1. Sunblock Vs. Sunscreen
Slathering yourself with sunscreen isn't the same thing as applying sunblock, a popular misconception surrounding sun protection. The key difference is how they work. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, sunscreens are chemicals that shield your skin by absorbing and/or reflecting both long- and short-wave ultraviolet rays from the sun, known as UVA and UVB, respectively.
Sunblock, on the other hand, is made of physical or inorganic ingredients, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, that physically deflect harmful UV rays, daily exposure of which could cause wrinkles, premature aging, and skin cancer.2. The Sun-Protection Factor
The "sun-protection factor" or SPF is the number on sunscreen labels that tells you the relative amount of sun protection that your sunscreen can provide you—or, more to the point, how long your skin can be exposed to the sun before it begins to burn. The EPA recommends sunscreens with an SPF of at least 15.
The Washington, D.C.-based non-profit found that a whopping 84 percent of 785 sunscreen products (with SPF ratings of 15 or higher) offered inadequate protection from the sun's rays and/or contained suspect ingredients.
"Ironically, some popular sunscreen chemicals break down when exposed to sunlight and must be formulated with stabilizing chemicals," noted EWG in a press release. "Others penetrate the skin and present significant health concerns."
Of the 700-plus sunscreen products EWG scrutinized, it can recommend only 130. We picked the top 4 (all paraben-free) and slapped them on our skin to judge for ourselves.
Badger SPF 30 Sunblock ($15 for 2.9oz) is a broad-spectrum sunblock that comprises 20.5 percent zinc oxide, all-natural ingredients such as organic extra virgin olive oil, natural beeswax, organic jojoba oil, and cocoa butter, as well as essential oils such as lavender, Moroccan blue tansy, ylang ylang, and lime. You'll get a whiff of a orange-chocolatey aroma—strong but not overpowering.
Water-resistant (up to 40 minutes, according to the company), Badger's sunblock is also moisturizing, but not overtly so. The downside: As with most formulas containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, you do risk looking ghostly pale if you don't have fair Caucasian skin to begin with, although this sunblock blends in better than most we've tried.
Lavera Sun Block SPF 40 Neutral ($19.50 for 1.6oz.) is waterproof, fragrance-free, and was developed for people with allergies and extremely sensitive skin conditions such as dermatitis and eczema.
Titanium dioxide is the active protective ingredient, while organic primrose oil, organic aloe, and licorice sooth and nourish. Oily skin types, however, may find this sunblock a touch too emollient.
Australian-made and -owned UV Natural Sunscreen SPF 30+ ($16.90 for 1.7oz.) doesn't contain added fragrances—and it does, in fact, just smell like clay.
A broad-spectrum sunscreen containing zinc oxide, UV Natural is extremely creamy and moisturizing, to the point of being greasy to the touch, even after drying out—so only dry or mature skin types need apply. (A peek at the ingredients, which include macademia seed oil, sesame oil, safflower oil, and grapeseed oil, explains why.) It does get props, however, for not making us look like the Phantom of the Opera.
Admittedly our favorite of the four, Solar RX SPF 30+ Sunblock ($19.95 for 3.8oz.) is a broad-spectrum sunscreen with 16 percent uncoated nano-zinc oxide, the "nano" in the phrase referring to the fact that it contains particles less than 100 nanometers across.
Lightly moisturizing and non-pasty, the synthetic-chemical-free formula has a refreshingly short ingredients list that includes avocado, black cumin, carrot seed oil, and shea butter. It does have a sharp citrusy scent, however, and isn't waterproof or meant for vigorous exercise.