It’s getting to be that time of year. At some point in the next couple of weeks, on a particularly warm and sunny day, I’m going to suddenly find myself lifting the bed skirt and crawling through a sea of dust bunnies to retrieve my Summer Clothes Storage Box. I’m going to open it and peer hopefully at the tangle of bathing suits and sarongs within, and then I’m going to fish out various bottles and tubes of last year’s sun block, wondering to myself all the while, a ridiculous annual frustration: how in the name of all things holy do I know which of these sun lotions are still good?

Actually, the answer is that probably most of them aren’t good, per se. I don’t mean that I’ve finally found the answer to the age-old question ‘how long before sunblock expires’ (a question fundamentally too exhausting to even approach). I mean that many of the sunblocks on the market these days, even if they’re brand new, are doing us more harm than good, healthwise. Loads of the brands you probably grew up with, and whose logos you trust, contain toxic synthetic chemicals which can disrupt hormone systems (you may have heard the term “endocrine disruption”) and cause allergic reactions.

What to do? Stalwart environmental health writer Mindy Pennybacker advises in her new book, Do One Green Thing, that sun-goers scour ingredient labels and make a serious effort to avoid these guys:

  1. Benzophenone/oxybenzone
  2. Homosalate
  3. Octinoxate/octyl methoxycinnamate
  4. Padimate O (PABA)
  5. Parson 1789/Avobenzone

And look for these guys:

  1. Titanium Dioxide
  2. Zinc Oxide

Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide aren’t perfect, but they are, as Pennybacker points out, the “least toxic and most effective sun barriers” on the market. I’ll say from experience that they can cause, in some products, a lesser version of the white-nose effect you see on lifeguards who use pure zinc oxide for maximum sun protection. But I’ve also found brands that have managed to incorporate these safer ingredients into formulations that don’t turn you into Casper the ghost.

For product suggestions, check out, or my all-time favorite personal care product safety database – Skin Deep – which is published and updated by scientists and researchers over at Environmental Working Group.