Is Your Sunscreen Safe? Is Your Sunscreen Safe?

Is Your Sunscreen Safe?

by Alexandra Spunt

June 11, 2010

It's been a bad couple of weeks for sunscreen. A few days ago, the Environmental Working Group released its fourth annual Sunscreen Guide, and the verdict is a little unsettling. Scientists rated 500 sunscreens based on the safety of their ingredients and the effectiveness of the SPF. Of those, they will only recommend a measly 8 percent of them. 

So why do most sunscreens suck so badly? For the same reasons they always have. For one thing, the SPF rating system is misleading. As it stands, the term "SPF" only factors in UVB rays—and not cancer-causing, premature-aging UVAs. Meanwhile, many don’t last very long, and require frequent reapplication, which companies won't tell you. And finally, most sunscreens also contain an array of gnarly ingredients, from potentially hormone-disrupting actives like oxybenzone, to the phthalates hidden in their beachy scents (see last week’s post on phthalates for a refresher on why those are bad for you).

But recent research is even more troubling. Last week, FDA data revealed that vitamin A, touted as a stellar anti-ager, may actually increase skin cancer risk. It's worth noting that the FDA doesn’t usually run these kinds of studies unless there is already serious concern. Turns out, they’ve had vitamin A on their danger radar for over a decade, with little action. Dizzy yet? Here are some easy guidelines to set you straight: 


1.    Don’t rely on SPF ratings. As we said, SPF only accounts for UVB-ray protection, which means the higher the number the more likely it is that you’re being misled about the protection. Part of the reason the EWG slagged this crop of sunscreens is because many are making claims of SPF 50 and over. In fact, some are promising SPF as high as 100 this season. (Insert eye roll here.)
2.  Avoid chemical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens absorb the rays so you don't have to, and then they sneak into your body and mess around with your hormones. Oxybenzone, a hormone-disruptor found in 97 percent of Americans according to the CDC, is one widely used active to avoid—and if you don't want to do it for yourself, do it for the planet: Every year, 4,000 to 6,000 tons of chemical sunscreen comes off our bodies (and into the ocean), destroying the coral reef in the process.
3.  Zinc is your new best friend. This is the cleanest and most effective active ingredient you can find in a sunscreen. It offers broad-spectrum protection—that means from both UVA and UVB rays—while posing absolutely no health threat. And fear not: Advances in technology mean the zinc on the market is nothing like the stuff you used to see striping your lifeguard's nose.

4. Titanium dioxide is your new second-best friend. As an ingredient, it’s not as clean as zinc—you won’t find it in your multivitamin since it’s dangerous when ingested or inhaled—but it offers the same meaningful protection and isn’t absorbed through skin. All of the 39 EWG top-rated sunscreens featured zinc and/or titanium.

5.  Beware of nanoparticles. Used in some sunscreens to make titanium dioxide appear less white on the skin, nanoparticles are a hot-button issue right now. By making them that small, there is evidence that the particles can then migrate to body tissue, where they may wreak all kinds of havoc. In Europe, companies using nanos have to say so; not so over here, though.

6.  Avoid vitamin A in sunscreen like the plague. While animal studies never represent conclusive evidence for humans, when other mammals are getting cancer faster—as was shown in the FDA’s study of vitamin A and sun exposure—it’s a good idea to avoid the suspected culprit. It's packed into a lot of anti-agers and sunscreens, and should be avoided at all costs.

7.  Be wary of the other ingredients in there. Fragrance (which contain phthalates), chemical preservatives like parabens (which may or may not mess with hormones), and a host of other questionable things are found in most mainstream sun products. We'll cover these in more depth in future columns and in our book, but in the meantime, remember that the fewer ingredients the better.

8. Don’t count on sunscreen alone. Even if you’re using the good stuff, most of us tend not to apply enough, or reapply it like we should. The false sense of security offered by sunscreen is thought to be one of its biggest threats. Which takes us to…
9.  Protect your head. The EWG and any doctor with a brain will tell you as much. Hats, protective clothing and shade are still your best bet when it comes to avoiding sun exposure. But…
10.  Get a little unprotected exposure. While it goes against everything we’ve been taught, some doctors are recommending we get limited exposure to the sun without any sunscreen to ensure healthy vitamin D levels. If you don't want to risk it—and we don't blame you if you don't—make sure to get your vitamin D in other ways, through diet and supplements.   

This is the second installment in a series inspired by No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, a book by GOOD's features editor Siobhan O'Connor and her co-author Alexandra Spunt. It will run every Thursday.

Read more on their blog.

Illustration by Brianna Harden


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Is Your Sunscreen Safe?