greenwashing (6): sunscreens (1)

I’m kind of gearing up to the Big Hairy Pissy Post about the EWG. Consider this a prelude–an attack on their sunscreen wing.

Now, this is a purely plain and simple pragmatic thing here.

Putting to one side the EWG’s claims, interests, criteria, methodology, misreading, misuse and abuse of words that dammit mean something, and so on. Those are for The Big Etc. post.

The EWG has some standards, and employs certain criteria in formulating judgements. As a result of which they give products scores: 0 = low = safe, to 10 = bad = unsafe. These scores are calculated from the individual score of each ingredient in a finished product. A database of ingredients can be interrogated, and for each ingredient, there will be some sort of backup for the score: from “data gap”, via a citation from a source, to nice neat direct links to a source. Some other information is also noted, such as cruelty-free-ness.

Fair enough. Other people do this too. Anyone shopping IRL will do a version of this, even if it’s a very short list of finished products (ex. bars of chocolate), with a short list of ingredients (ex. cocoa solids, source, percentage), and that other information (organic, Fair Trade, shade-grown, non-rainforest-and-orangutan-and-human-abusing).

But there is a crucial difference. Compare these three databases:

  1. Environmental Working Group: Cosmetics Database
  2. MakeupAlley Product Reviews
  3. Seventypercent: a chocolate appreciation site
For nos. 2 and 3 above, the following criteria also come into the equation:
  • functionality of the thing-in-and-as-itself, as a whole: as contrasted with the theoretical performance-potential of each individual constituent part–how do the parts interact? the whole vs. sum of its parts…
  • functionality: does it do what it says on the tin? in practice–as opposed to in theory?
  • user-friendliness: how easy is this to apply? does it stay on? again: a practical criterion
  • aesthetics: feel, finish, taste; practicality, once more
  • practicalities, again: how does this thing work on any given individual, with their idiosyncrasies? how compatible is it with these individual characteristics (ex. break-outs, nausea)? any other side-effects?
  • how does it work on groups, grouped together by shared characteristics (whether that’s acne-prone oily skin or liking sweet-ish milk chocolate around 35-40% cocoa solids)?
  • how does it work for a larger-scale population, across such groups (and individuals)?
  • and back to the thing-in-itself, and the pragmatics of using something in real life, under normal circumstances: how does it interact with other products (ex. moisturiser or makeup; chocolate eaten with wine or paired with another flavour in a dish)?
I’ve tried, tested, and sometimes even used a lot of sunscreens in my time. That includes a lot on the EWG’s lists. Based on what that list looks like, I would hazard a guess–and this is just a guess, a hunch, an inkling, no more–that the criteria above don’t come into consideration because the target population for application of said sunscreen is not adults (with all the complications and variations outlined above). It’s infants.
Some of whom may be very small (in which case they should probably be in the shade, covered in clothes and hats, but hey–once they can crawl, they’ll come into contact with the sun…); some larger; but all at a stage before the glorious advent of hormones and urged for self-expression and, well, free will.
So: To be fair to the EWG and their recommendations: we the consumers often err, in treating this as a database that’s intended for anyone other than small children, c/o their minders.
But… it’s called a “cosmetics” database, and includes lots of other products that are for adults.
Hmmm. Che confusione.
My Big Issue with the sunscreens is that, of the top-rated ones, most would also satisfy the following criteria and thus be unwearable, unusable, impractical, and pragmatically, functionally useless:
  • thick, gloopy, hard to spread without rubbing and tearing at skin (this is going to be as true of an infant, incidentally, as it is of poor old me)
  • once on: the classic white-out ghost-face clown-mask
  • a base of oils, often with at least one (usually cocoa butter or coconut) that scores very highly on two other indices (that are not taken into account by the EWG): irritancy and comedogenicity
  • once on: greasy face
  • and, if you’re lucky, irritation and/or zits by the end of the day
  • in quite a few: unnecessary and (for the sensitive) counter-productive use of essential oils
  • especially those classic phototoxins: citrus, bergamot, lavender (the latter is also a cytotoxin…)
  • if you’re lucky, more irritation–of the nose and respiratory tract too, if you’re really lucky
