It’s 90 degrees outside and just before heading outside, you reach for that sunscreen. After all, you’ve been told a thousand times that you may get skin cancer if you don’t. Well, not so fast, we’re here to tell you the real truth about sunscreen and the dangerous ingredients lurking inside of it.
Sunscreen has grown into a billion dollar industry thanks to our paranoia and misinformation. Not to say that sunscreen isn’t necessary at times, but some sunscreen can do more harm than good. In theory, sunscreen should protect us from UV radiation without irritating our skin, causing allergies, losing their effectiveness or forming potentially harmful products. However, most sunscreens today fail this basic criterion which raises major concerns for our health.
The shocking truth behind sunscreen
Sunscreen ingredients can be dangerous
Sunscreens that you buy will typically include a combination of the six most common active ingredients that include octorylene, homosalate, avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate and octisalate. Some products may also use zinc oxide with chemical filters. Studies show that some of these ingredients may mimic your hormones, cause allergies and other potentially serious issues.
SPF value and labels can be misleading
The Sun Protection Factor, or SPF, can be misleading to people. The number measures how well the sunscreen is said to protect you against sunburn but not UVA rays, which cause other types of damage. Furthermore, people often rationalize that since they use higher SPF that they are able to stay in the sun for longer, which makes them even more susceptible to UV damage. Also, confirmation testing in labs has also shown that many of the sunscreens offer less protection than they advertise on their sunscreen products.
Many sunscreen products lack UVA protection
A lot of sunscreens boast high SPF numbers but offer little to no protection against UVA rays. The problem is that sunscreen manufacturers are limited to specific 17 FDA-approved ingredients when making sunscreen, but only 8 of them are used. Many of the available ingredients are good at UVB protection but only a few filter UVA rays. Only two UV filters that are approved by FDA provide decent UVA filtering and that’s zinc oxide and avobenzone. Those are your best bet if you have to choose.
Why are UVA rays of concern to you? Because while UV rays may cause sunburn, UVA rays can cause skin-damaging free radicals and immune system suppression.
Laboratory testing is not equal to real life performance
The effectiveness of sunscreen is mostly tested inside of laboratories and may not reflect their performance in real life situations and against true weather conditions.
Sunscreen effectiveness in its ability to protect from melanoma is unconfirmed
While sunscreen’s claim to fame is protection against melanoma, a type of skin cancer, there are not enough studies to confirm this. Both UVB and UVA rays are said to contribute to the risk of melanoma. Only one study from Australia claims that by using an SPF 15 sunscreen daily in combination with other sun protection strategies, they reduced new melanoma cases by 50% and invasive melanoma by 71%. The relationship between UV exposure and melanoma is extremely complex. For example, some studies claim that regular exposure to the sun may lower the risk of melanoma.
Sunscreens can break down while in bottle
Even natural sunscreens can break down inside the bottle. If you see the mixture clumping or separating it may be time to throw out your sunscreen. Just remember, if it smells funny or it looks funny, just throw it out.
The ingredients to avoid in sunscreen
The problem with many active ingredients is that they actually get absorbed into the body to the point where it can be found in blood, breast milk, and urine samples. The active ingredients typically come in two forms – mineral and chemical filters. They use different methods for protecting the skin. The majority of the sunscreens in the stores use chemical filters.
Among some of the most concerning filters is oxybenzone, that is found in nearly 70% of non-mineral sunscreens and has been found in 96% of our population. It has been linked to hormone disruption and allergic skin reactions (Krause 2012, Rodriguez 2006). Our exposure has been increasing to this chemical over the last decade. While more studies are needed to evaluate the risks of these sunscreen chemicals, you should try to avoid sunscreens with these common chemicals.
Next to each, we listed EWG’s hazard score, 10 being the worst, 1 being the safest. Avoid those in red and orange.
Linked to: altered sperm production in animals; edometriosis in women
Octinoxate (Octylmethoxycinnamate) (6)
Linked to: hormone-like activity; thyroid, behavioral and reproductive system alterations
Linked to: estrogen, androgen and progesterone disruption
Active ingredients on the safer side:
Octisalate (3), octocrylene (3) , titanium dioxide (2 / 4 if powder or spray), avobenzone (2), mexoryl sx (2), zinc oxide (2 / 4 if powder or spray).
Sunscreen: your last resort for sun protection
As you can see, the case for sunscreen is not black and white. Don’t just rely on sunscreen to protect you from the sun. Here are some tips for your first line of defense and how to protect yourself without sunscreen:
You can reduce your exposure to sun’s UV rays by 27% by simply wearing your normal shorts, pants, hats and shirts!
Enjoy the shade
You can find a place with a shade or make your own. You can lay on the beach, but do it under an umbrella or tent. You can reduce the risk of burns in infants by 30% by keeping them in the shade.
Don’t leave without sunglasses (even in the winter)
Sunglasses are not something you should wear only for style. They can protect your eyes from harmful UV rays.
Pick your times for fun in the sun
You can plan around the times when the sun is at it’s hottest and you are at the most risk. Go out early in the morning or in the afternoon when it’s setting.
