Packing for a bike trip across Oregon, I indulged in the kind of shopping spree I love most: scoring new gear. There's something so sweet about stocking up in the name of preparedness, whether for a backpacking trip or the first day of school. But as I started cramming all the stuff into one backpacking-sized bag, I noticed that while I had new bike gloves, a recycled-plastic toothbrush, dozens of futuristic energy snacks and even (shudder) the mandatory reflective vest, I skipped over one item that's practically as necessary as clean underwear: sunscreen. I avoided picking up the staple because of several quandaries.
Like the Washington Post noted last week, although the FDA recommends a set of standards for sunscreen, it doesn't enforce adherence. Translation: The same people who need to make a buck off each bottle are the people who decide if a sunscreen works and if it's safe for you and the environment. Think that sounds like a conflict of interest? I'd say you're right.
I turned to Skin Deep, where the nonprofit Environmental Working Group posts its findings regarding chemicals in popular cosmetics. News to me: While SPF factor gauges a cream's power against UVB rays (the ones that cause sunburns), nearly one in five don't protect against UVA radiation, which could contribute to skin cancer and cause aging effects like wrinkles. Make sure to pick up a brand that protects against both types of rays, though be warned that just because a label says "UVA/UVB protection," the brand isn't required to tell you how much UVA defense you're buying…and often, it's not much.
The second strike against sunscreen: The chemicals in them end up in nature when you're swimming, showering and sweating, and many contain undesirables like estrogen, which can harm ecosystems. The skin also absorbs certain chemicals quickly, which the body retains for a long time. You're better off, according to the EWG, selecting sunscreens with naturally occurring minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which block effectively without worrisome potential side effects.
You can now easily find a lot of these natural products at reasonable prices, and the formulas have improved, so "zinc oxide" no longer means you have to sport a glowing-white nose. I ended up picking a zince oxide-based store brand with SPF 30 (four ounces for $4) that blocks UVAs. The lotion did feel noticeably heavier than the brands I'm used to, but it rubbed in just as clear and smelled pretty good, so I'm happy.
With sunscreen in tow, I'm heading to Eugene, Oregon, (with fellow Centerstager Jessica Herman) to see how my biking skills, honed on these flat streets, will hold up in the hills of the Pacific Northwest. And some news: After the trip I'm staying in the West Coast for good, where I'm excited to be helping launch the Seattle edition of Chicago-born A Fresh Squeeze. I owe huge thanks to the Centerstage crew for making me part of their eco efforts. I've had a blast experimenting with the greener life in our quickly greening city, and I'm beyond thrilled to make it my full-time gig.
And, most of all, to Chicago: Thanks for reading. I'll miss you.
After four greener-than-average college years as a co-op dweller-turned-aspiring-permaculturist, Julia Steinberger finds it hard not to feel guilty about her one-bedroom apartment, daily commute and indulgence in the occasional dollar burger. She'd like to dream that she could live in a tent/treehouse/rabbit hole, but the truth is, she'd rather stay in the city while doing her best to leave a lighter footprint on the earth. You can contact her here.