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What's worse: dangerous sunscreen chemicals or harmful UV rays?

The sunscreen industry is a controversial one, plagued by debate over ingredients and efficacy. But what if concerns over chemical sunscreens (as well as nanoparticles in natural mineral sunscreens) make consumers less likely to protect themselves from harmful UV rays? 

The risk of going in the sun without an SPF is greater than the risk of using a chemical sunscreen. Do you agree?

Slathering up with tanning oil and basking in the sun for hours amidst rows of like-minded teens was never really “my thing” and for that I am infinitely grateful. In nearly every beauty-related interview I conduct, my sources tell me the same thing—and they have the research to support it: Protecting your skin from harmful UV rays is the single most important step you can take to prevent skin damage and premature aging.

In a recent interview, Amy Wechsler, MD, a New York-based dermatologist even said you must wear sunscreen every day, year around because a.) as few as 10 minutes of rays can have a negative effect on health and skin, and  b.) developing the habit is critical to maintaining your skin’s health in the long-haul. Similarly, Alan Logan, ND, advised that we ignore recent recommendations to remain sunscreen-less for any amount of time to load up on vitamin D. Stick with supplements, he said.

But the rest isn’t as clear-cut, with consumers voicing concerns not just about chemical sunscreens—which can contain some of the cosmetic industry's dirtiest and potentially dangerous ingredients like oxybenzone and don’t protect from UVA rays—but also over nanoparticles that appear in natural, mineral-based options (check out Sun care magnifies nanotechnology debate for the latest). Is chemical sunscreen ever a good choice? What is the deal with nano, anyway? And are these questions getting in the way of protecting ourselves from the sun?  

When I spoke to Guy Langer, founder of personal care consulting company Qumulus Group, Inc., while reporting my latest article on the issue, he offered up a sunscreen hierarchy plain and simple: “You’re better off using some sunscreen rather than nothing and better off using a mineral version because you can get higher UV coverage. The risk of going in the sun and not having SPF is greater than even using a chemical sunscreen.”

Fair enough. Best option: Wear mineral sunscreen. Worst option: Don't wear sunscreen. Somewhere in between option: Wear any sunscreen. But then, within that "best option" category we must grapple with the issue of nanoparticles, used in many mineral sunscreens to offer sheer application and better UV protection. It’s a new industry, and while recent research shows that there are no negative health effects when nanoparticles are applied in a lotion form—and the EWG stands behind nanotechnoloy—we don’t know the long-term effects. That can be scary.

But when we’re dealing with sun care, we can’t let a fear of the unknown get in the way of the known: unprotected sun exposure is awful for our skin and health. At the same time, I’ve found that manufacturers are listening to us (thank you!) and formulating non-nano mineral sunscreens that offer the same UV protection and consistency as nano versions. After doing more research I'm not so quick to shun nano, but I'm also pleased to see that consumers are driving a new trend that will lead to innovation and new non-nano mineral products. 

And when it comes to that extreme: The risk of going in the sun without an SPF is greater than the risk of using a chemical sunscreen, do I agree?

Yes, if I was about to spend time in the sun and only had a bottle of chemical sunscreen, I’d apply it.  But for the majority of my 300 plus sunny days in Colorado? There are plenty of options that can defeat the sun, in the safest possible way, so I'm confident I won't have to settle for "somewhere in between."  




Discuss this Blog Entry 4

Paulette (not verified)
on May 7, 2011

So what are the names of the lotions with non-nanno minerals? I am not sure how to look for this or where? I normally do not where sunscreen with the oily skin that I have, but as I age, my skn is drying, and I need something different for my face than my body. What do I look for and can ou give me the names of the best products to use? Thank you so much.

on May 7, 2011

One of the difficulties of finding these non-nano mineral products is that sunscreen companies are not required to label products with nanoparticles; however,more and more manufacturers (of nano and non-nano products) are trying to be transparent and at least include that info on their web sites. This article ( that I recently wrote names a couple of companies leading the way with non-nano mineral sunscreens (Badger and Elemental Herbs) and how they are making it work. It also weighs some of the pros and cons of nanotechnology in general.

You do raise a good point, though: We often need different sunscreens for our faces than we do for our bodies (always look for oil-free or noncomedogenic for the face to prevent breakouts). And it's even more difficult to find exactly what we're looking for when we factor in skin type, etc.

I am in the process of compiling our top sunscreen picks for 2011 and will have this information available shortly. I'll be sure to keep you posted.

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 7, 2011

This stuff sounds like it may be working?

"DNA Repair Enzymes Increase UV Protection by 300% in One Hour"
"MONTGOMERYVILLE, Pa., May 5, 2011 /PRNewswire/ -- PhotoMedex, Inc. (Nasdaq: PHMD) a leading supplier of advanced, clinical skincare and medical laser products, today introduced DNA Damage Control, the breakthrough treatment sunscreens that feature advanced photoprotection with DNA repair technology.

Formulated by and marketed under the company’s NEOVA® brand, the DNA Damage Control sunscreens offer an unrivaled repair and protect system that defends against photodamage insults with a new and powerful therapy: boosting the body's natural DNA repair process. The patent-pending formulas use liposomes to deliver DNA repair enzymes to the cellular level of the skin, hyper-targeting the site of the DNA injury."

on Jun 7, 2011

Our roundup of 10 safe sunscreens for kids, babies, and you is now up ...

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