Save Your Skin: Choosing Sunblock

How to choose an effective, safe sunblock.
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How to choose an effective, safe sunblock.

The white goo we so diligently slather on might not be doing much. A 2009 study by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (ewg.org) found that 10 to 30 percent of sunscreens don’t block UVA radiation, only UVB, and 41 percent use ingredients that break down quickly in the sun. Since UVB rays contribute the most to sunburn and since many sunscreens have anti-inflammatory substances, we don’t get burned, though skin damage still occurs. “The lack of enforceable rules for sunscreens means Americans are sold ineffective products with overstated safety claims,” says EWG senior analyst Sonya Lunder. The FDA plans to release new guidelines this fall. Until then:

1. Choose the right ingredients. The only active ingredients should be one or more of the following: titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, photo-stabilized avobenzone, or Mexoryl, which shield against UVA and UVB rays. Note: Since the SPF only rates UVB protection, it tells you nothing about its UVA protection. And the terms “broad-spectrum” or “blocks all harmful rays” are unreliable.

2. Avoid suspected toxins. Many ingredients are common allergens, like oxybenzone, octinoxate, and padimate, and several are “known or strongly suspected to cause cancer or birth defects, disrupt human reproduction, or damage the growing brain of a child,” the study reports. These chemicals bioaccumulate in the body, and 97 percent of Americans have oxybenzone traces in their urine.

3. Get SPF 30 or more. And reapply every two hours. (Note: SPF 50 blocks just 1.3 percent more UVB rays than SPF 30.)

4. Forego nano sprays. Lotions with nano-size zinc and titanium particles solve the mime look, but hold off on nano sprays and powders; the health effects of inhaling them are unknown.

5. Opt for “very water resistant.” This means a block lasts 80 minutes in water. The term “waterproof” is unregulated.