Probably not something you want to think about when it's gorgeously sunshiny out, but every year more than two million Americans find out they have skin cancer. Slathering on sunscreen is an effective way to protect yourself, and aside from actually remembering to apply it, you also need to make sure the bottle you use is safe. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released its 2015 Sunscreen Guide; in order to make the list, a sunscreen must be free of oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, must be broad spectrum (protect against both UVA and UVB rays), and not have an SPF above 50, be in the form of a spray, or combined with bug repellent.
What's wrong with oxybenzone? Although it does a great job of absorbing ultraviolet rays, some studies show that it can be absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream. The EWG and toxicology experts believe this chemical can disrupt hormones, damage cells, and potentially lead to skin cancer. Other experts disagree, like the American Academy of Dermatology, since oxybenzone has been FDA-approved since 1978 for use in children older than 6 months.
Retinyl palmitate is another chemical to be leery of, since animal studies show that this type of vitamin A may increase the risk of skin cancer when used on sun-exposed skin. The EWG says retinyl palmitate doesn't really increase the effectiveness of sunscreen, so it's a good idea to avoid.
Your bottle should also clearly state "broad spectrum," to ensure it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. SPF is also important, but the higher the number doesn't necessarily mean better protection. The EWG recommends purchasing sunscreens with SPFs higher than 15 but no greater than 50. The FDA doesn't have adequate data that shows sunscreens with an SPF higher than 50 offer greater protection, and many doctors argue that a higher number tricks people into thinking their sunscreen lasts longer than one with a lower SPF, causing them to reapply less often, so they're more at risk for burns. Also, SPF only refers to protection against UVB rays, the ones responsible for burning the skin. It doesn't have anything to do with protection against UVA rays that penetrate the skin deeper and can lead to skin cancer.
So what's a consumer to do? All it takes is a little label reading to find a sunscreen that is both effective and free of these chemicals. You can type in the brand of sunscreen you normally use and see how it stacks up, or check the full list of the top safest sunscreens. Here are some it recommends:
- Alba Botanica Very Emollient Kids Mineral Sunblock, Fragrance Free, SPF 30
- All Terrain AquaSport Face Stick, SPF 28
- Badger Sport Sunscreen Cream, Unscented, SPF 35
- Nature's Gate Aqua Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50
- Sunology Lotion for Body Natural Sunscreen, SPF 50
- True Natural Neutral Sunscreen, Sensitive Skin, Unscented, SPF 50
Using these sunscreens properly is key to protecting your skin from harmful UV rays. Use at least two ounces (size of a shot glass), apply 30 minutes before heading out in the sun, and reapply every two hours or after you've been sweating or swimming.