their own ranking rules for items that do not contain synthetic fragrances. Of course, the EWG is a small group dealing with an enormous number of cosmetics, among other very important issues. So the burden may be on the individual companies.
As it stands now, the burden - in all of its shades of green and gray - is on the already confused consumer. Not cool, especially in hot weather.
For another take on this particular debacle, surf over to Plenty.
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