Sunscreen Facts: How Not to Get Burned This Summer

Applying Sunscreen

A recent investigation by the Environmental Working Group [1] found that 60% of sunscreens currently on the market are not as safe and effective as you may think. Some of them just don’t offer the protection necessary to block all of the sun’s harmful UV rays, and others actually contain chemicals that can cause damage to your skin.

Even the best of intentions require diligence and effort, so when you reach for that skin lotion “with SPF,” this summer make sure you’re getting the protection you need and not leaving yourself exposed.

UV Rays: How They Can Damage Your Skin

The sun’s rays are categorized based on whether their wavelengths fall into the visible, infra-red (IR), or ultraviolet (UV) spectrum. Ultraviolet rays are the ones that you always hear about, because it is UV rays that are damaging to the skin.

Ultraviolet rays are also categorized based on their wavelengths. UVC rays are absorbed by the stratosphere and do not typically reach the earth’s surface. When interest groups discuss the dangers of the deteriorating ozone layer, UVC rays become a concern because even brief exposure can cause a sunburn and prolonged exposure can be fatal. UVC rays are the strongest and most dangerous type of ultraviolet radiation.

UVB rays are the “tanning rays” or “burning rays” that penetrate the top layers of skin (epidermis) and cause the production of melanin, which appears as a suntan. Over exposure to UVB rays can cause squamous cell carcinoma [2] and basal cell carcinoma [3], two of the most common forms of skin cancer. UVB rays are stronger during the summer months and nearer to the equator.

More dangerous are UVA rays, which penetrate past the epidermis into the dermis. UVA rays penetrate glass, so you are being exposed to them while you’re driving or seated near a window. UVA rays are just as strong regardless of the season, and prolonged exposure to this type of ultraviolet radiation can cause melanoma, the most fatal type of skin cancer.

Do All Sunscreens Protect Skin From Harmful UVA Rays?

Unfortunately, no. Look for sunscreens that specify protection from UVA and UVB rays, or that say multi-spectrum or broad-spectrum. While sunscreens with the above statements may protect you from some UVA rays, the label doesn’t typically indicate how much.

Additionally, even sunscreens that promise broad-spectrum protection are not required to list the level of UVA protection that they provide. You should look for an appropriate level of sun protection factor (SPF). The SPF listed on sunscreen tells you how much longer it will take your skin to redden using the sunscreen than without. For example, using sunscreens with SPF 20 means it will take skin 20 times longer to redden than without the sunscreen.

Can My Sunscreen Hurt Me?

While effective at blocking some of the solar radiation that can cause sunburn, aging and skin cancer, some sunscreen ingredients, such as oxybenzone, can actually be harmful. Oxybenzone is a common ingredient in sunscreens, and also a hormone disrupter. The CDC indicated in 2008 that safety standards for sunscreens are lacking and in need of review [4].

The main purpose of the FDA’s labeling efforts are to provide consumers with information on the level of protection offered by their sunscreens rather than the dangers of the chemicals contained therein. Know what the potential risks are to the chemicals in your sunscreen, and do your best to avoid them.

How do I protect myself from the sun and still avoid harmful chemicals?

Besides wearing a wide brimmed hat or staying indoors (which we do enough of already), you can get clothing that includes an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF), which is similar to the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) listed on sunscreens. UPF provides additional protection from ultraviolet radiation while minimizing your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. The popular outdoor store REI provides details on the construction and function of UPF rated fabrics. Also, when spending time in the sun it is best to expose yourself in the morning or late afternoon. If possible, try to avoid the mid day sun.

What’s the Best Sunscreen to Use?

The Environmental Working Group’s study identified a total of only 31 products [5] out of 1,608 that were both effective and low-hazard. They rated all 1,608 products in their study based on an effectiveness and hazard-level matrix, in which they identified 928 products as high hazard, most of them not even very effective. According to the study, the best sunscreens, SPF lotions, and lip balms are:

  • Soleo Organics Sunscreen
  • Badger Sunscreen
  • Purple Prairie Botanicals Sun Stuff
  • Keys Soap and Solar Rx Cosmetic Moisturizing Sunblock
  • Marie Veronique Organics Crème de Jour Tinted
  • Purple Prairie Botanicals Sunstick Lip Balm
  • UV Natural Lip Screen

Remember to protect your skin. Have a fun summer!

- Dr. Edward F. Group III, DC, ND, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM

References:

  1. Environmental Working Group. children’s sunscreens that fail the test. 2012 Hall of Shame. 2012
  2. The Skin Cancer Foundation. The second most common form of skin cancer. Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC).
  3. The Skin Cancer Foundation. The most frequently occuring form of skin cancer. Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC).
  4. Environmental Working Group. EWG statement on latest FDA proposed sunscreen safety standards. 2007 August 23.
  5. Environmental Working Group. Best Beach & Sport Sunscreens.

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