Summer must be nigh, because even my friends in Chicago have begun cooing about warm weather. We know you’ve been slathering on the facial sunblock all year long (right? right?), but now is the time to get serious, the time to start considering your Total Body Sunblock Strategy.
Intimidated? Not surprising. Once upon a time, this was easy: Sunscreen was sunscreen, and your biggest concern was higher or lower SPF. Then lo and behold ingredients in some sunscreens, such as retinyl palmitate, are found to actually accelerate the growth of skin cancer. Ingredients in others may disrupt your hormones. Meanwhile, the FDA still hasn’t issued sunscreen regulations that were slated for last October.
Should you chuck it all and reach for the baby oil? Not yet! We’re here to help. Here are the top things to consider when trying to keep your skin safe and pretty this summer:
Sun Protection Factor
SPF is pretty much what it sounds like – a measurement of sunburn protection, or protection from ultraviolet B (UVB) rays (which are what cause direct damage to skin). The American Academy of Dermatology recommends an SFP of at least 30. Sunscreens with SPFs as high as 100+ are now available. But although higher SPF means more protection, the American Cancer Society cautions that the higher you go, the smaller the difference becomes:
SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93% of UVB rays, while SPF 30 sunscreens filter out about 97%, SPF 50 sunscreens about 98%, and SPF 100 about 99%.
SPF also doesn’t tell you how well a sunscreen will protect against UVA rays, which are linked to long-term skin damage such as wrinkles and also could play a role in some skin cancers. In the EU, sunscreens must provide a minimum level of UVA protection in relation to the SPF. But current FDA regulations don’t require sunscreens in the U.S. to provide any UVA protection, nor to disclose the level of protection if they do.
Chemical v. Physical
There are two broad sunscreen types: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens protect your skin by absorbing the sun’s rays, while physical sunscreens deflect or block them. Many sunscreens these days offer a combination of physical and chemical blockers.
The majority of beach and sport sunscreens commercially available in the U.S. fall into this category. The most common active ingredient in 60 percent of these is something called oxybenzone. About 40 percent contain OMC (octyl methoxycinnamate). Both oxybenzone and OMC have raised strong toxicity concerns, such as hormone disruption and “estrogenic effects.” These conventional sunscreens also tend to offer less UVA protection.
Mineral sunscreens contain either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which deflect or block the sun’s rays. Many mineral sunscreens also contain sun-absorbing chemicals for optimal protection. According to the Environmental Working Group, mineral sunscreens are the safest of today’s available sunscreen options (all of EWG’s top-rated sunscreens for 2010 were of the mineral variety; 2011 recs haven’t yet been released). There has been some concern recently whether nanoparticles from these sunscreens could cause human cell damage. If you choose to use a mineral sunscreen, your best bet is one that also contains avobenzone, which blocks both UVA and UVB rays.
Natural sunscreens are those that are free of oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate, parabens and other potentially toxic chemicals. Can these sunscreens really work as well? Jeffrey Dover, president of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, says yes – as longs as consumers put on enough of the natural products to make them effective.
Generally speaking, natural sunscreens require a lot more rubbing in and advance application time to bind with the skin and be effective.
Natural sunscreens rely on zinc or titanium as active ingredients. That means, yes, all “natural” sunscreens are also “mineral” sunscreens – but not all mineral sunscreens are completely natural.
Looking for a good natural sunscreen? We’ve got 21 recommendations here.