Over the past few days, I have spent time in Virginia grocery stores, including Giant, Safeway, Harris Teeter and Whole Foods.

At these stores, I navigated labels on merchandise, specifically the ones on sun block. I also observed shoppers, watching to see if they, too, read labels, and I talked to them about those labels.

My rule of thumb – mostly because of my inability to focus when choosing anything with a label – is to go for the label with fewer lines, less words. A shorter list of ingredients is not scientific, but it is my personal solution when shopping for anything.

Like food, if it comes with a long list of ingredients and or directions, I often do not buy it. I would like to say that’s because I understood each and every ingredient, and its impact on human health and the environment. But I don’t. Honestly, it’s just too darn complicated.

Not unlike many shoppers, when I hit the grocery store, I’m on the phone or texting – not focused on shopping. Who can navigate all the complicated messages and labels? Not me, even under the best circumstances.

Well, after a few days of really watching people in the stores, I discovered that I may be one of the few that actually tries to read labels – unless if you go to Whole Foods, where many consumers are seemingly are really expert in everything they are buying. And yet, what is ironic is that many products sold at Whole Foods are reduced risk, green, or organic products. Of all places, Whole Foods is where I might be the least inclined to read labels.

So, how to other people make choices? Are people better organized and smarter than I am? Do they actually read the whole label? How do they navigate their shopping, and how in the world do they choose a sun block?

Recently, I was at Whole Foods in Reston, Virginia, and was immediately approached by sales associate Elke Derrickson. She came across as an authority that knows her way around the whole aisle, and was savvy on everything from sun block to vitamins. I was glad to meet her.

I told Elke that when I choose sun block, it is often simply zinc ointment, and I asked her to show me the least complicated sun blocks. She recommended Badger Sun Block, which is made with zinc oxide, an effective natural sunscreen ingredient.

According to the Environmental Working Group’s Safe Cosmetics Database, Badger Sun Blocks are rated as one of the safest and most effective sunscreens in the world, as well as being uncomplicated and simple.

I asked Elke if people do in fact read the labeling, and if so, did how did they know about each little ingredient? She pointed behind me to a well-worn book, the Consumers Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winter – a quick read of 564 pages. While it covers anything you would want to know, I am not sure who has time to really delve into it when shopping. But Elke reports that many people use it when navigating her aisle.

Secretly, I am wondering who reads it? Who has the time? Apparently lots of people do.

Is this a big bait-and-switch campaign to keep consumers confused, freaking them out with a list of scary-sounding chemicals that make sun block sound worse than tanning beds or the harmful rays from the sun? The tanning bed industry is on the defensive and many sun screens being scrutinized, at a time when we should be more worried about exposure to harmful rays, and the well-documented link to cancer. Thats not to say I am not careful about what I put on my skin -I am but I keep really simple.

Recently, there was a study about zinc oxide. and while the details are interesting, when I asked Ronald B. Herberman, M.D., who is a Less Cancer board member and Founding Director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute about it he said, “the much more important issue is UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds.”

And this is why.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, on an average day in the United States, there are more than one million people tan in tanning salons. Studies have found a 75 percent increase in the risk of melanoma in those who have been exposed to UV radiation from indoor tanning.

The Skin Cancer Foundation tells us that a tan, whether you get it on the beach, in a bed, or through incidental exposure, is bad news any way you acquire it. Tans are caused by harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning lamps, and if you’ve had a tan, you’ve sustained skin cell damage. No matter what you may hear at tanning salons, the cumulative damage caused by UV radiation can lead to premature skin aging (wrinkles, lax skin, brown spots, and more), as well as skin cancer.

Tanning machines emit dangerous UV radiation, and frequent tanners using new high-pressure sunlamps may receive as much as 12 times the annual ultraviolet radiation they would receive from regular sun exposure.

UV radiation is a proven human carcinogen and is linked with a higher risk of all forms of skin cancer, including potentially deadly melanoma, which is the most common form of cancer among young adults ages 25-29. On average, indoor tanners are 74 percent more likely to develop melanomas than non-tanners. They are also 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma, and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma, the two most common skin cancers.

Dr. Herberman is particularly concerned that the incidence of melanoma is rising rapidly, and that burns from UV lights are central contributors to increased risk of melanoma. He goes on to say, “Although low level exposure to UV light either from sun or tanning beds will help maintain levels of Vitamin D, one can readily eat foods containing Vitamin D or nutritional supplements, without running the risk of over-exposure to UV. The particular danger is to avoid exposure that will lead to an actual burn, because that has been shown to put people at risk many years later for malignant melanomas.”

I also appreciate what green guru Alexandra Zissue told me the other day, when we were discussing this issue via email. “Mineral block sits ON skin, and chemical block goes INTO skin. Even though there have been some links around skin cancer and zinc, non-nano mineral sunscreen with organic ingredients is still my choice when I have to put on sunscreen,” she said. “The first line of defense is always shade, before sunscreen – trees, hats, and ugly shirts with SPF in them, from brands that are actually approved by skin cancer organizations.” Too many people are claiming that their fabric contains SPF, but have no certification to back it up. “I try not to go out in direct sunlight in the heat of the day,” she added. But I also love summer, and appreciate a little Vitamin D.”
For Bill Couzens and his big, bald German skull, it’s zinc, a baseball cap and sun glasses. I love the sun, which I consider a great “recharger.” But more and more, I wear protective clothing when I am in the sun. Now I’m a fan of Badger Sun block, but if I don’t have any on hand, I lather-up with plain old zinc ointment.
Here is the “Cliff’s Notes” version on product labels: keep it whole and keep it simple. More ingredients can translate to potentially increased risk for health and the environment ie the more ingredients the more potential for risk, and for me, not only an increased health risk but an increased risk for eating up important time. I will often reach for organic labels, since almost always they are simple and list whole ingredients.

There are over 80,000 chemicals in the marketplace that I don’t have the time or the knowledge to navigate. And since I am concerned about what these chemicals are doing to human health and the environment, I do not support those products or companies, if I can help it. I try to keep all purchases simple and whole for foods and products. And yes I often reach for USDA Organic Seal founded by the National Organic program.