It's warming up in the Northeast - Memorial Day weekend is nearly upon us - which means readers are in the market for and asking about safe sunblock again. I haven't given the goop much thought since last summer so have been just sending curious emailers a link to what I last wrote here about sunscreen.
A few weeks ago, I finally went shopping for new tubes of my chosen brands and the stock looked a bit sparse. Several days later I happened on the following announcement on my mainstay brand's website:
"New European regulations for sunscreens will soon require levels of UVA protection that are impossible to achieve with natural mineral sun filters such as the titanium dioxide in Dr.Hauschka Sunscreens. In order to meet the requirements of these new regulations and maintain our products' SPF ratings, we would be forced to reformulate using synthetic filters."Our unwavering dedication to pure, holistic skin care and BDIH guidelines for natural ingredients prevent us from using synthetic sun filters in our preparations. As a result, Dr.Hauschka Skin Care has made the difficult decision to discontinue our existing sun care range."As of January 1, 2009, Dr.Hauschka Sun Care products will no longer be available in the U.S."
This was truly news to me. That it happened back in January was a shock -- how come no one told me? I picked up the phone and started emailing to see if anyone else knew what these new regulations were, and, most importantly, what other people were going to use, especially as other natural/pure European brands like Weleda and Santaverde have also discontinued their sunblocks for the same reason. As it turns out, I'm not the only one in the dark about these new regulations. Several colleagues are now doing the scramble I'm doing, and I'm eagerly awaiting news of their new chosen brands. The organic beauty purist Kirstin Binder at SaffronRouge.com was the only insider I contacted who knew about the changes, as she carried all of the discontinued European brands. The only un-discontinued block she currently sells, Erbaviva, is American. Binder says it's "great" and is "desperately" looking for other clean organic sunscreens. (She also sells Soleo, which is Australian, but she says they're having stock issues this year, an unhappy coincidence.)
Because I'm waiting to hear back from many trusted resources, and because I still have yet to get my hands on these new European regulations, I expect this to be a first post in a sunblock series. Check back. But here's my attempt to make sense of this situation in the interim:
As a consumer, it's scary to hear that something you've been using to protect your skin and your children's skin isn't deemed safe enough in Europe anymore. That said, it was deemed safe enough in past years. I haven't burned. And, as of now, natural mineral sun filters (titanium dioxide and zinc) are still considered safe in the United States, though they may be less effective than some newer chemical UVA screening agents I wouldn't personally use on myself or my daughter.
These have always been and remain - based on my recent conversations -- my sunblock priorities:
to use sunscreen (I have skin cancer in my family)
to apply sunblock early, often, and copiously, even if the pure products are ridiculously expensive, but also to do what the Campaign For Safe Cosmetics' Stacy Malkan refers to as a "good old fashioned remedy" -- staying out of the sun in peak hours and using hats. I also hug the shady side of the street, and have recently started wearing SPF clothing when at the beach.
to use a block that contains natural mineral sun filters but does not contain undesirables like parabens, synthetic fragrance, and dyes, among other things. These are ingredients I avoid in all of my cosmetics; sunblock is no different, even though it's clearly more necessary than, say, lipstick. This is crucial and requires close ingredient label reading when buying a new-to-you brand. There are some sunblocks with low hazard ratings on The Environmental Working Group's sunscreen guide, for example that contain parabens and more. Skin Deep is undeniably an excellent resource but it doesn't absolve consumers of their ingredient label reading duty, especially in the natural product arena. Check and double check. And FYI -- waterproof and natural aren't mutually exclusive.
As for sunblock brands, I'm personally stockpiling the discontinued Dr. Hauschka and Weleda - the expiration dates on the leftover stock are in 2010. (I used a lot of Lavera over the last few years but have yet to hear back from them on if they've discontinued or reformulated, so I'm not stockpiling them. Yet.) I'm also trying out Erbaviva. If these options aren't available to you, sorry to sound like a broken record, but read ingredient labels carefully to make an informed purchase following my basic advice.
This brings me to my next confusing sunblock issue - nanotechnology. Based on my research, several popular and widely available American brands of natural mineral sunscreen like California Baby and the very pure Badger spell out on their labels - though they aren't required to do so and most brands don't - that their titanium dioxide is "micronized."
"Micronized is a code for nano[technology]," says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist/toxicologist in the National Resource Defense Council's health program. "There is some evidence that it is passing through the skin, and that those materials are harmful. The body of evidence is building."
Unfortunately there's no way of knowing which sunscreens contain something nano-ized or micronized, or even how big the particles are (apparently this makes a difference). And to make matters worse, the trustworthy sources in this arena disagree on the safety of nanotechnology. Sass and a group called Friends Of The Earth say (pdf) to avoid nano materials in sunscreen. Friends Of The Earth also offers a (short) list of nano-free options, some natural, some not. But The Environmental Working Group deems micronized titanium dioxide safe, and even says it offers greater sun protection than larger particles.
So it falls to the citizen scientist consumer to read these differing opinions, then to make a sliding scale of risk. Not cool. Mine goes something like this: sun is bad, you want to block it. There's a lot of gunk in normal sunscreen that is also proven to be bad for you.
First, find a natural block.
Second, find a natural block that doesn't contain a whole host of chemical ingredients that are known to be harmful.
Third, see if you can find a block that meets the prior two criterion and that also doesn't contain micronized ingredients.
This information isn't easy to come by. Some of my chosen brands of yore may or may not have done a little unpublicized micronizing. One simple test is that non-micronized natural blocks go on white (and often pasty or thick), not clear.
"It's good to wear sunscreen but you don't have to pass that stuff into your bloodstream," says Sass. That's my motto as I go about figuring out more about these European regulations and finding the purest replacement products.
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