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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Secret Shopper: Why should I choose a zinc oxide sunscreen?

Secret Shopper: Why should I choose a zinc oxide sunscreen?
Each month, Natural Foods Merchandiser's secret shopper heads incognito into a natural products store with a question. Here, our industry expert addresses consumer questions around why a zinc oxide sunscreen is the better choice, and how to tell if it contains nanoparticles.

NFM: Why should I choose a zinc oxide sunscreen, and how can I tell if it contains nanoparticles?

Store: Zinc oxide blocks out the sun’s rays. All of the sunscreens we carry contain zinc oxide, and they’re all rated a two or below—which is really good—by the Environmental Working Group.

NFM: Is zinc oxide safer than the chemicals found in most sunscreens?

Store: Definitely. Here, let’s look up zinc oxide in this. [She grabs A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients.] Hmmm, it doesn’t say much about sunscreen …

NFM: That’s OK. I get the gist. What about nanoparticles? I see on this Badger sunscreen that it says Non-Nano Uncoated Zinc Oxide 12%. But this Alba sunscreen doesn’t say anything about nanos, so should I assume it contains them?

Store: Boy, I’m afraid I don’t know. We can contact the company to ask if you’d like.

How did this retailer do?

Our expert educator: Jeremiah McElwee, a natural products consultant in Austin, Texas, and former whole body coordinator at Whole Foods Market

This retailer provided very informed customer service. I appreciate her awareness of the EWG’s rating system, which provides a great baseline for consumer safety. Given the links between chemical sunscreens and possible endocrine disruption, physical sunscreens such as zinc oxide are a much healthier choice. They sit on top of the skin and block both UVA and UVB rays, making them more effective than chemical blocks, which typically only guard against either UVA or UVB.

The retailer also handled the nanoparticle question well. Because labeling isn’t required for the use of nano-sized particles, the only way to be sure a product doesn’t contain them is to read the label (kudos to Badger!). Or, if it isn’t specified, to ask the manufacturer. Nanotechnology has become popular in skin care as a means to improve product application and reduce the chalky, white appearance associated with mineral sunscreens. But the jury’s still out on its safety. Nano-size molecules seem to behave differently from a chemical and biological standpoint than larger molecules. Because nanoparticles are small enough to cross the skin barrier and possibly enter the tissues of the body, I recommend caution in this area.

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