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Is Sunscreen Really That Bad For You?
By Kris Carr
I love summer. Bare feet. Swimming holes. Veggie gardening. And the soul-warming sun. In my earlier days, I had a dangerous love affair with those radiant rays. Sunscreen? Yeah, right. Nothing was going to stand between me, my baby oil, a Body Glove surfer bikini and a golden tan (or rather, a lobster-red sunburn!).
Today, I’m much wiser, but not just about the importance of wearing sunscreen. I’m also aware that we all need to be savvy consumers when choosing a non-toxic brand of sunscreen.
When it comes to sun exposure and protection, there are a lot of questions to answer. How much sun-basking is too much? Are there benefits to not wearing sunscreen sometimes? What kind of protection does sunscreen provide? How do I choose the safest and most effective brand? And what ingredients should I avoid? Today I answer these questions and more.
What Are The Pros and Cons Of Sun Exposure?
Pro: Vitamin D
Vitamin D is an essential hormone for healthy bones, immune function and blood cell formation. Luckily, your body produces vitamin D every time you step into the sunlight. Easy, right? Just keep in mind that you don’t need much unprotected sun exposure to meet your needs. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 5-15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure a few times a week is all that’s required to maintain healthy vitamin D levels.
Cons: Skin Damage & Skin Cancer
Ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) are the two types of sun rays that travel through the earth’s atmosphere and shine directly on your pretty skin. We just learned that a little unprotected fun in the sun is good for you, but what about longer stretches of time? UVA and UVB rays are responsible for the golden tan so many people try to attain each year. You might think that this sun-kissed tone is healthy. Think again.
When your skin darkens, it’s actually a warning sign that your body is trying to prevent further DNA damage. This is just one example of the ways UVA and UVB impact your health. Let’s explore the difference between the two, so that we know why it’s important to protect our skin from both.
UVA rays penetrate beneath the top layer of your skin. They’re mostly to blame for wrinkles, leathery skin, sagging and sun spots. These stealth ninjas can bust through clouds on a gloomy day, seep through your car windows, and they can even sneak through some clothing. Although UVA rays are less likely to give you a sunburn, they’re still linked to increasing your risk of skin cancer because they can damage your basal and squamous skin cells.
UVB rays impact the top layer of your skin. They’re the main contributor to skin cancer and your worst enemy when it comes to sunburns. UVB rays are strongest between 10am and 4pm, especially during the summer months. Clearly UVA and UVB rays are nothing to take lightly.
How Well Does Sunscreen Protect Your Skin?
If you’re relying on that bottle of sunscreen to protect you from all the risks of sun exposure, you’re not seeing the big picture. Sun protection is two-fold. Safe sunscreen plus safe sun habits. Sunscreen isn’t a magic bullet and when you throw human error into the mix, its effectiveness gets even more dicey.
It’s still very important, but slathering some on once a day doesn’t give you a free pass.
What Do The Letters and Numbers Mean On Sunscreen Bottles?
SPF only protects you from sunburn (UVB rays). When you see the SPF number on a bottle, think of it as a measure of time. The math is pretty simple. If your skin would typically burn after 10 minutes in the sun, a sunscreen with SPF 15 should allow you to stay in the sun 15 times longer (150 minutes) before your skin would start to burn. But that number doesn’t take your activities into account. Sweating, swimming and other physical exercise can lower the effectiveness of your sunscreen’s SPF, which means you may need to apply it more often.
UVA & UVB Protection
Your sunscreen may be protecting you from sunburn by blocking UVB rays (if you’re re-applying it often enough and using a sufficient amount), but you’re still vulnerable to skin damage if you’re not protected from UVA rays as well. Although the US has added UVA protection to many sunscreens, we’re still behind countries in Europe in terms of the level of protection. Don’t get me wrong — some UVA protection is better than none, but European sunscreens provide much stronger coverage. So unless you know a Parisian sunscreen smuggler, it’s a good idea to adjust your sun-loving habits (including what lotions to buy).
How To Select A Safer Sunscreen
When choosing any personal care product, be your own health advocate. There are chemicals in the products on your drugstore’s shelves that have been linked with cancer, birth defects and a variety of other health issues. Sunscreen is not exempt.
For starters, here are a few red flags to look out for when scanning sunscreen labels:
- Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate or “retinol”): Linked to increased cancer cell growth.
- Oxybenzone: Hormone disrupter—experts caution against using it on children.
- Powder or spray mineral-based sunscreens (usually on ingredient label as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide): These ingredients are typically safe in lotion form, but can cause internal damage if inhaled.
The EWG Guide to Sunscreens 2013 is chock full of research and product information. Check it out to get the scoop on more than 1,800 products including sunscreens, lip balms with SPF, moisturizers and makeup.
Access the guide here.And here are some of EWG’s top-rated sun care products in the beach and sport sunscreens category, for adults and kids:
- Green Screen D Organic Sunscreen, Original, SPF 35
- Kiss My Face Natural Mineral Sunscreen with Hydresia, SPF 40
- Aubrey Organics Natural Sun Sunscreen, Green Tea, SPF 30+
- Aubrey Organics Natural Sun Sport Stick Sunscreen, SPF 30+
- Releve’ Organic Skincare by Emerald Essentials Sun-Lite Sunscreen, SPF 20
- Badger Baby Sunscreen Cream, SPF 30
- Seventh Generation Wee Generation Baby Sunscreen, SPF 30
5 Tips To Have A Healthy Relationship With The Sun
Now that you’re a sun aficionado, here are five steps to creating a comprehensive sun protection plan without sacrificing the benefits and joy those radical rays offer us each day.
1. Get your D.
Spend 5-15 minutes in the sun (sans sunscreen) a few times per week to meet your vitamin D needs.
2. Buy safer sunscreen.
Check labels for toxic chemicals and use EWG’s guide to choose the best sunscreen for you. Look for broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) coverage and a SPF of at least 15 and no more than 50.
3. Use sunscreen responsibly.
Apply the recommended amount (usually about 1 shot glass) 30 minutes before sun exposure. Reapply according to the SPF or even more often if you are sweating or swimming.
4. Cover up!
The best protection from the sun is complete protection. Hats, clothing, a shady tree or an umbrella are some of the easiest ways to help prevent sun damage.
5. Always be prepared.
Carry sun protection and sunscreen with you at all times. You never know when you or your children will need it.
Now, go have a blast this summer — just be smart about it!
What are your tips for safety and fun in the sun?
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