Sunscreen is a must-have item for many of us. In my work, I teach kids and adults about chemical ingredients in personal care products (shampoo, lotion, soap, cosmetics, etc) and I often get asked about sunscreen. What kinds of chemicals are in sunscreen? How do I know if a sunscreen is safe or effective? What is SPF? In response, here are some tips for sunscreen safety.
1) Read the ingredients. Look for the active ingredients: zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These are mineral sunscreens. Mineral sunscreens do not penetrate the skin as easily as others and they offer stable and lasting UV protection.
The active ingredient to avoid is a chemical called, oxybenzone. This chemical can trigger allergic reactions on sensitive skin. It soaks through the skin and can reach the bloodstream. The chemical has been linked to disruption of the body’s hormone system and is found in samples of urine and breast milk.
2) Avoid spray sunscreens. They may be easier to apply on little wiggle worms, but spray sunscreens do not provide adequate protection from the sun. Not only do they make it easier to miss spots, but the sprayed mist is easily inhaled by everyone around. Aerosol sprays are harmful to the lungs, especially to those with asthma and other lung diseases, small children, and the elderly. When applying spray sunscreens outside, much of the light spray gets blown in the wind and misses the skin. Lotion sunscreens offer much better protection.
3) Understand SPFs. SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. Unfortunately, the name is misleading. SPF measures how well the sunscreen blocks UVB rays – the kind of sun ray that causes burns. It does not measure UVA rays, which can cause skin damage and are linked to other health conditions. Look for a product with SPF between 20 and 45 and reapply often.
4) Re-apply often. Sunscreen wears off throughout the day and washes off with sweat and water. For these reasons, moisturizers with SPF are not recommended in place of sunscreen. Moisturizers are intended to be used once a day – sunscreen must be re-applied every two hours or so while in the sun and after swimming or heavy sweating.
5) Don’t forget your scalp. Use a cotton swab to apply sunscreen on the scalp that shows where hair is parted. Dab along the part with the cotton swab and then rub it in with your finger.
6) Wear a hat. Growing up, my mom always tried to get me to wear hats in the sun. I should've listened! I always try to wear one now, especially when I am gardening. Hats add protection to the scalp, ears, face, and sometimes the neck. If you have thinning hair or bald spots, a hat is your best friend on a sunny day.
7) Choose the shade. A great way to limit sun exposure is to settle down in the shade. For example, when picnicking, set up your spot in the shade. Then your group can go back and forth between sun and shade.
8) Skip sunscreens combined with bug repellent. Bug repellents are not usually needed as often, at the same time or in the same places as sunscreen. Most bug repellents should not be applied to the face – but sunscreen should. Bug repellent is usually needed most at dusk.
9) Tanning oils are not sunscreen. If they have sunscreen ingredients, it is not enough to offer adequate protection.
10) Check out the 2014 Guide to Sunscreens by the Environmental Working Group at www.ewg.org/2014sunscreen. You can also search sunscreens on the website using their “Find your sunscreen” database search.
Remember, skin damage can occur even if there is no evidence of sun burn. Choose your sunscreen wisely, stay out of the direct sun when possible, drink enough water, and most of all - have fun this summer!