Fact Friday-Sunscreens (and why grading them isn’t always the best) 

With the kick off of summer last Memorial Day Weekend, I am sure a lot of us have seen (and shared) on social medial the yearly post put out by the EWG “Environmental Working Group” where they rate the best and worst sunscreens of the year.

While I think they have the best intentions, they still don’t have the resources to really rate these products where it matters.  Their methodology looks impressive, but there is one CRUCIAL flaw.  They look at the ingredients individually to make up their grading.  Although that is part of the puzzle, they don’t take into account the science and art of formulating a finished product.

When assessing a sunscreen, you need to look at the finished product.  The finished product encompasses the ingredients (how much of each ingredient), the process, stability (of the entire formula, not just the sunscreen actives), microbial robustness, SPF (UVA and UVB protection), irritation and allergy testing, then additionally irritation and allergy testing when exposed to the sun (ie photostability, phototoxicity, photoallergy),  product aesthetics (if it is goopy, oily, greasy, or whitening are you actually going to use it?) … just to name a few.

This may seem confusing, so lets think about it this way.  Imagine you are given a list of ingredients like this:

  • butter
  • sugar
  • sugar
  • eggs
  • vanilla
  • flour
  • syrup
  • cornstarch
  • baking powder
  • baking soda
  • salt
  • chocolate chips

  These are the basic ingredients in a chocolate chip cookie.  Now let’s grade them.  Butter is a fat, sugars make you fat, eggs are good for you (they are protein!) vanilla is natural, cornstarch, baking powder, and baking soda aren’t really necessary right? They are just chemicals, so they must be “bad.” Salt is bad and chocolate could be good if it’s dark chocolate…right?

Creating sunscreens is just like baking.  It is a science and an art.  Just with a different type of knowledge.  

Grades of ingredient matter:  To make this cookie, you aren’t supposed to just use butter, but melted butter.  Sugar is sugar right?  Wrong, this would call for packed brown sugar and granulated sugar in specific ratio.  Flour- hmmm, all purpose flour, whole wheat flour, almond flour?  They all will make the same cookie right?

The process is critical to your outcome:  I am sure we will get a delicious cookie if we just combine all these ingredients one after another in a bowl then bake it at any temperature for any length of time… No?

Getting the gist?  These ingredients could yield the most delicious cookie you have ever tasted, or it could yield something crunchy, chewy, burnt, under cooked, too salty, a fluff ball, runny, crispy… the possibilities are endless.

When we evaluate this cookie, the taste and therefore the performance of the cookie is LARGELY impacted by the levels of ingredients, how they are meticulously blended together, and the exact process for baking them.   If you want to find out the right levels of ingredients and the process to make this fabulous cookie, you can do so here.

Here are some of the possible outcomes using the same general ingredients.

These ingredients could also make a cake, cupcake, muffin, bread, or pancake….

Back to Sunscreens

When I looked at the EWGs list for the top 22 Kids Sunscreens I was a little shocked.  In one of them, they use sodium benzoate as a preservative in a leave on application.  Sodium benzoate is OK in a cleanser, but should not be used in a leave on.  Also sodium benzoate needs a low pH to be effective as a preservative (below 5), but minerals are stable at a higher pH (around 6.5-7)… so that right there sets off red flags for me on the stability of the product.

Another that scared the crap out of me was a high level of zinc and all other ingredients were natural oils… what the hell?  How does the zinc stay stable?  Does it just sink to the bottom of the tube?  No thickener, no emulsifier, no preservatives?  That is a sunburn (or allergic reaction) waiting to happen.

At the end of the day, this chemist would trust Coppertone, Neutrogena, heck, even Banana Boat with her skin.  These companies have a WEALTH of knowledge.  There are SO many people working on any one of these sunscreens to ensure that it is stable, provides broad spectrum UVA/UVB protection, has the right level of preservatives to keep the product safe from contamination.  There are also toxicologist, medical safety officers, and analytical chemists making sure the product is safe and effective.  Oh yeah and most importantly, there are formulators and engineers (or the cooks) who make sure that it feels great so that you actually WANT to use it to protect yourself from the sun…

Because let’s face it, if you hate the way it feels (no matter what kind of miracle rating it is given) you won’t use it and what good is sunscreen if it isn’t on your skin?

