Confused About Sunscreen? What to Know Before Buying Your Next Bottle

With the recent release of the 2014 Sunscreen Guide from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), you might be confused as to how to choose the right sunscreen and whether the bottle you own now is safe and effective. Buying sunscreen shouldn't cause you to break out in a cold sweat, so here are a few simple yet important things to look for when it comes to sunscreen.



The number on your bottle stands for sun protection factor, and believe it or not, a higher number doesn't equal more protection. The EWG recommends purchasing sunscreens with SPFs higher than 15 but no greater than 50. Studies show that sunscreens with an SPF higher than 50 don't offer greater protection, and many doctors argue that a higher number makes many people think a sunscreen lasts longer than one with a lower SPF, causing them to reapply less often, so they're more at risk for burns.

Broad Spectrum

UVB rays are responsible for burning as well as tanning your skin and are the main culprit responsible for skin cancer. And while UVA rays won't cause a sunburn, they penetrate your skin more deeply, leading to signs of aging including wrinkles, saggy and leathery skin, and sun spots. It's important to protect yourself from both types of UV rays, so look for bottles that say "broad spectrum" or "broad spectrum UVA/UVB."

Water Resistance

If your sunshiny adventures include water or sweating a lot, then definitely choose a sunscreen that's water-resistant. Know that these aren't waterproof — they'll only protect you about 40 to 80 minutes in the water, so you'll need to reapply each time you take a dip.

Chemicals to Avoid

  • 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 can disrupt hormones, damage cells, and potentially lead to skin cancer.
  • Retinyl palmitate: Animal studies show this type of vitamin A may increase the risk of skin cancer when used on sun-exposed skin. And since the EWG says retinyl palmitate doesn't really increase the effectiveness of sunscreen, it's a good idea to avoid it.
  • Parabens: The most widely used preservative in cosmetic products, parabens are used to protect against microbial growth. Parabens can act similarly to the hormone estrogen, which is known to play a role in the development of breast cancers, and even though this chemical has been found in breast tumors, the FDA has yet to link it as a contributing factor to cancer. Since the jury is still out on how parabens affect the body, it's best to be on the safe side and avoid them.

Safe Sunscreen Recommendations

What you really want to know now is which sunscreens you should buy, right? Here are a few safe and effective recommendations that score highest on the EWG scale of best sunscreens and are also paraben-free:

  • Alba Botanica Natural Very Emollient Sunblock, Fragrance Free, SPF 30
  • All Terrain AquaSport Face Stick, SPF 28
  • Badger Broad Spectrum Sunscreen, Lavender, SPF 34
  • Kiss My Face Natural Mineral Sunscreen With Hydresia, SPF 40
  • Nature's Gate Aqua Block Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50


The combo sunscreen and bug repellants seem like a great way to kill two birds with one stone, but they should be avoided since bugs may not even be an issue during the hours when UV rays are the strongest. Also, sunscreen may need to be reapplied more often than bug repellent, or visa versa. It's also not a good idea to apply the chemicals found in bug repellant to your face.

Another cool sunscreen gimmick are spray-ons. They may seem easier to apply, especially to hard-to-reach areas like your back, but they don't offer the coverage lotions do since it's difficult to see where and how much you've applied. Sprays and powdered sunscreens also pose the risk of inhalation, so go for one of the regular lotions mentioned above. Use about a shot-glass-size amount, and apply 30 minutes before heading out in the sun. Don't forget to reapply every two hours and after swimming or sweating.