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Don't Let the Hype Stop You from Protecting Yourself — 5 Things to Know Before Baking In the Sun

Sunscreen's benefits far outweigh any health worries.

Photo Credit: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock


In recent years there’s been a lot of misinformation and hype over the relative toxicity of different sunscreen ingredients, sunscreen’s effect on how much vitamin D our body makes, and competing claims about which sunscreen products work best. There is even a growing movement of people, spurred by “natural health” websites, who are eschewing sunscreen altogether, and instead promoting alternative products like coconut oil which have dubious sun protection qualities, and could actually pose harm if used as a substitute.

But what’s important to remember is that skin cancer continues to rise, with melanoma diagnoses up 2% a year since 2000. Most of those cancers are thought to be directly related to sun exposure. Some experts believe that the inappropriate use of sunscreen is one of the factors behind the rise. They say many people do not use it, apply too little or do not reapply as instructed.

Most experts agree that using any approved, moderate SPF sunscreen product with broad-spectrum protection is better than none, and that sunscreen should be just one important part of an effective strategy to prevent sunburn and skin cancer. It is also important for people to limit their time in the sun, especially at midday, and protect their skin with proper coverups and clothing instead of relying on sunscreen alone.

Here’s what you should know before heading out.

1. Don’t agonize over sunscreen ingredients. Sunscreen performance can't be predicted by looking at the ingredient list. How well a product protects seems to be a complex result of the formulation and perhaps proprietary characteristics of the active ingredients that can't be determined by their name. For example, titanium dioxide nanoparticles might be coated in silicon or doped with aluminum. How active ingredients perform in a mix with the inactive ones may also have an impact. With a few exceptions, tests of sunscreen products have found most perform within range of their SPF claims. In recent product tests, the worst performers missed their mark by up to 40%. So even if an SPF 50 product only provides SPF 30 protection, it’s still worth using.

Your main choice in sunscreens is between a mineral formulation with zinc or titanium oxide nanoparticles, and one with a combination of carbon-containing actives including avobenzone, homosalate and oxybenzone. Some products have both. Avoid the few products that don’t list any active ingredients. They are prohibited by law from making sun protection claims to begin with. Unless you know you’re allergic to one particular ingredient, you'll be hard-pressed to discern if one sunscreen formula is significantly safer and more effective for you than another.

Some organizations, like Environmental Working Group, provide detail on how each ingredient performs in toxicity tests, but just about every one of the FDA-approved active ingredients in sunscreens has been linked to some adverse outcome in laboratory animals, as well as some inactive ingredients. While some have been more thoroughly studied than others, and more research is needed, the scientific certainty about these risks pales in comparison to what is known about the link between sunburn and skin cancer, though we still don't understand exactly how sun exposure and sunburn contribute to skin cancer risk.

The latest study, published May 29 in the journal  Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, found women who reported at least five severe sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 had an 80% greater risk of melanoma over the course of the 20-year study than those who did not suffer such severe sunburn.

2. Don't be swayed by meaningless product claims. Despite what labels say, there's nothing natural or chemical-free about any of the active ingredients in sunscreen products.  All must be synthesized or processed in a laboratory using highly engineered techniques to create very specialized and purified materials to meet minimum standards for UVA and UVB protection. Some more meaningful logos like the "no animal-testing" symbol, or certified organic herbs or oils may make you feel better, but claims like these give no guarantee that the product is safer or more effective. Reliable claims to follow include: SPF, broad spectrum and water resistance.

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