With summer right around the corner, it’s time to stock up on sunscreen. But it’s more than just an issue of what’s on sale and what level SPF to buy. Sunscreens vary widely in terms of safety and effectiveness. A recent study of 1000 sunscreens by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that four out of five sunscreens they tested contain chemicals that may pose health hazards and/or don't adequately protect skin from the sun's damaging rays. They found that some of the worst offenders are the leading brands like Coppertone, Banana Boat, and Neutrogena.
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For the study, EWG looked at each sunscreen’s effectiveness in blocking both UVA and UVB radiation, remaining stable in sunlight, and containing few if any ingredients with significant known or suspected health hazards. Unfortunately, only 14% of sunscreens tested met the EWG criteria. For more on this study and for detailed ratings of over 800 sunscreens, check out EWG’s Cosmetics Database and their Guide to Safer Sunscreens.
To get a better idea of what makes sunscreen effective and safe, I think it’s good to discuss the two main types of sun protection available – chemical sunscreens and mineral sunscreens.
Chemical sunscreens (as the name implies) use chemical compounds (like avobenzone, oxybenzone, and octyl methoxycinnamate) to block the sun. These chemicals absorb the light rays rather than deflecting them, with the majority of them only blocking one kind of the sun’s rays (either UVB or UVA). To account for this, many chemical-based sunscreens use different types of chemicals to block both kinds of UV rays. A problem with chemical sunscreens is that they tend to break down quickly after application (especially when exposed to water and sweat). Also, these sunscreens use very small chemical particles (often called nanoparticles) which are small enough to penetrate the skin and enter the blood stream.
The other type of sunscreen is mineral-based sunscreen. Mineral sunscreens contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which are minerals that deflect the sun’s rays. So, unlike chemical sunscreens that absorb the rays, these sunscreens form a physical barrier to protect your skin from absorption. Look for sunscreen with at least 7% zinc oxide or titanium dioxide for broad spectrum protection. One issue with mineral sunscreens is that they can also contain micronized particles. So look for mineral sunscreens with larger mineral particles (larger than 100 nanometers).
There are a number of safe, effective mineral sunscreens on the market. You just may have to look beyond the big brands to discover some safe and effective sunscreens – like UV Natural, Soleo Organics, Marie Veronique and California Baby. These brands can be found in health food stores, online, and even in some traditional drug stores.
More sunscreen tips:
- The majority of sun damage occurs before the age of 18, so it’s important to keep kids protected from too much sun exposure.
- Apply sunscreen frequently – more frequent applications protect even better than a high SPF rating. As a general rule, try to apply sunscreen 20 minutes before sun exposure and then reapply every two hours at a minimum.
- You don’t have to have SPF 90 to be protected – SPF 15 blocks 93.3% of UV rays while SPF 30 blocks 96.6%, even though concentration of active ingredients is doubled. While a minimum SPF 30 is recommended, some rays will penetrate your sunscreen no matter how high the rating – that’s why you need to reapply frequently.
- Apply generously – many dermatologists recommend using a full ounce on sunscreen (an amount that would fill a shot glass) if you are applying to your face and body. Most people use about half that amount.
- Broad-spectrum is crucial. Look for broad-spectrum products that filter the UVA rays that penetrate to the dermis, causing damage that may show up years later. There is no FDA requirement for sunscreen to block any UVA rays at all, so read the label and buy carefully.
- Include anti-oxidants – With sun exposure, free radical formation is inevitable, but damage to your skin can be minimized with the use a topical Vitamin C or anti-oxidant product at night, especially after a day in the sun. Also look for mineral sunscreens that are high in anti-oxidants like green tea.
- Prevent sun damage now and later – The UVB (burning) rays are 1000x stronger than UVA rays, while UVA (aging) rays are 1000x times more prevalent than UVB rays. So when it comes to sunscreen your rule of thumb should be: to prevent burning wear a lot, to prevent aging, wear it all the time.
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