Sun Safety with Style

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The search for a mineral sunscreen that is safe & smooth to apply (part 1)

Concerns over the chemicals in sunscreens causing allergies, environmental toxicity, and health problems have been debated for years, and as a result, organizations like Health Canada, the Environmental Working Group, and Consumer Reports have come out with recommendations for safe sunscreens. The consensus is a resounding YES for mineral-based SPF’s, products with non-nano zinc and titanium for broad-spectrum UV protection. So, let’s start there!

Think Zinc

The problem with a lot of the recommended, zinc-based products is the consistency. If you’re ok with pasty, hard-to-apply lotions that look ghostly and opalescent on the skin, then most of the mineral sunscreens on the market will be just the ticket! On the other hand, if you want a product with a light, elegant application, and prefer not to compromise on efficacy or health concerns, you may need to look harder. For the purposes of keeping this blog brief and to-the-point, I’m skipping over the multitude of department store lines, leaving that to folks like Beautypedia, to focus on what dermatologists and my fellow aestheticians often recommend.

Elta MD has been all the rage in medical aesthetics offices for the last few years, and recently Eau Thermale Avène has joined in on the U.S. med-grade sunscreen market. These products glide on, leaving a subtle sheen that is not chalky, but how healthy are the ingredients? Focusing only on the mineral-based sunscreens that can be applied to face and body, I recently compared Elta Pure to Avène Mineral. Here are my findings so far.

Elta MD UV pure broad spectrum spf 47


Eau Thermale Avène mineral light hydrating sunscreen spf 50

First of all, both contain non-nano zinc and titanium. The particles are finely milled but not small enough to be absorbed into the skin. The minerals create a screen on the skin’s surface to shield it from UVA and UVB damage. So either is a great choice in terms of efficacy, but things become more complex when the inactive ingredients are compared, like the preservatives that extend shelf-life by inhibiting bacteria and the components that provide a pleasant texture for easy application.

Elta MD Pure contains a high amount of Cyclopentasiloxane, a silicone emollient that helps a product glide over the skin, feeling light and moisturizing. Unfortunately, this ingredient is also an endocrine disrupter associated with environmental toxicity (bio-accumulative and potentially toxic to wildlife). It is important to know that all the data on Cyclopentasiloxane and other siloxanes is not in, but risks are high enough with current data to place it on the “dirty dozen” watch-list (link below). On a more positive note, Elta Pure is a paraben-free formula, contains no fragrance, and is preserved with potassium sorbate, one of the most benign preservatives on the market, but it’s hard for me to recommend it amid concerns over the high amount of siloxane in this product.

Avène Mineral Light Sunscreen does not contain any of the “dirty dozen” ingredients, so no major health concerns. It glides on nicely thanks to trimethylsiloxysilicate, an occlusive component, not recommended if you have severely acne-prone skin but otherwise fairly harmless. The only concerns with this product are the preservatives, benzyl alcohol and phenoxyethanol, associated with skin irritation and not recommended for use near eyes or lips (concerns if ingested). This, along with the inclusion of butylene glycol, means that you need to be cautious when applying this product near tear ducts. To screen the eyes from damage, I personally prefer a powder SPF.

Both Pure and Mineral Light contain synthetic silicone polymers for smooth application. Silicones are not considered comedogenic (pore-clogging), however there have been frequent enough reports of break-outs after using products with silicones, that it may be a case of inconclusive research. If acne is a concern, Avène now makes a mattifying, ultra-light sunscreen for the face that is worth a try.

Instead of the long list of silicones in most sunscreens, Avène Mineral Light Mattifying Sunscreen contains several harmless skin conditioning and binding agents, with no benzyl alcohol or butylene glycol. Preserved with phenoxyethanol, it contains some ingredients with limited data, as well as (allergy alert!) a very small amount of cinnamon extract. So, you don’t want it on your lips or in your tear ducts, but it may be safe to apply carefully to the eyelids. It is an impressive formula and is at the top of my list of sunscreens to try this season.

In terms of a sunscreen that is effective, relatively harmless, and has an elegant finish, my vote is for Eau Thermale Avène Mineral Light Hydrating SPF 50. Most should tolerate this formula for face and body, but if you’re allergy-prone, it’s always a good idea to patch test any new product on your inner arm for a few days, and return the product if you experience redness or burning. If using Mineral Light on the face, remember to use something else in the eye area, which brings us to a third contender in the mineral sunscreen market, Jane Iredale Powder-Me SPF 30.

Despite concerns that loose powders can be inhaled, possibly causing cumulative lung damage, I still recommend Jane Iredale mineral powder. Although Jane contains minerals like titanium and clay particulates that should not be inhaled, it’s not that difficult to apply safely. Press the applicator gently against the skin, to avoid creating a plume of powder in the air, and step away from the area of application to take a breath. Lightly spraying the powder with a hydration spray helps it adhere to skin and immediately eliminates any floating particles that could be inhaled. Powder-Me SPF is water resistant, and Jane Iredale offers several hydration sprays to set the powder, or click here for a recipe.

How much sunscreen to apply

Last summer, my husband and youngest tried Avène Mineral for the body, and they still got too much sun, but here’s the thing: you need to apply gobs of it! According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, you need a nickle-size amount of sunscreen for your face and two tablespoons for your body to get the full amount of protection indicated by the SPF. When you’re exposed for prolonged periods, reapply hourly, and make use of hats, umbrellas, and protective clothing, because no sunscreen is a perfect shield.

Have a healthy season in the sun! Please leave your personal sunscreen experiences and other comments below.

~Ivy Nowosad, LE

more info on ingredients to avoid

Other sources:

EWG sunscreen recommendations   Ann Marie Gianni’s ingredient watch list   Health Canada on sunscreen safety

Coming soon

A closer look at Elta Sport, Image Skincare Prevention+ Pure Mineral Sunscreen Spray, and Avène Complexion Correcting Shield SPF 50

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