Getting the Most Out of Your Sunscreen


A few years ago, I tried a new sunscreen.  Not just a different brand from the drugstore, but something completely different.  The active ingredient was titanium oxide  but it was formulated in a tinted powder and applied with a brush, much like foundation.   The person who recommended it was a fair-skinned pediatrician who loved to sail, and with that kind of multifactorial endorsement, I bought a jar (at a rather hefty price tag).  I liked the idea of a non-greasy, lightweight sunscreen that wouldn’t appear smeary-white if we didn’t get applied evenly.  Certain it would be the best thing since well, regular sunscreen,  I was eager to give this seemingly remarkable product a test drive.  On a hiking trip in the desert of New Mexico.

Boy was that ever stupid.

I should have tried this sunscreen on a small patch of forearm in the northern latitudes of Wisconsin, but no, I ignored the little voice in my head that said this powder may be to-good-to-be-true.  Because I got burned, physically and figuratively.  My arms were beet red.  My neck was hot and sore.  Fortunately, as I wore sunglasses and a hat, my face turned just a light shade of pink.  And after dropping dough to the tune of $60, I had expected much better results than I got.  Thankfully I didn’t use this product on my kids.

A few weeks ago in Don’t Get Burned by the Sunscreen Controversy, I summarized some of the concerns regarding chemically-based sunscreens and the responses to those mostly unfounded issues.  Then shortly thereafter, the news hit that the Honest Company’s SPF 30 sunscreen (a product endorsed by the Environmental Working Group as “one of the best sunscreens”) wasn’t doing its job:  buyers of the product posted online photos  of sunburned skin and candy cane-striped children.   People, or at least the media, were out to lynch Honest Company co-founder Jessica Alba herself for this transgression.

However, Forbes contributor David Kroll wrote an excellent article proposing several “honestly” good reasons why this particular mineral-based sunscreen failed to deliver and how human nature may have played a role in its failure to protect kids and adults alike from the sun’s harmful rays.

Here’s a summary of Mr. Kroll’s article:

♠In 2014, the Honest Company Sunscreen Lotion contained as its active ingredient 20% zinc oxide (ZnO).  Reviewers/users of the product disliked its apparent smell and greasy, thick feel.

[Note:   ZnO is most effective as a sunscreen when it is present in high concentration, enough to leave skin with a whitish appearance.  Being a physical type of sunscreen, it must be thick enough to deflect the sun’s rays away from the skin to which it is applied.  Furthermore, the nature of ZnO makes it more effective if compounded with a heavy, greasy carrier agent, like petroleum.  Not the best “feeling” goop to cover skin with…especially when playing on the beach.]***

♣In 2015, the sunscreen was reformulated to contain less ZnO (amount reduced to 9.3%) and less petroleum (the difference replaced by shea butter).  Less ZnO would mean less white residue and the replacement of some of the petroleum with other moisturizers would decrease the heavy, greasy feel of the sunscreen.  It is with this reformulation that complaints about sunburns started coming in.

♦The new-and-improved Honest Company sunscreen lotion was thoroughly tested against the same FDA protocols that other sunscreens are tested against and it earned a “safe and effective” review.  In other words, it was given a “thumbs up.”  So it hit the shelves.

♠According the The Honest Company, the number of sunburn complaints numbered fewer than one half of one percent of total units of the sunscreen sold.

So what happened?  Even though an apparently small set of people were burned, there are several learning points from this mishap that Mr. Kroll discusses in his article.  Not only does his rationale help explain the possible problem with The Honest Company’s sunscreen, his thoughts were educational regarding any type of sunscreen:

~A laboratory environment is not the same as the real world.  The amount of sunscreen applied to laboratory subjects is measured and controlled and inevitably varies from what consumers apply before sun-soaked activities.  Meaning, we may not be slathering on enough to prevent sunburn.

~How much sunscreen is enough is more than we think.  Directions on the bottle typically say “apply liberally.”  Ok.  What does that mean, exactly?  We’ve all heard an adult should slap on a “shot glass worth” of sunscreen but as most of us don’t bring breakables to the pool, that amount is about 1/3 of a full 3.5 oz tube of sunscreen.  And with the importance of reapplying after water activities, sweating or toweling off, in theory a family could go through a couple tubes in an afternoon.  I don’t know about you…but our family makes a tube last at least a couple days.  So by these standards I know we clearly aren’t putting on enough.

~Read the label and follow directions religiously.  Who does that?  It doesn’t take a PhD to apply sunscreen.  But in the case of some sunscreens-in-a-tube, the Honest Company product included, the label will state it is necessary to shake the tube before using.  This redistributes the active ingredient into an homogenous, sunburn-preventing concentration.

It was this final point that had me thinking about  the powdery sunscreen I tried in the high desert.  It took some finesse to apply.  The brush had to be “primed” and given the powder was a fine, lightweight stuff, it was hard to see if enough of it was being released.  Even with several reapplications, I must have done something wrong and I got burned.  From that time on, my feeling on sunscreen became this:

If it’s a pain to apply, feels gross and looks funny, it’s not a product we will use.  Period.  If it sits in the beach bag, it can’t do its job.  

For us, the purely physical sunscreens that have to sit in a thick layer on the skin aren’t the way to go.  But that’s my family.  So in short, whether it be zinc oxide or oxybenzone, a spray, a cream or even a powder, get what works for you and your family.  Know that health and safety issues regarding some sunscreen chemicals (like oxybenzone) are unfounded so feel confident in using the product that keeps your family from getting burned.

To read more, below is the link to David Kroll’s full article.  At first, I was skeptical about how much of this writing would be Forbes attempt to “save face” as Jessica Alba had been featured in the June 15, 2015, issue (How Jessica Alba Built A $1 Billion Company, And $200 Million Fortune, Selling Parents Peace Of Mind).  But Mr. Kroll writes an intelligent piece backed by good chemistry, reason and authority:

[***Another interesting point:  zinc oxide does occur naturally in the environment.  Proponents of its use as a “natural” (and therefore “safe”) sunscreen gravitate toward it for that reason.  However, the ZnO used in sunscreens is manufactured…in other words, it’s actually synthesized in a lab.]


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