Seems like common sense, but damaged skin is nothing to laugh at. Blistered, red or even just sore skin can mean the sun has already damaged your skin.
Learn to use the UV index
UV index on the weather is something we all skip but it can be a valuable tool avoiding overexposure to the sun. You can even ask Siri “What is the UV index today?”. It will tell you what the hottest times will be, how many minutes it will take to get sunburn depending on your skin type, and even which SPF sunscreen to apply.
How to pick the right sunscreen
In some situations, sunscreen is necessary. Just remember these quick tips in bold when buying your next sunscreen.
No spray sunscreens
While spray sunscreens may seem like a super convenient way to protect yourself from UV rays, they also pose a risk due to inhalation. The spray action also makes it easy to miss spots and to get the right amount of coverage.
No retinyl palmitate (Vitamin A)
Many night creams utilize Retinyl Palmitate (a form of Vitamin A) because of its supposed anti-aging power. However, when sun exposure is involved, retinyl palmitate may actually help accelerate lesions and skin tumors according to several government studies. FDA has not yet banned this ingredient, but it should be avoided in sunscreen.
No sky-high SPF
Many sunscreens are labeled with ridiculous amounts of SPF (sun protection factor) giving people a false sense of security. The sunscreen with sky-high SPF may protect you from sunburn but doesn’t address their protection of UVA rays which can penetrate deep into your skin and cause lowered immune system functions, skin aging, and even skin cancer. People that cover themselves with high SPF sunscreens also tend to stay in the sun too long, which can further expose them to UVA damage.
Here’s the difference between SPF ratings as far as UVB rays:
SPF 15: Blocks 94% of UVB Rays
SPF 30: Blocks 97% of UVB Rays
SPF 45: Blocks 98% of UVB Rays
The sun protection factor is a way to trick consumers and not help them. Someone who knows nothing about SPF assumes that SPF 30 is twice the protection compared to SPF 15, but in reality, it’s only 3% more effective. Also, whatever the SPF number is, even if it’s SPF 500 (or even great UVA protection) after a few hours the sunscreen is gone. Thus sunscreen needs to be reapplied frequently and not be forgotten.
No oxybenzone and other chemicals that disrupt endocrine
Oxybenzone is a very common chemical that is used in sunscreen and penetrates deep into your skin and makes its way into your bloodstream. It acts like estrogen in your body and can trigger allergic reactions. Different studies have found links between higher amounts of oxybenzone and negative impacts on health like endometriosis in older women and lower birth weight on daughters (if the mother had higher levels of the chemical).
No tanning oils
As much as you enjoy your tanning oils, they’re simply useless. They tend to offer incredibly little sun protection as they contain only low levels of sunscreen ingredients. If you must buy tanning oil, don’t purchase any with lower SPF value than 15 and those containing zinc oxide or avobenzone when it comes to UVA protection.
No sunscreen powders or towelettes
While many people love sunscreen towelettes and powders, the FDA doesn’t. They offer untrustworthy protection and that powder residue may end up causing more harm to your body.
No sunscreen/bug repellent combos
Don’t purchase products that combine bug repellent and sunscreen. While it might seem to be a convenient way to kill two birds with one stone, it’s not a smart idea. When UV exposure is at its peak, typically bugs are not even a concern. Furthermore, sunscreen may have to be applied more often than your bug repellent (or the other way around). There are studies that also suggest that your sunscreen and bug repellent recipe may allow your skin to better absorb the repellent ingredients, which is not something you want.
Zinc oxide may be your best bet
If you are faced with a quick choice to make between sunscreens, zinc oxide offers the best combination of UVA and UVB protection. Based on the most recent data they also show the least risk of health effects but you should still not consider them completely safe until there are more studies.
How to select the correct SPF
Once you have considered the criteria above, you need to figure out what type of protection you need according to the current UV rating and your skin type. If you have very fair skin, you will need the highest protection available. This is a rough chart, but just keep in mind what we mentioned about high SPF. You don’t need anything above SPF 50 and in most cases, SPF 30 will work just fine. If you are unsure, just go with SPF 30 – 50 and reapply often.
Should we use sunscreen?
Given all the factors above, seems like we should first protect ourselves from the sun by using the techniques mentioned above. Avoid prolonged exposure to the sun especially when the UV index is high. If you do go outdoors make sure to use sunscreen that fits the criteria mentioned before. Sunscreens that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the active ingredients may be the most effective. Remember, sunscreen is not an “apply once and forget” solution, so reapply it often. Stay smart, use common sense and enjoy your time outdoors.
Healthier & more natural sunscreen alternatives
If you’d like to purchase sunscreen without oxybenzone, and with good UVA and UVB protections, and minimal ingredients, here’s some that EWG.org recommends. Keep in mind that more natural sunscreens will generally tend to be a bit more annoying to put on and can leave a white layer. But it’s a small price to pay for avoiding harmful chemicals and damaging UV rays.
EWG rates all of these as 1 (1 being safest, 10 being the least safe). You can check where you sunscreen ranks here.