That being said, there was good information on their site that is accurate, like their article on the 8 facts about sunscreens.

A major issue I have with all these small label brands is that since the cosmetic industry is not regulated (but hopefully will be soon)  they don’t have a set standard for safety & efficacy.  I don’t think it is intentional that this small brand used the preservative the wrong way, I just think they didn’t know.  What is scary is that it is on the market and the product is getting a high rating.

There is no harm in trying something new, but when it comes to something as big as sun protection.  I am sticking with the experts.  Do your research.


In case you were wondering, here are my favorite sunscreens:

For my kids:

Coppertone Water Babies Pure & Simple Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50:  For beach days I love this sunscreen.  It goes on easily and rubs in quickly.  It has mineral sunscreen filters.  I personally don’t have a preference but my daughter has eczema.  The mineral filters are gentler on her skin.  My son is fine with either mineral or chemical filters. They both protect, just by a different mechanism of action.

Coppertone Water Babies Pure & Simple Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50 - 8 fl oz

Aveeno Baby Natural Protection Mineral Block Face Stick, SPF 50 OR

Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby Sunblock SPF 60+, Stick:  I cannot stock enough of these sticks.  I have them in my diaper bag, my purse, my car, my beach bag, at daycare… My kids are 4 and 2 and they use them themselves.  They provide excellent coverage and my fair little kids have NEVER gotten burnt using them.  Even when we go to the beach for an entire week.

Aveeno Baby Natural Protection Mineral Block Face Stick, SPF 50- .5 ozNeutrogena Pure & Free Baby Sunblock SPF 60+, Stick- .47 oz

For me: I have 2-3 routines… Daily, Beach Days, and Running Days!


Neutrogena Clear Face Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 55: for my face.  I apply this daily, after the shower.  It goes on and rubs in quickly.  After a few minutes I put my makeup on.   If I am going to the beach, I still wear this but I just don’t put on makeup so I can re-apply through out the day.

Neutrogena Clear Face Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 55- 3 oz

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen, SPF 55: For my body.  After the shower I put this on everywhere.  Once it dries (which it does in seconds) then I get dressed.  This avoids tan lines and smudging on my clothes and I am protected no matter what outfit I chose to wear.

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen, SPF 55- 3 oz


Neutrogena Beach Defense SPF 30 Sunscreen Lotion:  I can’t say enough about this sunscreen.  I have it in 30 and 70.  It smells like a pina colada frozen smoothie.  It goes on and rubs in quickly.  I love it and can’t live without it.

Neutrogena Beach Defense SPF 30 Sunscreen Lotion- 6.7 oz

Coppertone Oil Free Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30 for my beach bag.  My husband hates oily lotions, so this is a great option for us.

Coppertone Oil Free Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30- 8 fl oz

Coppertone Ultra Guard Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50:  I think I love Coppertone because it just smells like summer to me.  My mom used Coppertone for years.  I also like the way it feels and protects and I know it is properly formulated.

Coppertone Ultra Guard Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50- 8 fl oz


Coppertone Sport Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30: I like this one because it stays put!

Coppertone Sport Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30- 7 oz

Neutrogena CoolDry Sport Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50: Not greasy as all. Fragrance is light Rubs in well. After applying, skin felt smooth and dry, not sticky or greasy. I couldn’t tell it was there. Sun protection is great.  Also like it in SPF 30.

Neutrogena CoolDry Sport Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50- 5 oz

In general, I don’t use sprays for my family.  I have a few Sport, ultra sheer, and beach defense sprays in my beach bag and by my back door just in case I need something really quick or to spray my back and shoulders towards the late afternoon on a beach day.  It is a personal preference, I feel more comfortable applying a lotion to my family because I know we are “covered.”


After a beach day, this is my guilty pleasure.  

Hawaiian Tropic Ultra Radiance After Sun Lotion 

Hawaiian Tropic Ultra Radiance After Sun Lotion- 8 oz

It has glitter 🙂

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