Sunscreen Lotions: Don’t Get Burned

Summer is about to kick into gear and that means lots of people will be heading outside to enjoy the weather. That also means a lot of sunburns from days at the beach, playing ball and working in the garden, just to name a few. Of course we always try to prevent that by slathering on some protection, but with so many options available it is easy to wonder if you’re making the right choice.

Fortunately, there is a lot of good information available about sunscreen that will allow you to protect you and your family’s skin through the season. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington-based research group, has just released its 6th Annual Sunscreen Guide. The EWG helps consumers sort out the confusion between manufacturer claims and independent research by rating more than 1,800 sunscreens and SPF-rated lip balms, moisturizers and makeups.

What might surprise you, though, is that the agency recommends only 25 percent of beach and sport sunscreens tested to safely and effectively offer protection. That’s a five percent gain over last year, largely due to testing more kid’s sunscreens.

The report from the EWG is so important to me because I’m a dad. Until recently there have been no government enforced rules or regulations regarding what can and cannot be printed on a bottle of sunscreen, which means I can’t be sure that my kids are getting the best protection possible. This issue was taken up 1978 when the FDA first looked to address the marketing claims put on sunscreen bottles. It took 34 years for progress to be made, with the FDA rules and regulations finally being enforced starting in December 2012.

OK, so what makes for a good sunscreen? When you get into the details of sunscreen safety a few facts stand out: sunscreens prevent sunburns, but beyond that surprisingly little is known about their safety and efficacy. You can simply use the EWG Best Sunscreens guide to point you towards the safest choices. If you’re going to spend a lot of time in the sun this summer or have children, then take some time going through the EWG Sunscreens Exposed report.

Here are some of the interesting facts found in the EWG report that we’ve paraphrased here:

Sunscreens made From minerals are safest: Those with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are among the best. They rate well because they block the UVs, are non-allergenic and don’t break down or penetrate the skin. In the 1980s these sunscreens were thick and pasty white. Today, they use particles between 20 and 200 nanometers in size to create lotions that are nearly clear. EWG recommends avoiding these sunscreens in power or spray form because inhaling the nanoparticles has potential adverse effects.

Poor UVA protection: Higher-energy UVB rays are the main cause of sunburn. However, more numerous lower-energy UVA rays penetrate deeper into skin and can damage DNA and skin cells, promote aging, and cause cancer. Most U.S. sunscreens wouldn’t be acceptable in Europe because they don’t provide adequate UVA protection. The best European UVA absorbing compounds are 4-5 times more effective than those in approved in the U.S.

Sun Protection Factor (SPF): If your skin normally sunburns in 10 minutes, using a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 would increase that time to 150 minutes, blocking 93% of sunburn rays. SPF 50 is only slightly better, blocking 98% of the sunburn rays. This has led to many countries have limited SPF claims; Australia’s maximum SPF is 30. The main problem is that sunburn predominantly comes from UVB and that’s all that SPF measures, not damage from UVA. Use a sunscreen with good UVA and SPF protection and then reapply every two hours for total protection.

Risky vitamin A additives: 25 percent of sunscreens still use a form of vitamin A labeled “retinyl palmitate” or “retinol palmitate.” Research by the U.S. Department of Health and Services and other scientific bodies has indicated the chemical may be photocarcinogenic – that it may heighten skin cancer risk when used on sun-exposed skin. Avoid sunscreens with these additives.

Baby and kids’ sunscreens: About 63 percent of kids’ sunscreens contain effective mineral ingredients that provide good UVA protection, compared to 40 percent of other sunscreens. Only 37 percent of kids’ sunscreens contain the hormone-disrupting chemical oxybenzone, compared to 56 percent of other sunscreens.

Lip Balm, makeup and daily moisturizers: The EWG recommends less than 10 percent of these products because of the poor UVA protection and addition of skin-damaging vitamin A. Of course, even the recommend products don’t provide lasting sun protection since most people don’t reapply face cream or makeup every two hours.

There’s no consensus on whether sunscreens prevent skin cancer. The first sunscreens were developed to prevent sunburn for military personnel spending long hours under direct sunlight, not to prevent skin cancer. Some forms of skin cancer may be reduced with sunscreen use while others may be increased. The data is inconclusive because of these two factors – 1) for 30 years there was no effective UVA protection 2) people who use sunscreen feel like they’re invincible so they stay out in the sun too long and don’t use enough lotion. It’s no wonder we wind up with a couple of quotes like this:

  • “To date, there are no clinical studies demonstrating that use of any sunscreen alone can prevent skin cancer.” – U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 2011
  • “Sunscreens were never developed to prevent skin cancer. In fact, there is no evidence to recommend that sunscreens prevent skin cancer in humans.” — Zoe Diana Draelos, editor of Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 2010

Overwhelmed yet? I was, so my family is following few basic guidelines this summer:

Play in the shade or wear a hat and clothes as much as we can. I know: 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity, the shirt’s coming off. So, when we’re enjoying the sun we plan to limit the time spent in it during peak intensity hours. Lastly, choose sunscreens carefully. Use the EWG guide and make sure to have good UVA protection, no chemicals like oxybenzone or vitamin A.

Best of luck and let us know if you make any good finds.