You may find it odd that I’m writing about my favorite sunscreen brands smack dab in the middle of winter from my desk in the decidedly untropical, cloud covered, climes of New England. But, this is generally the time of year that my fellow embittered winter folk take vacations to balmy, palm tree lined beaches to forget about the snow, cold, and ice and bake in the sun.
And while the following hypothesis still remains controversial in the medical community, some research shows that recreational, or intermittent, sun exposure (weekend trips to the beach, tropical mid-winter vacations, or ski trips for example) is a risk factor for melanoma. So don’t you dare forego sunscreen the first couple days of your trip because you want to get your tan on – you’re only damaging your skin and putting yourself at risk for skin cancer.
I’d also like to remind you that sunscreen is very important for year-round skin protection, no matter where you live! If you are going to be outside, driving a car, sitting by a window, etc. , etc., you should be wearing some sort of sun protection on your face!
I should know:
I have always been careful about sun protection, but I am especially
serious obsessively neurotic about it ever since developing really bad melasma. I was already prone to developing melasma because of certain risk factors (ethnicity, darker skin tone, etc), but it was ultimately triggered by using birth control.
Melasma is a rather unfortunate and frustrating skin disorder that I have on my upper lip, in small patches on my cheeks, and in between my eyebrows. Although it’s typically a bit lighter in the winter months it’s always visible and even very minimal sun exposure will trigger melanin production in these spots resulting in further darkening of my skin. It’s not pretty.
The only way to treat or reduce the appearance of these dark spots is to stay completely out of the sun, which is unrealistic given my lifestyle and the fact that I surf, which obviously puts me at greater risk for damage or problems related to sun exposure anyway.
I’ve had zero success treating it (believe me, I’ve tried everything), and I’m not going to stop doing what I love, so my only course of action is to accept and embrace the spots that have caused me years of stress and self-deprecating thoughts about how I look, and to manage it the best I can by being diligent about sun protection.
I may not be able to get rid of it, but I can certainly try to prevent it from getting darker or spreading. And so, this post is the first in a series I will do about products I use to help treat, prevent, and cover my melasma. It’s a condition that a lot of people don’t really know about (and most of the dermatologists I’ve seen are not terribly up-to-date in newer and innovative methods of treatment), but women who have it often feel really helpless and upset by their appearance, so I hope that this series will offer tips, and support!
So back to discussing sunscreen in the middle of winter.
Before you run out and buy something to protect yourself, please consider that not all sunscreens are created equal. Not by a long shot.
Sunscreens contain filters that, you guessed it, filter the harmful rays of the sun to reduce skin damage; the two types of filters used in sunscreens include chemical and physical (also referred to as “mineral”) filters, the former being the type utilized in most commercially available sunscreens (think: Banana Boat or Coppertone), and the latter considered to be the safer and more environmentally friendly option.
There are a number of commonly used chemical sunscreens, and while some do filter by scattering the sun’s rays, most work by absorbing the sun’s UV rays and converting it to heat that is dispersed in the skin. Commonly used chemical sunscreens are:
- Ecamsule (Mexoryl SX is the trade name, exclusive to L’Oreal)
Among the many problems with sunscreen containing chemical filters, the most troubling are: toxicity concerns of chemical filters ,particularly oxybenzone; extensive environmental damage caused by chemical filters and preservatives used in these sunscreens (like parabens) , including coral killing and reef bleaching* ; instability in sunlight, which is very counterintuitive; and the widespread use of animal testing.
Furthermore, current US regulations do NOT require that sunscreens protect from UVA rays. UVA rays do not burn the skin like UVB rays, but they do cause damage and can lead to cancer, so consumers who may not know of this regulation may not be aware they aren’t fully protecting themselves from skin damage.
* A majority of sunscreens on the market contain one or more of the following ingredients, which are known to cause damage and/or bleach coral reefs:
So, it’s best to use sunscreens containing mineral filters, which are zinc-oxide and titanium-dioxide. While these two mineral filters have their own drawbacks (read about nano and non-nano zinc oxide here), they pale in comparison to all the negative aspects of chemical filters. Some mineral sunscreens will only contain zinc, while others contain both.
Unlike chemical sunscreens, zinc is a broad spectrum filter that sits on your skin reflecting and scattering UVA and UVB rays.
I have tried every sunscreen under the sun (pun intended!) and here are my top 3:
Badger sunscreens are all organic and contain botanical oils so they feel nice on the skin. My skin is sensitive, but their every day sunscreen is something I can wear all the time, even under makeup. Badger sunscreens have all been tested to ensure they’re biodegradable and do not contain any ingredients known to harm coral reefs and have never been tested on animals.
For daily wear: Damascus Rose with Lavender and Chamomile
When you’re active or need more sun protection Badger offers a range of sport sunscreens, like this stick
When I’m not surfing but I’m at the beach or being active in the sun, I like using this stick on my dark spots because it provides coverage and protection I trust without feeling or looking cakey. I think most people would like this for surfing or other water sports requiring extended wear of up to 80 minutes.
2. RAW ELEMENTS SUNSCREEN* (not vegan, contains beeswax)
Like Badger, Raw Elements uses only organic ingredients, is reef safe, and biodegradable. The FDA’s “very water resistant” rating is for high-performing sport sunscreens that provide protection for 80 minutes; Raw Elements claims that they offer protection beyond 80 minutes. This is truly a sun care line geared towards people who are active in and out of the water. Made and packaged in the USA this brand was started in the tiny but great Ocean State.
They offer a range of products but I was most excited about their ECO Stick, which can be applied UNDER WATER! This is obviously a really great option for anyone surfing or out in the water for extended periods of time and would need to reapply on wet skin.
3. EIR Surf Mud Pro Stick* (not vegan, contains beeswax)
For heavy duty coverage for extended time in the water, this rich stick smells good enough to eat because it contains cocoa powder and cocoa butter for hydration.
When I’m surfing I want something that is super thick that I can actually see on my face, almost like a mask. There are clear zinc sticks available because I realize that not everyone wants their sunscreen visible, but for me it’s peace of mind. I want to be 100% certain I’m getting coverage, especially on my melasma spots, and this stuff is the real deal. It’s rated for 80 minutes of water resistance, but as what typically happens, I stay in the water for far longer than 80 minutes without reapplying, yet this stuff is still on my face. In fact, this is the kind of stuff that needs to be scraped off at the end of the day**
I love that there are only five ingredients, all of which are organic, and it comes in a compostable paper tube. I will note that while I do love that it comes in compostable packaging, I found that the design made it a little bit messy as the stick does get a bit soft if it has been in a hot car or the sun.
**I always have a stash of facial scrub especially for getting thick sunscreen of my face and right now I”m really loving Acure’s Brightening Facial Scrub for that purpose (but is also great if you just want a nice exfoliating scrub every now and then!).
As you shop for your mineral sunscreens please be careful of greenwashing, as labels like “Reef Safe” are not yet regulated. Since it’s en vogue to be green and ethical these days, companies will use unregulated terms like “natural” and “reef safe” as clever marketing ploy to appeal to a more conscious consumer. As a safeguard against this simply reach out directly to the company in question to verify any claims.
Disclaimer: *I realize these products contain beeswax, which is not vegan. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I sometimes use products that contain beeswax (most of which are sunscreens). I know not everyone agrees with this, but I wanted to be sure this ingredient was clearly indicated. There are plenty of vegan sunscreen brands, but I have not yet found one that stands up to my personal needs, and many contain chemical filters anyway. From my perspective, using safe products that are better for the environment, but contain beeswax, is a more responsible choice given the current options.