Noting also:
  • such sunscreens are often indistinguishable–in formula, and in application, feel, and finish–from diaper-/nappy-rash cream. A.k.a. baby butt paste. Which is usually cheaper.
  • such sunscreens are as far from “elegant” as one can go; covering one’s head would have the same effect, and–depending on the kind of covering used–might even have the advantages of adding either allure/mystique or comedy. Also: cheaper, and reusable.
  • if one acquires unfortunate side-effects as a consequence of use (irritation, zits, inflammation, redness), one would then hide indoors or cover one’s head until recovered. Better to cut out the middle-man: not wear the sunscreen, and cover the head instead. Why use a bag? Another way to reuse an old pair of pants (I mean: knickers, underwear, underpants). Make it obvious you’re walking the walk of shame.
Or, you know, just wear a sunscreen that’s been properly formulated and tested and so on, for adult use, by and for real people living in the real world. Which isn’t necessarily incompatible with green credentials (or indeed actual “safety”).
Instances of sunscreens that regularly (ex. 2011) rank highly on the EWG’s “best of” list (here is this year’s incarnation) and are–in my humble opinion as based on my humble experience–unwearable and not recommended, ever, if you’re an adult rather than an infant. (That’s just of the all-physical sunscreens; there are part-physical ones that rank highly which I can’t wear either, for the very practical reason of irritation by certain filters or other ingredients. We’re still just looking at mere humdrum wearability.)
  • Alba Botanica
  • All Terrain (though I used the all-mineral one in the past when exercising and sweating in heat: it is budge-proof, protected well, but clogged)
  • Aubrey Organics
  • Avalon Organics Baby
  • Avène
  • Baby Blanket, BabyGanics, and a bunch of others with “baby” in the name or other clear indication of intended audience…
  • Badger
  • Beyond Coastal *of those I’ve tried, and I haven’t tried them all*
  • Burt’s Bees
  • California Baby
  • Colorescience: special mention as powder sunscreens are *not* reliable protection–good for a top-up, if wearing sunscreen over makeup, but you’d have to cover  yourself in the stuff to get the declared SPF. And when I say “cover”, I mean “look like you stuck your head in a bag of flour.”
  • Earth’s Best
  • Goddess Garden *not tried: formula identical to a bunch of other I have, and that were non-good*
  • Green Beaver
  • Jason
  • Kabana
  • the KineSys ZnO-only one is a classic example of (coconutty) baby butt paste, but with added mint
  • Kiss My Face
  • Lavera-in-the-tube
  • Loving Naturals *not tried: formula identical to a bunch of other I have, and that were non-good*
  • Mustela
  • Nature’s Gate
  • Purple Prairie Botanicals
  • Raw Elements *not tried: formula identical to a bunch of other I have, and that were non-good*
  • True Natural
  • UV Natural
  • and there are some sunscreens that are so spectacularly inappropriate for adults that they’re rather endearing: Sunbow
The first one on this year’s list that I could, can, have, and indeed do wear is no. 97 (and scoring a 2): Blue Lizard sensitive; in the same score-bracket (they’re arranged alphabetically within a score), Fallene CoTZ Face (no. 130), John Masters Organics (no.142); Vanicream 30 is there (188) but so is the Sport 35 that I can’t wear, and the 60 scores a 3 (the record has to be seen to be believed, on gross errors in misreading others’ research–but hey, I digress).
Of the 1-rated sunscreens, I can personally attest to irritation by the following (which were otherwise wearable):
  • Devita (also sunburn)
  • Keys
1- to 2-rated, not tried, seen good reviews, look worth a try:
  • Beyond Coastal–I haven’t tried them all, NB
  • Caribbean Solutions (worth a try, and good reviews, though the formula sounds like Pants-on-Head™ might be preferable)
  • EltaMD
  • Marie Véronique (not tried due to price and access)
  • Mexitan
  • Obagi (not tried due to price)
Not listed but good reception on MUA (inc. by people I’d trust as not being foolish, and having similar criteria in judging sunscreen, for what that’s worth):
  • 100% Pure (the pomegranate one)
  • BurnOut: especially the Clean & Clear Eco-Sensitive: one of my own favourites
  • Chocolate Sun Marigold
  • La Roche-Posay new mineral one (but cruelty-free issues)
  • Pratima (Neem Rose): another good one, in my estimation (though too expensive to have shipped from a small spa in NYC to here in Vancouver)
  • Skinceuticals Physical Fusion SPF 50 (but cruelty-free issues)
  • Topix Glycolix Elite SPF 30: one of the best I’ve used, light, elegant, too drying for me right now

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