Despite abundant research highlighting the dangers of UV rays—and ample evidence that applying sunscreen daily is important ammunition against premature aging and skin cancer—many people still don’t take proper precautions. This year alone more than 2 million Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer, reports the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). AAD statistics also show that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer during his or her life.
Plus, concerns about sunscreen go beyond when or how to apply sunscreen into what kind of product to choose. Wondering about broad-spectrum coverage, chemical ingredients, nanotechnology, and more? New research, expert advice, and safe product offerings can alleviate some heat.
“Physical” sunscreens are the safest choices. They use minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to deflect rays, unlike chemical sunscreens that use ingredients such as oxybenzone to absorb UV radiation and have been linked to allergies and endocrine disruption. Mineral sunscreens also fight both forms of dangerous rays, UVA and UVB, as opposed to some chemical sunscreens that protect only from UVB. “Our general recommendation is that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide particles are two of the most effective sunscreen ingredients and safest options in sunscreens,” says Environmental Working Group (EWG) senior scientist David Andrews, PhD.
Another advantage of minerals: They’re often less irritating to skin, and zinc oxide is the best ingredient for your baby’s sensitive body (choose it even over titanium dioxide). For easily irritated complexions, look for oil-free and face-specific sunscreens to avoid breakouts. And ditch potentially abrasive synthetic ingredients such as “fragrances.”
Stellar sun care also incorporates skin-nourishing ingredients such as green tea, vitamin E, resveratrol, and coQ10, which provide free radical protection and help restore cell health after sun exposure. Mounting research also supports taking resveratrol, glucarate, and lycopene supplements to protect against UV-related cell damage.
Not all antioxidants are your allies, however. In sunscreen, avoid retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that some research has linked to increased skin cancer risk when combined with harmful rays.
Nanoparticles, manipulated to become tens of thousands of times smaller than a strand of hair, are sometimes used to improve the consistency and UV-protective qualities of mineral sunscreens. But are they safe? “There’s uncertainty, which is prompting companies to de-emphasize particle size and use other strategies, whether different coatings or dispersion, to make sunscreen more aesthetic and give more protection,” says Guy Langer, founder of personal care consulting company Qumulus Group.
Research hasn’t confirmed concerns over whether skin absorbs nanoparticles, but it has shed light on risks when nanoparticles are ingested. The EWG’s stance is that nanoparticles are OK in lotion form, but you should avoid nano spray or aerosol products, particularly those that use nano titanium dioxide—linked to immune toxicity when inhaled, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Immunotoxicology.
Although current FDA regulations don’t require labeling of nanoparticles, a company using non-nano ingredients typically indicates that on labels or websites. If that information isn’t accessible, you can assume the minerals are smaller than 100 nanometers: nano territory.
You know those “trusty” SPFs you’ve long relied on? They only indicate UVB protection, ignoring equally dangerous UVAs. However, the FDA’s new sunscreen requirements, enforced next month, will require companies making “broad-spectrum” claims to also test for UVA protection and non-broad-spectrum sunscreens to list a skin-cancer and skin-aging warning. “The FDA was supposedly legislating about UVA three years ago. It’s about time; Europe and Australia have been doing it for years,” says Amy Wechsler, MD, a New York City–based dermatologist.
The new requirements also prohibit companies from making other unsubstantiated claims like “waterproof” or “sunblock.” But the rules aren’t foolproof: Companies may still list SPFs above 50, though research doesn’t indicate that these provide additional protection, and may still use potentially dangerous ingredients like oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate. Translation: Read labels carefully, focusing on ingredients and claims, and check the EWG’s annually updated Sunscreen Guide (ewg.org/sunscreen), which offers detailed safety information and product-safety rankings.
Editor's note: This month, the FDA announced it is postponing its new sunscreen rules until mid December 2012.