Sunscreen used to seem simple; not anymore. Turns out that some of the very stuff you slather on to protect yourself could actually up your cancer risk; higher SPF doesn’t necessarily mean more protection; and protecting against UVB rays alone isn’t enough (not for warding off skin cancer or warding off wrinkles). So what should you be looking for in a sunscreen? It mostly comes down to these three things:
1. SPF 30+
SPF measures how much a sunscreen protects against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, the kind that cause direct damage to skin, such as sunburns. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends an SPF of at least 30. Going higher can offer more protection, though the amount more goes down the higher you go up. According to the American Cancer Society, SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 about 97%, SPF 50 about 98%, and SPF 100 about 99%. Many doctors say high SPF sunscreens (above 50) aren’t worth it—they simply expose people to more irritating or potentially harmful sunscreen ingredients without adding meaningful protection.
2. UVB and UVA Protection
While UVB rays are the ones that cause direct skin damage, like burning, UVA rays are much more insidious: These are the suckers most linked skin cancer and long-term skin damage, like wrinkles. Ideally, you want a sunscreen that protects against both long-term and short-term sun damage. But because current U.S. regulations (unlike the European Union’s) don’t require sunscreens to offer UVA protection, many don’t. Look for a sunscreen that explicitly says it provides “broad spectrum” protection, i.e. protection against both UVA and UVB rays.
3. Nontoxic Ingredients
Many people don’t realize that some chemicals commonly used in sunscreens have been linked to increased cancer risk. Steer clear of retinyl palmitate, which has been found to actually accelerate the growth of skin cancer. You may also want to avoid oxybenzone and octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC), potential endocrine disruptors found in the majority of conventional sunscreens. And while you’re at it, look out for the usual suspects when it comes to cosmetic toxins: Parabens and phthalates. Where does that leave you? There are lots of affordable and effective natural sunscreens these days. I like Alba Botanica’s SPF 30 fragrance-free mineral sunscreen, which has been one of the Environmental Working Group’s top-rated sunscreens for the past three years. For more EWG recommendations see here, or check out the group’s whole 2012 Suncreen Guide.