Personal Health

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.

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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.

3. Reapply sunscreen often and don’t be stingy, With pricey products in small tubes and squirming kids it’s easy to see why, on average, we shortchange ourselves by applying less than half the recommended amount of sunscreen. Adequate protection depends on thorough coverage and reapplying sunscreen often during the day. You need two to three tablespoons to cover yourself thoroughly. Keep in mind that even the highest SPF products do not offer 100% protection which means even if you are covered in sunscreen from head to toe, you are still getting some exposure to damaging sun, and the damage is greater, the longer you are exposed.

Even water-resistant formulations recommend reapplying at least every two hours and after swimming, offering 40 or 80 minutes of protection in water. New FDA rules prohibit the term “waterproof” since even the most durable products can wash off in waves and wet sand.

4. Extra vitamin D is not worth the burn risk. While sunscreen can block the body’s synthesis of vitamin D, it's not the only reason deficiency is more common these days. Most experts agree that getting a sunburn, and increasing your skin cancer risk for the sake of more D isn’t worth it. They recommend foods and supplements to boost D levels, and very limited unprotected sun time if you and your doctor agree it’s safe for you. Otherwise, don’t spare good sunscreen coverage, especially between 10am and 3pm when ultraviolet radiation is at its peak.

5. Don't rely entirely on sunscreen alone for protection.Even with the highest SPF-rated products, your tan line is proof that ultraviolet radiation is penetrating the sunscreen, which should be your last, and not your first line of defense. Wide-brimmed hats, scarves, sunglasses, long-sleeves and umbrellas are important to add to your arsenal.

SPF indicates protection from UVB radiation alone but offers no measure of how long the sunscreen holds out against deeper, more penetrating UVA rays, considered the biggest culprit in skin cancer risk. And SPF is measured on the log scale, which means an SPF-60 product does not offer double the protection of an SPF-30.

Products touting broad-spectrum protection must prove blockage of 90% of the whole UV spectrum including UVA and UVB. Most water-resistant products are tested to make sure they offer up to 80 minutes of protection. So even if you reapply sunscreen all day long, since sunscreen doesn’t block all UV radiation, you need to supplement it with other forms of protection if you don’t limit your time in the sun.

Covering up with clothing is an important complement to sunscreen use, especially important for young children whose skin is more sensitive and for whom sunscreen isn’t recommended. The textile industry has developed a test and labeling scheme (known as Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) to verify how much protection against UVB a garment provides. Like SPF for sunscreen, a UPF of 50 indicates protection against 97.5% of UVB radiation. Many factors influence how well fabrics protect, but generally tighter weaves do a better job. Well-laundered cotton T-shirts are thought to offer UPF of at least 15, and other synthetics can go as high as UPF 50.