Summer has come and we turn to thoughts of sunscreen. Or something like that. This is always a quandary. We ask so much of our sunscreen. We want it to be an impenetrable barrier for all UV rays while being invisible, smelling good, and having no residual side effects. And as more aspects of the sun’s rays are discovered (remember when we didn’t know there were UVA and UVB rays?), we will be calling on our sunscreen to do even more.
The FDA does not have a solid, comprehensive policy regarding sunscreen claims or ingredients. Not even the much delayed implementation of new rules in 2012 ensures adequate consumer safety. Therefore, it is crucial that consumers learn for themselves what to look for and what to avoid.
Here I have tried to summarize all the reliable information about sunscreen for a quick read. (I heard that laugh.) For a whole lot more info, click on my resources. You’ll notice that there is no perfect sunscreen. I cannot give you a specific sunscreen to buy because it is all a risk/benefit analysis between SPF, active and inactive ingredients, and cost. It is a quagmire, but hopefully once you identify a product you really like, the company won’t change anything for the worse. Then, you’ll be able to keep buying it over and over.
The Best Resource for Sunscreen Information: Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) Sunscreen Safety Guide
The Best Sun Protection
The best sun protection involves a multi-faceted approach, including timing, clothing, shade, and sunscreen.
- Timing: Avoiding the midday sun – between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm
- Clothing: Wearing a hat, and long sleeves and long pants when possible in the sun
- Shade: An umbrella at the beach
- Sunscreen: Choosing a sunscreen with broad spectrum coverage and minimal side effects.
Common active sunscreen ingredients ranked best to worst, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database:
|Ingredients||EWG Rating||UV Rays blocked||Notes|
|Avobenzone||2||UVA||Breaks down especially when with octinoxate|
|Mexoryl SX||2||Some UVA||Low skin penetration, breaks down 40% in 2 hours|
|Titanium dioxide||1-3||UVA, some UVB||Low skin penetration, but harmful if inhaled, may contain nanoparticles, can be whitish and hard to rub in.|
|Zinc oxide||2-3||UVA and UVB||Low skin penetration, but may contain nanoparticles, can be whitish and hard to rub in|
|Ensulizole||3||UVB||Can produce free radicals in sunlight, possible carcinogen|
|Octisalate||3||UVB||Generally safe, but is a penetration enhancer|
|Octocrylene||3||UVB||Produces oxygen radicals in UV light|
|Sulisobenzone||3||UVB some UVA||Penetration enhancer|
|Homosalate||4||UVB||Weak hormone disruptor, forms toxic metabolites, can enhance penetration of a toxic herbicide|
|Padimate O||6||UVB||PABA derivative, releases free radicals, damages DNA, estrogenic activity, and potential allergen|
|Aminobenzoic acid (PABA)||7||UVB||Strong link to allergic dermatitis and photosensitivity, carcinogenic potential|
|Oxybenzone||8||UVB, some UVA||Hormone disrupter, linked with photoallergic reactions, absorbs easily through skin.|
What to look for:
- Zinc dioxide
- Titanium dioxide
- Lotion sunscreen – provides a controlled application
- SPF 15 to 50 – proven effective
What to avoid:
- Retinyl Palmitate (vitamin A) – encourages tumor growth when in sunlight
- Spray sunscreens – inhalation risk
- Powder Sunscreens – inhalation risk
- SPF lower than 15 or greater than 50 – low is ineffective, high has no scientific merit
Labeling Terms to Question:
“Organic” Sunscreen – None of the active sunscreen ingredients can be organic – they’re either mineral or synthetic chemical. Perhaps some of the inactive ingredients are organic, but make sure it’s not a gimmick. There’s no government oversight of organic claims in personal care.
“Waterproof,” “Sweatproof,” “Towelproof” – These terms are proving to be false. All sunscreens are diminished by swimming, sweating, or toweling off. Don’t believe it.
“Sunblock” – No product fully blocks the sun. This term misleads users into a false sense of security. The term was recently banned by the FDA.
“Chemical-free” – I haven’t a clue what this term means. Maybe it means “toxic chemical-free” or that the active ingredients are minerals (zinc and titanium) but there are “chemicals” in the inactive ingredients. Besides, everything is a chemical.
Don’t ask too much of your sunscreen beyond blocking the sun, whether it’s anti-aging, self-tanning, wrinkle smoothing, bug repelling, make-up foundation… It’s better to have a product that does one thing well (blocking the sun), rather than doing two or more things less than well. Additionally, sunscreen should be reapplied every 2 hours – how often are you reapplying that SPF foundation? Also, retinyl palmitate, or vitamin A, which is used as an anti-aging ingredient, has repeatedly proven to speed up the growth of skin tumors when exposed to sunlight. It’s fine in a night cream, but shouldn’t be in sunscreen. However, it is a very common inactive ingredient.
Apply sunscreen 20-30 minutes before sun exposure. Use 1 oz. of sunscreen at each application – that’s about a handful. Reapply sunscreen every two hours, regardless of how strong the SPF was to begin with. Reapply after swimming, sweating or toweling off. In other words, use a lot. Yes, it’s a bother, but let’s think in the long term here.
If you’re looking for a safe way to sunbathe and get a good tan, I don’t have a good answer for you. Call me unfeeling or out of touch, but there is no healthy way to force your body to tan excessively. No sunscreen will help, tanning beds are problematic, and self-tanning creams have their own retinue of hazards. If you’re looking for healthy skin color, eat right and exercise regularly. However, if you’ve been blessed with porcelain skin and you’re just aching for that deep Brazilian tan, I recommend that you accept yourself as you are. It’s not worth the price. Tanning is a sign of damage to the DNA in our skin. It is our bodies’ attempts to prevent further damage.
Conclusions to Avoid
After reading all of this and the EWG study, you may be tempted to veer off in one of two wrong directions:
- Wrong Conclusion #1: It’s better not to wear any sunscreen at all. That way all the concern about absorption and broad spectrum and nano-particles and everything else wouldn’t matter.
- Despite risks associated with sunscreen, experts agree that it’s much better than nothing.
- Wrong Conclusion #2: I just won’t go outside. Then I don’t have to worry about sun burns or sunscreens.
- This is throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. We need the exercise, fresh air, mental stimulation and relaxation that comes from the outside. Plus, we need some sun exposure for the creation of necessary vitamin D (read the EWG study).
Active Ingredients – the ingredients that actually screen the sun’s rays
Broad Spectrum – blocks both UVA and UVB rays
Chemical Sunscreen – refers to sunscreens where the active ingredients are not minerals, which would be zinc oxide and titanium dioxide
Hormone Disrupter – a chemical that mimics or interferes with the body’s regulation of hormones
Mineral Sunscreen – refers to sunscreens where the active ingredients are minerals (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) that provide a physical barrier against the UV rays. Inactive ingredients may still contain “chemicals”
Nanoparticles – particles smaller than 100 nanometers (nm), concern is mixed on the harmfulness of nanoparticles absorbing through the skin
Penetration enhancer – something that helps other chemicals penetrate the skin
Radicals or Free-radicals – atoms, molecules, or ions that have unpaired (i.e. free) electrons. They are highly chemically reactive and can cause DNA damage.
Sunblock – a term recently banned by the FDA because it gives a false sense of security
UVA – the sun’s rays which cause photo-aging, wrinkling, immune suppression and cancer.
UVB – the sun’s rays which cause sunburn; also causes cancer