Greener Vail: Is your sunscreen working? |

Greener Vail: Is your sunscreen working?

Cassie Pence
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado –Dr. Darrell Rigel, a clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center who has a private practice in Vail, Colorado, conducted a study that showed at the top of Chair 4 in Vail, at 11,000 feet, the earliest sign of sunburn appears in as little as six minutes.

Mountain life is hard on the skin. At high altitudes, there is a lack of humidity and a lack of ozone protection. Drier weather causes the skin to break down more easily, and irritation and rashes occur. This is why many people may notice an improvement in their skin while on tropical vacations.

The intense sun exposure causes a more rapid breakdown of collagen and elastin, increasing the signs of aging. It’s no wonder then that applying sunscreen is an everyday habit most of us have adopted. It’s our protection. It’s our beauty secret.

But a recent study by the Environmental Working Group – a nonprofit, non-partisan research organization dedicated to using the power of information to protect human health and the environment – questions whether most sunscreens are safe and if they protect our skin.

The group reviewed 1,572 products and found that “3 out of 5 sunscreens offer inadequate protection from the sun or contain ingredients with significant safety concerns.”

To help people sort through the hundreds of sunscreen bottles – and their misleading claims – the group has written a 2009 Sunscreen Guide. Before diving into the recommendations, it’s important to understand from what these lotions are protecting us and how.

There are two type of sun rays: UVB radiation, which causes sunburns, and UVA radiation, which is linked to skin damage and aging, immune system problems and, potentially, skin cancer. Ideally, we want protection from both.

While all sunscreens protect from UVB, only some sunscreens protect against UVA. The Federal Food and Drug Administration does not require that sunscreens guard against UVA radiation. In fact, the FDA has been promising to regulate sunscreens since 1978 – they are still working on the legislation.

“The active ingredients within sunscreens absorb, reflect, or scatter ultraviolet radiation, and thereby alter how the body responds to this radiation,” writes the Environmental Working Group in its guide. “Sunscreens typically contain a combination of different chemicals that are known to be effective for certain wavelengths of UV light. Some chemicals work better than others, however, as do some combinations of chemicals.”

Unfortunately, some of sunscreen’s chemical ingredients break down in the sun, in a matter of minutes or hours, making them a lot less affective against UV radiation than the label claims. The Working Group guide found that 41 percent of the products on the market contain ingredients that may be unstable alone or in combination.

The other problem with chemical ingredients is that some absorb into the blood and some are linked to toxic effects. Some release skin-damaging free radicals in sunlight, some could disrupt hormone systems, several are allergens and others add to the chemical burden our bodies are already bearing.

So with 3 out of 5 sunscreens offering poor protection – and with the leading brands like Coppertone, Banana Boat and Neutrogena being the worst offenders – what’s a sun-loving consumer to do?

Here are the Environmental Working Group’s Top 10 Best sunscreens for beach and sport:

1. Soleo Organics Sunscreen Organic chemical free sunscreen, SPF 30+

2. Badger Sunscreen, SPF 30

3, Purple Prairie Botanicals Sun Stuff, SPF 30

4. UV Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30+

5. Mexitan Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50

6. Lavera Sunscreen Neutral, SPF 40

7. California Baby Sunscreen Lotion No Fragrance, SPF 30+

8. MyChelle Sun Shield SPF 28

9. Little Forest Sunscreen Lotion For Babies and Kids, SPF 30+

10. Trukid Sunny Days Facestick Mineral Sunscreen UVA/UVB Broad Spectrum, SPF 30+

For the following month, Greener Pastures column will give highlights on the Vail Valley’s newest green event – The EverGreen Ball, happening at the Westin Riverfront Resort and Spa in Avon Aug. 8.

Forget what you know about fundraising galas. The EverGreen Ball is the valley’s first sustainable soiree. The event benefits the valley’s three most important conservation organizations: The Eagle Valley Land Trust, the Eagle River Watershed Council and the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability. While benefiting conservation, the event takes the opportunity to promote it as well. The EverGreen Ball weaves sustainability – from the food to the decor to the guests’ costumes – into every aspect of the event to create a wildly different green gala.

For more information and to buy tickets, call 970-524-0870 or visit

Freelance writer Cassie Pence is married to the superhero of green cleaning Captain Vacuum, AKA Tim Szurgot. Together they own Organic Housekeepers, a cleaning company that uses strictly organic, natural and nontoxic cleaning products. Contact her at

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