What to Look for in Sunscreen
It’s no secret that exposure to the sun’s rays can be harmful to your skin. They can burn you, create blemishes and wrinkles, and cause cancer. Much outdoor-lovers slap on the sunscreen and assume that they’re safe. But sunscreen products are not well regulated in the U.S.
Just because a sunscreen bottle says it is safe and effective doesn’t necessarily mean that it is.
You don’t need an advanced degree figure out what makes a good sunscreen. Experts have already done that for you. Know what ingredients to look for in the sunscreen you buy, and you’ll quickly be able to tell what’s best.
The Bad Stuff
- Oxybenzone: Some independent research organizations like the Environmental Working Group advise avoiding any sunscreens that use the chemical oxybenzone as an active ingredient. Their research suggests that it can act as a hormone disruptor when absorbed through the skin. When your body’s natural hormone system disrupted, it can lead to a variety of health problems including cancer.
- Vitamin A, also called retinyl palmitate; this is a preservative used in many sunscreens that have been linked with cancer and isn’t a necessary ingredient.
- Insect repellant: while insect repellant may not be harmful in small amounts, increased exposure leads to the risk of irritation and allergic reaction – and possible seizure. The risk is greatest in children, who are more sensitive to chemicals. Bug repellant doesn’t need to be applied every two hours, but sunscreen does. If you have to use repellant, apply it separately – don’t use a sunscreen with bug repellant in it.
The Good Stuff
- Zinc Oxide or Titanium Oxide: If you choose not to use a sunscreen with oxybenzone, you’ll need an effective alternative. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are ingredients deemed effective and safe by most doctors and research groups. They protect you from both cancer-causing UVA rays and burn-causing UVB rays.
- Lotions: these types of sunscreen base are the best way to provide full skin coverage. Sprays, powders, and wipes may be less messy and more convenient, but with them, it’s harder to tell if you’re effectively covering your skin. Furthermore, powders and sprays pose an inhalation risk and may potentially be harmful to the lungs. If you don’t like messy lotion, try a sunscreen stick instead.
The Confusing Stuff
- SPF Protection: according to the American Academy of Dermatology, an SPF 15 product protects you from 93 percent of the sun’s rays and an SPF 30 product protects you from 97 percent. SPF labels higher than 50 are deceptive.
- Broad Spectrum: this term is not regulated, so it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s a marketing gimmick. If you want a sunscreen with sufficient protection from both UVA and UVB rays, choose one with zinc oxide or titanium oxide.
- Baby and child marketing labels: just because a product is labeled for babies or children doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the safest or most effective. If you’re concerned about sensitivity, choose hypoallergenic products with no fragrances. For maximum protection from the sun, choose SPF 50.
- Makeup: cosmetic products may claim to provide adequate protection from the sun, but they’re misleading. If you want to protect the skin on your face, put sunscreen on underneath your makeup. Just remember it needs to be reapplied every two hours.
Additional Sun Safety Tips
Stay out of the sun: the fool-proof way to protect yourself against the sun’s harmful rays is to stay indoors, particularly between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you need to be outside, stay in the shade as much as possible.
Protect yourself: wear protective clothing, a hat and sunglasses. Sunscreen shouldn’t be your primary line of defense. The best protective clothing is made with a tight weave. Avoid clothing that use chemicals to enhance sun protection.
Apply and reapply: sunscreen doesn’t protect you all day.
Re-apply it every two hours or after swimming or sweating. Reapply it even if your sunscreen is labeled as “waterproof”.
I’m a family practice physician with a strong interest in preventive medicine. I trained at the Medical College of Virginia where I earned a medical degree (M.D.) and a master’s degree after graduating with a double bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology.
My philosophy? Strive to be fit and fabulous at any age! I show people how to do that through my writing.
Read more about me here.