Expert advice on how to find the best protection out there
When it comes to sunscreens, skeptics have long wondered whether they provide the protection their labels say they do. An SPF of 90? Really?
By 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had stepped in to make sunscreen companies label their products more accurately—and the agency noted that this accuracy would be based on a very specific testing methodology.
Finally, manufacturers could only use the term “broad spectrum” if their products truly provided equal protection against cancer-causing UVA and UVB rays, and had an SPF of 15 or higher—but not beyond 50, because that was deemed unnecessary and more of a reason to raise prices than offer protection.
As you may remember from science class, UVA is comprised of longer waves that can even pass through glass windows and clouds to penetrate deep within the connective tissue, causing skin damage and wrinkles. UVB consists of shorter waves responsible for sunburn. We need protection from both—and it often wasn’t provided, despite products claims.
The phrase “water-resistant” could be used on sunscreens, the FDA said, but “waterproof” was out because none of the products are really waterproof. Water resistance could be claimed for 40 to 80 minutes before re-application, depending on the type of sunscreen, and as indicated on the label. That way the skin would be continuously protected, despite perspiration and immersion in water.
But here are some other basics that the agency’s edict didn’t cover.
There are two types of sunscreen: products with chemicals that absorb and disperse UV rays, and products that use ingredients, such as zinc oxide, to form a physical barrier between the skin and those UV rays.
Some dermatologists have long been upfront in recommending the physical block type of sunscreen, especially for people with allergies or sensitive skin. But other people—especially those who have become wary of the prevalence of toxins in so many widely available personal care products—say they wouldn’t touch a sun block that used chemicals to “protect,” whether or not their skin was sensitive.
Jody Villecco, the quality standards coordinator for Whole Foods, notes that users of chemical sunscreens have long been advised on labels to apply it 20 minutes before being exposed to the sun, because that would give chemicals time to seep into the skin. (These formulations rely on ingredients such as oxybenzone and octyl methoxycinnamate, which absorb the sun’s rays.)
But, Villecco also notes, “What is alarming is that some of the chemical sunscreens’ active ingredients have been shown to have endocrine disruption activity. This is especially concerning since we know they are getting into the body through the skin.”
New innovations—the invention of nano-sized physical sunscreens—are even more alarming, she says, since it isn’t clear from a biological standpoint how such exponentially smaller particles would affect people by their penetration.
If that wasn’t enough, there is also the fact that many sunscreen chemicals are also thought to be toxic to aquatic life. Who knows what havoc beaches full of lotioned-up swimmers eventually wreak?
When the FDA’s ruling noted that many chemical sunscreens didn’t really offer “broad spectrum” protection, despite their labels, that seemed to be a smackdown to the old sunscreens and their marketers. So Villecco and others, including environmental activists and those concerned about toxin exposure, strongly recommend physical-block sunscreens.
Yet, one problem with those—which use the active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium oxide—is that they tend to leave a kind of pale-mask look. But recent innovations in many progressive product lines have made that less of an issue.
Here’s another issue about sunscreens: In Canada, Europe and Asia, a number of effective sunscreens contain ingredients that are prohibited in the U.S. (despite the fact that Europe, especially, is far more rigorous about protecting consumers from toxic elements in food and personal care products.) And the FDA takes a very long time—nearly a decade, in this case—to take action on approving new ingredients for products like sunscreen.
The Sunscreen Innovation Act (introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate, and supported by Democrats and Republicans) will allow for sunscreen ingredients to get a “transparent” review within a timeframe of 11 months or less. Passage this summer is a possibility.
Since skin cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer, that seems to be logical enough.
In the meantime, you don’t have to wait to make safer choices.
BROAD-SPECTRUM SUNSCREENS WE LIKE
Erbaviva Sunscreen With zinc oxide, aloe, sunflower, olive and jojoba oils; infused with essential oils of chamomile and lavender. SPF 30, and water resistant for up to 80 minutes. erbaviva.com
Previse SunSheer and SunSheer SuperChill Mineral based, also includes the essence of pink grapefruit and other botanicals (in Super Chill) that cool skin and minimize inflammation. SPF 25. previsecare.com
Derma e Oil-Free Face Lotion and Body Lotion Zinc oxide, boosted with Vitamin C and green tea antioxidants, 100 percent vegan. SPF 30. dermae.com
Kiss My Face Sensitive Skin With zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and a moisturizer made from safflower seeds. This summer, Kiss My Face has a new sunscreen line with vitamins C and E, green tea and goji berry extract. SPF 30. kissmyface.com