For all the bottles, tubes, and sprays that get stuffed into beach bags and backpacks every summer, many sunscreens don’t protect against skin cancer and premature aging. More disturbingly, wearing it may even increase the risk of cancer. At the same time, many conventional and “natural” brands contain harmful ingredients that can act like hormones in the body, increasing the risk of health problems.
On the other hand, almost every dermatologist says that wearing sunscreen—at least the right kind—is still the best way to protect your skin from cancer and aging. So what’s going on? As it turns out, there’s a whole new set of rules on how to buy and wear sunscreen if you want to stay safe.
The new sunscreen rules
Get a good sunscreen, and you can enjoy the sun and stay safe. Here are the five rules for choosing a sunscreen and using it effectively.
1. Look for a broad-spectrum brand with zinc oxide.
A product has to say its “broad spectrum” to provide UVA protection. Also look for zinc oxide, which provides stronger UVA protection than other ingredients do.
2. Beware of toxic chemicals.
Because some “natural” sunscreens still contain harmful ingredients, double-check the label and avoid those with. . .
- Oxybenzone and octinoxate. Both are absorbed by the skin, may trigger allergies, and have been shown to mimic the effects of sex hormones.
- Phthalates, parabens, and bisphenol A. Studies show that these chemicals may act as endocrine disruptors, mimicking sex hormones and interfering with their natural levels.
- Fragrance. Ingredients such as terpineol, limonene, and linalool, among others, can worsen asthma and respiratory allergies.
- Methylisothiazolinone. This preservative that can cause skin allergies was found in 91 sunscreens, including some labeled “hypoallergenic.”
- Retinyl palmitate. A type of vitamin A, this skin conditioner may actually speed the growth of skin tumors when it’s exposed to sunlight. The EWG calls this “troubling,” since vitamin A is found in 18% of beach and sport sunscreens, 17% of SPF moisturizers, and 13% of SPF lip products.
3. Don’t fall for a superhigh number.
The benefits of anything above SPF 30 are minuscule. That number protects skin against 97% of UVB rays; by comparison, SPF 50 blocks 98%, while SPF 100 filters 99%. And since higher-SPF products tend to cost more, people often use less—a mistake that can leave skin vulnerable.
One chemical to avoid: retinyl palmitate, a type of vitamin A found in many SPF products that can speed skin tumor growth.
4. Choose a lotion, cream, or stick, not a spray.
Although sprays are convenient, they’ve been shown to leave spotty coverage, no matter how carefully you coat your skin.
5. Slather early and often.
You’ve likely heard this rule before, but you may not be following it: Always apply sunscreen at least 20 minutes before heading outside to give the product time to absorb. Use about an ounce (a shot glass full) for your whole body and a nickel-size dollop for your face. Reapply every 2 hours or more often if you’ve been sweating or swimming. Protect your lips with an SPF 30 lip balm or lipstick, and reapply whenever you reapply sunscreen.
Most natural sunscreens use minerals such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide to physically block rays rather than chemically filter them. But many also contain oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor found in the blood of 96% of adults and children in a CDC sample of 2,500 Americans. Still, mineral sunscreens are the top choice of the EWG and Silent Spring, since they’re generally less toxic than those that contain chemical filters only.
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