There are lots of reasons why women don’t wear sunscreen: They’re too gummy. They make skin oily or breakout. They turn skin a ghostly shade of pale a la Morticia Adams.
While most of these reasons are based on vanity (breakouts are a bit more complicated because they’re often caused by an allergic reaction to chemical sunscreen filters or sun exposure itself), new substantive scientific studies and ingredient assessments conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) are showing that sunscreens, which we use to protect against cancer, might play a role in causing it.
One study targets a chemical sunscreen ingredient called oxybenzone, suggesting it may be a hormone disruptor. An even more surprising finding: Sunscreens containing antioxidant vitamin A in their formulations “may hasten the development of skin damage and tumors.” Ironic, since vitamin A (retinol or retinyl palmitate in the label) is an incredibly sophisticated antioxidant that’s often used to treat sun damage or precancerous cells.
Before you think that all sunscreens are dangerous and consider skipping them, it’s good to take a long view of the daily protection they offer, like toothpaste and seatbelts. One in four Americans is diagnosed with skin cancer due to sun exposure. And because effective sunscreens still prevent far more skin damage and health issues than they cause—this is according to the EWG and probably every dermatologist—our health is best served by wearing them when staying out of the sun isn’t possible.
Here are some tips on navigating the sunscreen aisle, how to look for a low or non-toxic sunscreen, and information on making a healthy choice.
- SPF 30 is plenty. The Sun Protection Factor is math misleading. There’s actually very little difference in an SPF 15, which filters 93 percent of UVB rays and SPF 25, which filters 96 percent. The FDA discourages companies from flaunting numbers like SPF 50 or 100, because they cause a false sense of protection in wearers who may feel tempted to stay out in the sun longer. But many companies still market their products this way.
- Consider UVA protection. The SPF number on your sunscreen only applies to UVB rays that cause sunburn. UVA rays cause skin damage too, only without burning the skin, so you don’t know it’s happening. Futhermore, these longer rays can penetrate glass and way down into the skin, damaging skin proteins like collagen and elastin. Two ingredients—zinc and Mexoryl—offer the broadest UVA protection.
- Sunscreen must be reapplied every 90 minutes to offer the UVA or UVB protection stated on the bottle. And that’s only if you apply enough of it. A quarter-size dollop for the face; two shot-glasses worth on the body. There is no such thing as a long-lasting sunscreen.
- Reach for a mineral-based sunscreen. Of the dozen FDA-approved sunscreen filters permitted for use in beauty products, only two are not chemicals: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Look for these minerals in the Drug Facts section at the top of the ingredients list. Mineral-based sunscreens defend against UV rays on the skin’s surface. Zinc is the better of the two, because it blocks a broader spectrum of UV light. Whispers about the possible dangers of titanium dioxide and its microscopic size have not been conclusively verified by studies.
- Consider Mexoryl. This is a chemical sunscreen, but Mexoryl’s advantage is that it defends against a range of UVA light that no other filters do. It’s usually paired with another chemical sunscreen like avobenzone and octocrylene for really broad coverage. Even so, the EWG gave La Roche-Posay Anthelios 40 Sunscreen Cream a score of 2 out of 10 on the toxicity scale (10 being most toxic).
- Use zinc, if sunscreen makes you breakout. To work, chemical sunscreens must be absorbed into the skin where they convert ultraviolet light energy into heat energy in the skin, which is then released. This is the process that can cause breakouts in some people. Not only is zinc a pretty good UVA and UVB sunscreen, it’s also an anti-inflammatory, hence it’s role in diaper rash cream.
A New Way to Glow
You can have golden skin without the harsh chemicals or the fear of cancer-causing rays. Esthetician Molly Walsh has mastered an all-natural, odorless, non-streaking spray tan, with the lead ingredient, dihydroxyacetone, certified by EcoCert. Find a local spa near you or visit Molly’s own Skin Care Boutique for a safe alternative to a sun-kissed glow. www.organictan.org or www.mollysskincare.com; $45, One spray tan. – T.M