Sunscreen Safety

Written by Dr. Kai Herman

Not all sunscreens are created equal. An when it comes to UV protection products, there is an endless array of options. It is important to know that there is tremendous variability when it comes to safety of ingredients used in these products, as well as ability to provide complete UV protection. Below is a list of 5 simple tips to help you safely navigate through the summer months.

  1. Choose mineral based sunscreens. Mineral-based UV filters, either Zinc or Titanium oxide, are preferred over chemical UV filters, such as oxybenzone, as these minerals do not break down under sub exposure; minimally penetrate the skin (rendering them rather harmless to one’s health); and provide broad spectrum UVB & UVA protection. Most commercially available sunscreens contain chemical filters which get absorbed into the bloodstream, breakdown under sun exposure and mostly block UVB rays, doing little to protect one from harmful UVA rays. In fact, higher SPF sunscreens include more UVB protection, but include less UVA protection.
  2. Don’t believe that sunscreen alone will provide adequate protection during prolonged sun exposure. A few studies have shown that skin cancer rates are highest amongst individuals who regularly use sunscreen. Health experts claim that routine sunscreen users engage in riskier sun behavior than non-sunscreen wearers (ie. staying in the sun for longer periods of time) due to their belief that they are safe from skin damage. Sunscreen helps contribute to overall protection, but the use of additional barriers between yourself and the sun, is a necessary precaution during long hours spent outdoors. Covering up with clothing, hats, sunglasses and taking breaks in the shade optimizes UV protection.
  3. Apply sufficient amounts of sunscreen, frequently. Sunscreen’s effectiveness is commonly reduced when products are applied too sparsely and infrequently. These two mistakes are often made by consumers, most notably with higher SPF products. SPF of 50 or greater provide only a minimal increase in protection compared to SPF 15 & 30, but consumers falsely believe they need to use less of the stronger sunscreens. Experts recommend applying ample amounts of the product, every 90 minutes or so to maximize protection. Appropriate use of SPF 15 sunscreen ( frequent and ample application) can be just as effective as SPF 50 and contains fewer aggravating ingredients.
  4. Read your labels: avoid using sunscreens with Vitamin A or Oxybenzone. Vitamin A, often labeled as retinyl palmitate, retinol, or retinoic acid, is used in many skin care products for wrinkle reduction. However, with sun exposure, topical Vitamin A can stimulate growth of skin tumors, as it alters DNA. Vitamin A products are best reserved for nighttime use only. Oxybenzone, a commonly-used chemical UVB filter, penetrates through the skin, is a well known hormone disruptor and frequently causes allergic skin reactions.
  5. Protect the little ones! Childhood sunburns is one of the greatest risk factors for the development of skin cancer as an adult. Mineral based sunscreens are the least toxic and most effectively block UVA and UVB, both of which cause extensive free radical damage, especially to youthful skin.
  6. There are hundreds of sunscreens on the market with variable safety and effectiveness. To learn more about your sunscreen, visit Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website.