Now that summer is here (well it’s not officially summer, but it’s felt like it for a while in Phoenix), you should be getting even more diligent about sunscreen. Avoiding the toxic chemicals in most sunscreens is a must, but there are also some other good tips to keep you and your skin safe this summer.
1: Know the most toxic sunscreen ingredients.
The FDA allows 17 active ingredients in sunscreens, and a good majority of them pose potential health hazards. Chemical ingredients can act as hormone disruptors, while nanoparticles of zinc and titanium dioxide can get into your bloodstream and cause brain and colon damage. There is no perfect sunscreen, but there are better ingredients to choose from. After reviewing all the science on various chemical and mineral ingredients, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends always AVOIDING oxybenzone, a chemical sunscreen that would be listed under “active ingredients” on the label; vitamin A, also called retinyl palmitate, a preservative linked to skin cancer; and added insect repellent, which you should apply just once, rather than every two hours, as you should with sunscreen. All the sunscreens that earned a 1 or 2 hazard rating on the new EWG sunscreen database are free of the ingredients above.
2: “Broad-spectrum” is meaningless.
Before the FDA issued its proposed guidelines, any sunscreen company could slap the words “broad spectrum” on a product. When and if those new guidelines go into effect, companies have to prove to the FDA that sunscreens protect against both sunburn-causing UVB rays and cancer-causing UVA rays . But the testing requirements are so weak that any product can say ‘broad spectrum’ and still not fully protect you from UVA rays. Ninety percent of sunscreens on the market now would meet the new rule without needing to be reformulated.
Best Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen Ingredients: Zinc, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, or Mexoryl SX, are the most reliable ingredients for both UVA and UVB protection, according to EWG. As for those pesky nanoparticles, after reviewing the evidence, the group feels comfortable recommending products with nanoparticles because there’s little evidence that they penetrate the skin. But there are plenty of non-nano sunscreens in the report, if you’d rather play it safe on that score.
3: Use creams, not sprays, powders, or wipes.
Convenience usually comes at a cost, and that’s particularly true with sunscreens. Sprays and powders pose an inhalation risk and the FDA has even started asking manufacturers to provide safety data showing that their products don’t damage lungs. Not only that, but there’s no way to know if they’re protecting you. With a lotion, you know when you’ve covered an area, but with a spray, it’s harder to tell if you have full coverage. Those handy towelettes, marketed for babies, aren’t any better. Though they may be saturated with sunscreen, there’s never been any testing to show how much of that sunscreen actually transfers to your skin. In fact the FDA is considering banning powders and towelettes altogether.
4: Higher SPF doesn’t always equal more protection.
As part of its proposed sunscreen labeling rules, the FDA is considering restricting the level of SPF that manufacturers can advertise, making SPF 100 illegal, for instance. Such high SPFs lull people into a false sense of security. But manufacturers are still marketing products with outlandish SPFs—that don’t really provide added protection. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, an SPF 15 product blocks 93 percent of UV rays, while an SPF 30 blocks 97 percent. No product will block 100 percent, the organization notes, so the amount of added protection you get from a product labeled SPF 75 or 100 is minimal.
5: Children’s sunscreens aren’t always the best for sensitive skin.
If you grab a bottle of baby or kid’s sunscreen because you have sensitive skin, or are using it on your child, flip it over and read the ingredients. For this year’s test, the EWG researchers compared the labels on baby sunscreens with their related adult versions, and 16 brands listed the exact same ingredients on both the children’s sunscreen and the adult’s. In general, baby sunscreens do contain the safer, more effective active ingredients, but don’t assume they always do. Unfortunately, sometimes putting the word ‘baby’ on a label is just a marketing gimmick.