The truth about sunscreen

Happy summer solstice!  Mother nature seems to be celebrating with 100° heat and high humidity.  But the arrival of summer begs another discussion:  staying safe in the sun.


I grew up spending my summer days on the water and in the pool.  Days  of swim team, fishing, crabbing, boating, or just jumping off the pier were always capped by a week at the beach in August.  In other words:  sunburns were a rite of passage.  I looked forward to the golden tan that developed by the first day of school.  Sunscreen was always an afterthought.

Which makes this fact even scarier:    just one severe sunburn in childhood doubles your chances for melanoma.  These days, I no longer willingly and knowingly allow myself to be exposed to known carcinogens.  A sunburn is just not something to be taken lightly.  Not gonna lie, my vanity also comes into play:  we all can picture what middle age looks like on someone who had a little to much fun in the sun in his or her youth.  Hence, I have become super anal retentive about being protected whenever I’m in the sun.

Not all sunscreens are created equal, however.  There is startlingly little control and regulation over what sunscreens are permitted to advertise and promote in terms of their effectiveness.  There is little quality control over ingredients that may actually exacerbate skin damage.  While conventional sunscreens may prevent you from burning, thus giving peace of mind, they are not all equally effective against cancer.  This is an instance where our regulatory and industry controls have failed, and it is up to the consumer to do the research and protect themselves.

Luckily, the Environmental Working Group publishes a sunscreen guide every year, testing hundreds of sunscreens and reiterating these basic facts:

-UVB rays cause sunburn and cancer.  UVA rays cause cancer but not sunburn.  Many sunscreens are advertised as “Broad Spectrum” or otherwise protective against UVA rays … but very few actually are.  The rules are astonishingly lax.  Cross-reference the guide to ensure that yours is.

-Many sunscreens contain harmful ingredients
.  Vitamin A, or retinyl palmitate, is an ingredient in about 25% of sunscreen.  Vitamin A actually increases the skin’s absorption of UV rays.  How does this make any sense????  Oxybenzone, an ingredient found in about 50% of available water resistant sunscreens, penetrates the skin, causing allergic reactions and is a potential hormone disruptor.  Mineral sunblock frequently contains nanoparticles.  Most FDA-approved UV blockers react with sunlight to cause free radical damage to the skin, even as it is protective against UV rays.  Other ingredients are known toxins and known to penetrate the skin.  It seems that choosing the best sunscreen is choosing between the lesser of two evils.  According to EWG, there are effective and safer UV blockers used in Europe that have yet to win FDA approval.

-Bigger is not better.  SPF of 30 should be sufficient protection, and SPF over 50 is false advertising — there is no evidence that these provide significantly better protection.  Don’t believe the hype.  Growing up, I was always told that SPF 15 was adequate, but it depends on how easily you burn, and for many people it is not enough for extended periods of time.

Confused?  Yeah, me too.  There is no “perfect” sunscreen available in the U.S. today.  Luckily the EWG has some helpful advice:

Mineral blockers, for all their faults, are the best.  Nanoparticles, free radical damage, and pasty white skin aside, mineral sunscreens are the best thing available on the market today.  This is what I use, and while the thick white creme that doesn’t blend so easily took some getting used to, I am happy with them now.

-Sunscreen is not the best defense.  Stay in the shade.  Wear protective clothing, hats and sunglasses.  Minimize your time in direct sunlight in the middle of the day.  Don’t assume that you’re good to go just because you’ve coated your skin in sunscreen.

-Educate yourself.  Check out EWG’s guide and see how your sunscreen is ranked.   You might be surprised!

Summer is such a magical time of year — don’t let a bad sunburn ruin it.  Stay safe out there!

Stay cool!



3 thoughts on “The truth about sunscreen

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