It’s that time again, when the weather is warm and all we want to do is get out there in the sun. No doubt you know that protecting your skin is important. Skin cancer remains the most common type of cancer in the U.S., with an estimated 9,000 people newly diagnosed every day.
Yet slathering on sunscreen isn’t as simple as it seemed decades ago. Back then you just grabbed some of the white stuff and applied it to exposed areas of skin.
But then manufacturers got wise to the fact that we didn’t like looking like mimes and gave us newer formulas that went on clearly and invisibly. We rejoiced until we heard that many of these formulas contained ingredients that could actually harm our skin or even increase our risk of skin cancer.
Today, you are probably a little confused as to what’s safe and what’s not when it comes to sunscreen. Here’s what to look for and what to avoid, along with some suggestions of how you can find the best product for you and your family.
Dangerous Ingredients in Your Sunscreen
First, the bad news: there may be some dangerous ingredients in your sunscreen. Even if it has a high SPF and says it offers broad-spectrum protection, it could still contain ingredients that could actually harm your skin. Here are the ones you’ll want to avoid:
1. Retinyl palmitate
It’s a form of vitamin A, which you’d think would be healthy, but studies have shown that it may harm the skin. In 2012, the National Toxicology Program reported that in animal studies, small doses of retinyl palmitate, when applied to the skin and then exposed to UV rays, caused the development of skin tumors faster than skin not covered with retinyl palmitate.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), in their most recent 2017 guide to safe sunscreens, emphasizes again that it’s best to avoid oxybenzone. It’s one of the most widely used sunscreens today, because it offers broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays, and blends well in formulas.
Unfortunately, studies have found it to be a potential hormone disruptor, as well as an ingredient that may actually exacerbate free-radical damage to the skin when exposed to UV rays. It absorbs readily into the body-one 2008 study found it in over 96 percent of urine samples. It can increase risk of allergic reactions over time, and has been linked to contact dermatitis.
In addition to oxybenzone, other potentially dangerous chemical sunscreens include octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.
3. Paraben preservatives
These ingredients can show up as preservatives in many personal care products, including your sunscreen. They have been linked to breast cancer in some studies, so it’s best to avoid them. Look for butyl-, ethyl-, methyl-, and propyl-paraben.
4. Insect repellants
It seems like it would make sense to mix your sunscreen with your insect repellant so you can apply both at the same time. In this case, however, it’s not. You can find safe sunscreens and insect repellants, but combining the ingredients together can decrease the effectiveness of both, and potentially even increase toxicity.
When you add insect repellent to sunscreen, you can decrease the ability of the sunscreen to protect you from UV rays, while simultaneously increasing the toxicity of the repellant. Some studies have found that insect repellant reduces the effectiveness of sunscreen ingredients by 30 percent.
Meanwhile, the sunscreen formula is designed to penetrate skin. That means it is likely to carry the insect repellant-DEET or another ingredient-into the skin too, which could be dangerous, especially for children.
Application differs, too. While we should reapply sunscreen every couple of hours, DEET (the most effective insect repellent) needs reapplication only once about every 2-6 hours, and should be kept away from the face.
General Guidelines for Finding Safe Sunscreens
In addition to avoiding the ingredients listed above, there are some other things you can do to make sure the product you get is safe.
- Avoid sprays and powders: These release sunscreen and other chemicals into the air, where you can inhale them. Even titanium dioxide, which is considered one of the safest sunscreen ingredients, can become toxic when inhaled. Spray sunscreens can also be flammable. Choose lotions instead.
- Choose safe sunscreens: The EWG recommends zinc oxide, avobenzone, and Mexoryl SX as the three safest choices for sunscreens. (Titanium dioxide is okay, too.) These are the ingredients that have shown in numerous studies to effectively protect skin from both UVA and UVB rays without causing other dangerous reactions.
- Look for broad-spectrum protection: When you choose ingredients like those above, you automatically get broad-spectrum protection, which is shielding from both UVA and UVB rays. Some sunscreens offer only UVB protection, so watch for that.
- Don’t be fooled by big numbers: SPF is a confusing thing for many consumers. Surely a higher number means a better sunscreen, right? Not necessarily. In fact, the FDA has called high SPFs “misleading,” because they make people think they can spend more time in the sun and still be protected. Look for an SPF of 15-50, but don’t be fooled into thinking that higher numbers than that mean better protection, because studies show that they don’t, and that products with SPFs above 50 aren’t worth the extra money.
- Apply thickly: Research shows that most of us don’t apply enough sunscreen to the skin. Use a thick coat.
- Don’t rely only on sunscreen: Sunscreens are imperfect. Even if you apply them carefully, use the right ingredients, and reapply every couple hours, they are still unlikely to protect you completely from damaging UV rays. Get into the habit of using hats, sunglasses, umbrellas, and clothing to protect yourself.
- Go fragrance-free: Remember that fragrances contain a number of chemicals that aren’t listed on the label. These may increase risk of skin allergies and other issues, so go for fragrance-free.
Finally, check your product at the EWG’s sunscreen guide to see how it rates. This is a great tool to use to protect yourself from misleading marketing claims.
Have you found the perfect sunscreen?
Sources“NTP Technical Report on the Photocarcinogenesis Study of Retinoic Acid and Retinyl Palmitate,” National Toxicology Program, August 2012, http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/htdocs/lt_rpts/tr568_508.pdf.Pierre George, “Ask the Expert,” 2010, http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/ask-the-experts/would-it-be-better-to-use-a-product-that-combines-insect-repellent-and-sunscreen-or-two-different-products.Calafat AM, et al., “Concentrations of the sunscreen agent benzophenone-3 in residents of the United States: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003–2004.,” Environ Health Perspect. 2008 Jul;116(7):893-7, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18629311.Ma R, et al., “UV filters with antagonistic action at androgen receptors in the MDA-kb2 cell transcriptional-activation assay.,” Toxicol Sci. 2003 Jul;74(1):43-50. Epub 2003 May 2., http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12730620.