Finding a Safe Sunscreen

For years, most of us have dutifully applied sunscreen before heading outdoors, confident that we were doing the right thing to protect our skin from sunburn, premature aging and skin cancer. But research is casting doubt on the ability of sunscreens to do much more than stop sunburn, and some studies have found that ingredients in certain sunscreens might actually lead to greater sun damage.

Knowing what to look for in sunscreen — and what to avoid — can help you find a product that protects your skin without unwanted side effects.

Truths about Sunscreen

Yes, sunscreen prevents sunburn, but, surprisingly, that’s about it, according to recent research. Here are the facts to counter some common misconceptions:

Sunscreens aren’t proven to prevent skin cancer or premature aging. A 2007 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) review of scientific literature led the agency to conclude that “FDA does not believe, as a whole, that the studies demonstrate that sunscreens alone help prevent skin aging or skin cancer.”

SPF numbers above 50 aren’t reliable. The same 2007 FDA report found that SPF ratings greater than 50 are misleading because tests are inconclusive as to whether they block out a higher percentage of the sun’s rays than lower-rated products. The FDA took a similar position in 1999 about SPFs higher than 30, until results demonstrated that SPF ratings between 30 and 50 were reliable.

Some sunscreen ingredients can promote skin damage. FDA research has shown that vitamin A, when exposed to sunlight, can increase the development of tumors in test animals. Vitamin A is a common ingredient in sunscreens because it decreases the signs of aging.

In addition, some sunscreen ingredients release skin-damaging free radicals as the ingredients break down. Using enough sunscreen and reapplying helps prevent this problem, but few people use enough sunscreen, or reapply often enough.

A little sun without sunscreen is good for you. Sunlight reacts with a pigment in the skin to produce vitamin D, a process that sunscreen seems to inhibit. Vitamin D is essential to good health — it strengthens bones and the immune system, among other benefits. The best way to get enough vitamin D is under debate in the medical community, but the American Medical Association recommends exposing the skin to 10 minutes a day of sun without sunscreen.

What to Avoid in Sunscreen

The 2010 Sunscreen Guide by the Environmental Working Group found that only 39 of the 1,400 sunscreens it evaluated provided protection against UVA and UVB rays and contained no ingredients the group considers unsafe.


Watch out for these unsafe ingredients:

Oxybenzone has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption and cell damage.

Vitamin A has been linked to skin cancer. You might see it listed as retinyl palmitate, which is a synthetic form of vitamin A.

Insect repellent. The chemicals that make sunscreens penetrate the skin also allow the pesticides in insect repellent to be absorbed. If you absolutely need insect repellent, apply it separately after the sunscreen dries.


Sprays and powders (such as cosmetic powders) disperse particles into the air, where you can inhale them. Even sunscreen ingredients that are safe when applied as a cream — such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — can be hazardous when inhaled.


Until the FDA determines that ratings over SPF 50 are reliable, stick to something between 30 and 50.

What You Want in Sunscreen


Sun protectionChoose ingredients that protect against UVA rays, which have been linked to premature aging and skin cancer, as well as UVB, which cause burning. Those ingredients include the minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which sit on the skin rather than being absorbed; avobenzone; and Mexoryl SX, which isn’t widely used.


A cream, gel or stick formulation is safer than a spray or powder because there’s less risk of inhaling the product.


The SPF rating indicates how well a sunscreen deflects UVB rays. SPF 15 filters out 93 percent of the UVB rays; SPF 30 filters 97percent; and SPF 50 filters 98 percent.

Most dermatologists recommend using at least SPF 30, year round.

Getting the Most from Your Sunscreen

Apply early. Apply sunscreen about half an hour before sun exposure, so the sunscreen has time to bind to the skin.

Use enough. Most people don’t apply nearly enough sunscreen. The recommended amount is 1 ounce for an average-sized adult. That’s about as much as a shot glass holds.

Reapply often. Don’t let that SPF 50 make you complacent about reapplying. Even a waterproof sunscreen wears off if you sweat or swim. Reapply a full amount at least every two hours. If you’re swimming or sweating a lot, reapply more often.

Sun Protection Beyond Sunscreen

Don’t get the idea that you should cut out sunscreen all together. Choose sunscreen wisely and remember that it isn’t the only sun protection you need. Here is a list of other things to do to protect yourself from the sun:

Wear protective clothing. It may be summer, but wearing lightweight long-sleeved shirts and pants helps block the sun’s UV rays. A large-brimmed hat protects your face.

Relax in the shade. Either find natural shade under a tree or make your own with an umbrella or canopy.

Don’t go out in peak sun hours. Avoid the sun between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm, when the sun is directly overhead. The best time to be outdoors is either in the early morning or the late afternoon, when the sun is lower in the sky.

Always wear sunglasses. Get sunglasses that block UV rays to protect your eyes when outdoors and when driving. Not only does squinting cause wrinkles, but UV rays can cause cataracts.

Freelance writer Colleen Clark specializes in fashion, beauty, entertainment and travel. Read about her travels through Europe at Clark on a Lark.


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  1. good advise. I don't know that I did this as a kid.. My Mother contracted some skin cancer down here in Florida. It needed to be removed by a doctor. I am using spf 30 in acordense with the guide lines.


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