How to Choose a Safer Sunscreen

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June 15, 2012 by Kimberly Beauchamp, ND

© Stevie Lee (flickr)

Sun protection isn’t just for summer. But when some of the ingredient lists look like a chemistry textbook, how do you choose a sunscreen that’s safe for your whole family to use all year long?

Chemical or Mineral?

Chemical sunscreens use a variety of different chemicals to block the harmful rays of the sun. Some of these appear to be much safer than others.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends avoiding these chemicals found in many sunscreens:

  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4-MBC)
  • Benzophenone-3 (oxybenzone)
  • 3-benzylidene camphor
  • Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC)

These compounds can have toxic effects ranging from hormone disruption to immune system suppression. Children may be more susceptible to the harmful effects of these substances.

The EWG also suggests avoiding sunscreens containing vitamin A derivatives, including retinol or retinyl palmitate, as they may speed skin cancer growth.

According to the EWG, these sunscreen chemicals appear to be safer:

  • Avobenzone
  • Mexoryl SX (ecamsule)
  • Octisalate
  • Tinosorb M
  • Tinosorb S

Avobenzone is the most widely available of the safer sun-blocking chemicals. La Roche-Posay Anthelios 40 Suncreen Cream UVA Protection with Mexoryl SX, 1.7-Ounce Tube contains avobenzone and mexoryl SX. This product earned a “low hazard” safety rating from the Environmental Working Group.

Mineral sunscreens work by physically blocking ultraviolet rays, usually with some combination of zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.

Mineral sunscreens do an excellent job of providing broad-spectrum protection from UVA and UVB radiation. They also seem to be relatively safe.

One drawback to mineral sunscreens is that they tend to be thick and turn the skin white upon application. The industry has gotten around this ghostly issue by using nanoparticle technology. Sunscreens containing nanoparticles have little product glare.

© Kim Beauchamp

Aubrey Organics SPF 30 Children’s Unscented Sensitive Skin – 4 oz – Lotion is a mineral sunscreen that received a rating of “1” from the Environmental Working Group, the highest safety rating that the group gives.

Tip: Use sunscreen as directed, making sure to reapply at least every two hours and after swimming, sweating, or toweling dry.

What’s Up With SPF?

The SPF, or sun protection factor, of a sunscreen is supposed to be a measure of how long you can stay out in the sun before burning. So if you’d normally burn in 15 minutes, an SPF 30 sunscreen should allow you to stay in the sun for more than seven hours. But that’s rarely how it works.

In reality, most people don’t use nearly enough sunscreen to provide the amount of protection that they’re seeking. Not only that, applying sunscreen could give some people a false sense of safety when spending long periods in the sun.

There is also little evidence that using sunscreens with SPFs higher than 50 provides any additional protection.

The FDA has introduced new regulations for sunscreens that will go into effect by the summer of 2012. The guidelines require that all sunscreens pass FDA testing in order to make SPF and UVA/UVB coverage claims. Under these standards, the maximum allowable SPF that sunscreen makers can state on their labels will be “SPF 50+.” Only those products that block both UVA and UVB rays may be labeled “Broad Spectrum.”

Tip: When choosing a sunscreen for your family, make sure the bottle says “SPF 15” (or higher) and “Broad Spectrum.”

Cover Up First

© Monkey Mash Button (flickr)

Before you slather the sunscreen on your family, consider having them cover some skin with clothing. Broad-brimmed hats help protect little faces and necks, and glasses protect the places where sunscreen can’t. Covering up also saves you money on sunscreen and keeps you from having to use more sunscreen on your child than you’d like.

Tip: Remember that your average t-shirt only has an SPF of 6. If your family spends a lot of time outdoors, it’s worth investing in some quality SPF swim and cover-up wear.

What About Baby?

Most sunscreens labels state that they shouldn’t be used on children younger than six months. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that it’s probably okay to put sunscreen on exposed skin of younger babies, but that covering up is the best form of protection.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this blog is for educational and/or informational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose or provide treatment for any condition. If you have any concerns about your own health or that of a family member, you should always consult with a healthcare professional.

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The information contained in this blog is for educational and/or informational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any condition. If you have any concerns about your own health or that of a family member, you should always consult with a healthcare professional.

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