We all know that sunscreen is one of the most effective ways to protect your skin and prevent the three major types of skin cancer—melanoma, basal cell skin cancer and squamous cell skin cancer. So, when it comes to choosing sunscreen, it may seem like a no-brainer: pick the highest SPF, slather it on, and go. But the truth is that not all sunscreens are created equal, and some can actually do more harm than good. In fact, the Environmental Working Group reviews several sunscreens each year to tell you what you should look for and what to avoid when choosing a sunscreen. Here are some pointers:
Sprays vs. Powders vs. Rub-on
Spray sunscreens are quick and easy to apply, especially in hard-to-reach areas of the body. Mineral powder sunscreens, on the other hand, are specifically designed for use on the face and scalp. While you may get full coverage by combining these two types of sunblocks, the downside is that sprays and powders release particles and chemicals in the air that can be swept into the nose and mouth, where they can eventually travel to your lungs and cause irritation. Also, spray sunscreens really test your flexibility. Unless you are a contortionist, you may not be able to get every nook and cranny. This means you will have uneven coverage, and uneven coverage will leave some areas of your skin exposed. Sunscreen is only effective if it is applied properly. Your best bet, then, is to go the old-fashioned route and use a lotion-like product that you can rub in to the skin. If you must use a spray sunscreen, consider wearing a mask while applying it to avoid spraying it into your nose, mouth and eyes. You might also want a second hand to assist you with those areas you may have missed. As for powdered sunscreen, the FDA does not recommend using it as your main form of sunscreen, for its means of providing protection are not solid.
It’s just common sense that products with a higher SPF are better, right? The thing is that while a super-high SPF will definitely protect you from the UVB radiation that causes sunburn, it won’t necessarily protect you from the UVA radiation that penetrates deeper into the skin, and can contribute to skin cancer. A significantly high SPF might also give you a false sense of security, making you spend more time in the sun than you should. Avoid products that have an SPF greater than 50, and make sure the package indicates it offers protection from both UVA and UVB radiation. For the best protection, apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outdoors, and then reapply it again every two hours.
It’s not clear why this product is in sunscreens, but several manufacturers use it. The problem with oxybenzone is that it leaches into the skin and mimics estrogen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as other organizations, are still conducting studies on the health risks of oxybenzone, but one preliminary test indicates it could contribute to low birth rates for pregnant women and endometriosis in older women. There are safer options out there. Check the product’s label, and if you can, avoid using products with this ingredient.
There are number of sunscreens on the market that have dual purposes. Retin A is used in cosmetic products to make the skin look younger. Unfortunately, when combined with sunscreen and exposed to sunlight, both the sunscreen and the retin A lose their effect. Even worse, retin A can actually stimulate skin tumors and lesions. Therefore, you should avoid sunscreens with retin A, including makeup and concealer. Also, using a sunscreen with insecticide in it is not only useless—bug activity tends to be low during peak sun hours—but the sunscreen can also increase the amount of bug repellent that you absorb into your skin. Additionally, the repellent could wear off before the sunscreen, and vice versa. So, avoid sunscreens that contain insecticides and repellents. Rather, use those products separately.