Sunscreen Primer: Get the Facts Before You Hit the Beach

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Which sunscreens are the most effective and safe?

Sunscreen Primer, go ahead and go green

The good: What to look for

Overall, look for water-resistant, broad-spectrum coverage with an SPF of at least 30.

  • The FDA has determined that sunscreens with SPF values higher than 50 have no added sun protection benefit, though some manufacturers continue to sell them. An SPF of 30 is recommended; after that, higher isn’t any better.
  • There are two types of UV light that can harm your skin — UVA and UVB. A broad-spectrum, or full-spectrum, sunscreen should protect you from both. The best sunscreens protect you from all UV light.
  • The best sunscreen option is to use mineral-based sunscreens — sometimes referred to as “inorganic,” or “non-chemical,” that use the minerals zinc (as zinc oxide) and titanium (as titanium dioxide). Neither compound has been found to penetrate the skin, so they’re safe for kids, and these ingredients are most effective at shielding skin from both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Two more recommended, effective sunscreen ingredients: Mexoryl SX (also called Ecamsule by some manufacturers) and avobenzone 3%.
  • Price has been shown to have little to do with performance.

The bad: What to avoid

  • To make sure your sunscreen is safe, make sure it does NOT contain the following ingredients:
    • oxybenzone – Oxybenzone may be a skin irritant and can cause allergic reactions, especially in individuals who are sensitive to skin care products.
    • vitamin A as retinyl palmitate or retinol – these compounds can cause extreme sun sensitivity and possibly exacerbate cancer risk; they should not be used in sunscreens or any product you put on your skin while being exposed to the sun’s rays.
  • In the past, some sunscreens have failed to block UVB rays, but this was recently addressed; some products aren’t up to par at blocking UVA rays. Make sure you use a broad spectrum sunscreen.
  • Check the expiration date–don’t use expired sunscreen.
  • Avoid aerosol sprays and powder sunscreens.

The vitamin D quandary 

The vitamin D produced by our bodies when we are exposed to sunlight is very important to our health. It has been shown to protect against osteoporosis and other bone problems and may even help prevent Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and fight infections. We can get the vitamin in foods (including oil-rich fish) and supplements, but the ultraviolet rays of the midday sun provide the best source, and sunscreen blocks those rays. So how do we protect our skin while getting our vitamin D fix? While this remains a major discussion as far as benefit vs. risk, the current guideline is that ten to twenty minutes of unprotected sun a day is enough to get our dose of D. After that, follow the slather-and-cover rule.

Superfoods may help 

Eating certain foods may help prevent skin cancer. While the role of nutrition in cancer prevention is hard to pinpoint, several studies have indicated that antioxidants (including vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, zinc, and vitamin A) and foods such as fish, beans, carrots, chard, pumpkin, cabbage, broccoli, and vegetables containing beta-carotene and vitamin C may keep skin protected. Other substances found in plants may help protect your skin from sun-related damage:

  • Apigenin, a flavonoid found in vegetables and fruits, including broccoli, celery, onions, tomatoes, apples, cherries and grapes, and in tea and wine
  • Turmeric
  • Resveratrol, found in grape skins, red wine, and peanuts
  • Quercetin, found in apples and onions

(University of Maryland Medical Center)

Sources, resources and product picks:

The 2014 Sunscreen Guide released by the Environmental Working Group provides a good set of guidelines for choosing sunscreen products.

The Environmental Protection Agency created SunWise to teach kids and parents how to protect themselves from sun damage. Meant for school-age kids, posters and contests help make learning about sun protection fun.

New York Times: Slathering on Sunscreen Early and Often

The EWG 2014 Safe Sunscreen Guide

Mayo Clinic: Best Sunscreens

Skincancer.org Product Guide

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Author:Michelle Cohen

Michelle Cohen, co-founder, content director and editor of Living Green with Baby is a New York-based writer and digital media producer who has produced websites for lifestyle brands like Seventeen, Country Living, Harper’s Bazaar and iVillage. She writes about culture, media, New York City neighborhoods, real estate, style, design and technology among other topics.

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