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7 Questions About Which Type Of Sunscreen You Should Be Using

You may think buying the most expensive, name-brand sunscreen enhances your protection against sunburns, wrinkles and skin cancer.

But, have you considered you're just innocent prey to effective marketing?

In an annual report on sunscreen products, non-profit, non-partisan Environmental Working Group complied research about hundreds of different sunscreen products.

The report explained the efficacy of products and debunked myths about sunscreen use.

The takeaway message is to be aware of brands like Neutrogena (among many others) that use harmful chemicals and sell products with misleadingly high SPF numbers.

Neutrogena is a noteworthy offender because of its numerous sunscreens with SPFs of 70, 80 and even 100+.

The company also uses oxybenzone in their products, which is found to disrupt hormones and cause allergic reactions.

Here are seven questions we all have about sunscreen and skin protection:

Which SPF should you be using?

SPF numbers above 50 are misleading because SPF protection tops out at 30 to 50!

A sunscreen with an SPF of 50 protects against 98 percent of UVB damage, if applied properly.

A sunscreen with an SPF of 100 protects against 99 percent of UVB damage, again, only if applied properly.

If you glean anything from this article, make sure it's this one fact: SPF above 50 is misleading and does not protect your skin much more than one of 30 to 50.

The issue with the higher SPFs, aside from being more expensive, is many people are misled to believe higher SPF numbers protect their skin longer.

So, they do not reapply as often as they should.

This defeats sunscreen's purpose because high-number SPF products last the same amount of time as low-number SPFs.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that sunscreen — regardless of the SPF — be reapplied every two hours, even if it's cloudy and especially after sweating or swimming.

The ADD recommends using products with an SPF of at least 30, which blocks 97 percent of the sun's rays.

Higher SPFs block a tiny bit more of the sun's rays, but no sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun's rays.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends using a product with an SPF of at least 15.

The FDA is in the process of barring products with SPF numbers higher than 50, but due to attacks from powerful sunscreen manufacturers, nothing has changed since 2007.

This is alarming considering SPF numbers cannot exceed 50 in sunscreens sold in Europe, Japan and Australia.

This is an effective way of regulating sunscreens, and it helps to prevent consumer confusion and misuse of products.

Americans must realize we're subject to incredibly misleading advertising of sunscreen products.

The issues don't stop at deceptive SPF numbers. They continue with active ingredients used in sunscreens.


What are the active ingredients in sunscreen products?

The active ingredients used in sunscreens are either minerals or chemical filters.

Minerals include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which protect your skin by physically blocking, reflecting or absorbing the UVB radiation, as they sit on top of your skin.

Lifeguards with white noses, anyone?

Don't think they're outdated. They're used in many sunscreen products today and are recommended by dermatologists.

Chemical filters, on the other hand, are absorbed into your skin after application.

The sun's rays are then deactivated or degraded after contact with the chemicals contained in the sunscreen, as described by Dr. Doris J. Day in the New York Times.

Most sunscreens today contain chemical filters as their active ingredients, which include combinations of oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate.


Are the chemical filters safe?

Even though the FDA approves the use of these chemical filters in sunscreens, the Environmental Working Group's report is not very reassuring.

The most problematic of the sunscreen chemicals used in the US is oxybenzone, which is found in nearly every chemical sunscreen.

EWG recommends consumers avoid this chemical because, as previously stated, it can cause allergic skin reactions and may disrupt hormones.

Preliminary investigations suggest an increased risk of endometriosis and lower female birth weights, all connected with oxybenzone's ability to act like estrogen in our bodies.


What do the experts recommend?

As long as the sunscreens with minerals don't break the zinc oxide or titanium dioxide into nanoparticles, which are then absorbed into your skin as chemical filters, Dr. Day recommends the mineral, physical-block type sunscreens.

Day believes “the ideal sunscreen would be a physical block using titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.”


Should you use spray or lotion?

The EWG warns against sprays because it's difficult to ensure proper application, and inhaling the chemicals is a risk.

Lotions are your best bet.


Are “broad spectrum” products different?

You should always use broad spectrum products for dual-protection.

Sunlight is comprised of two types of harmful rays that reach Earth: Ultraviolet A and Ultraviolet B.

Too much exposure of either UVA or UVB rays can lead to skin cancer and premature aging, which is evident through wrinkles, age spots and cataracts.

UVA rays, which are not absorbed by the ozone, cause premature aging (i.e. wrinkles and age spots).

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, up to 90 percent of visible skin changes throughout our lives are caused by sun exposure.

UVB rays are partially absorbed by the ozone, but with the increasing thinning of the ozone, UVB radiation will increase as time goes on. These rays are the primary cause of sunburn.

SPF numbers refer to the amount of protection from UVB rays, but many sunscreens have chemicals that protect our skin from some UVA rays, too.

This is why the FDA, ADD, EPA and most dermatologists recommend using products with “broad spectrum” dual-coverage.

Remember, you've heard it hundreds of times before, but should hear it again from the AAD:

“There is no safe way to tan. Every time you tan, you damage your skin. As this damage builds, you speed up the aging of your skin and increase your risk for all types of skin cancer.”


Should you buy one name brand over another?

Don't be misled by sunscreen manufacturers. Americans must realize we're subject to incredibly deceptive advertisement of sunscreen products.

We must promote transparent and informative sunscreen education.

Being a runner and performing months of coral research in the tropics, I've spent considerable time under the sun's glowing rays.

In order to prevent skin cancer, I'd often buy Neutrogena products, thinking the extra $3 would be well worth it in the long run.

I haven't done my research on sunscreen products, and I will now read the ingredients of the sunscreens I purchase.

I won't buy sunscreens with SPFs above 50, and I will choose mineral-based lotions with broad-spectrum coverage over products with chemical filters.

Let's be the “best looking generation” when we reach our 60s. Avoid these products, and use these.

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Clare Gallagher

Contributor

Clare studied the Earth's rapidly deteriorating coral reefs from Bermuda to Palau while at Princeton. She's since taught English in Thailand and competitively raced ultramarathons, and is most passionate about climate change storytelling.
Clare studied the Earth's rapidly deteriorating coral reefs from Bermuda to Palau while at Princeton. She's since taught English in Thailand and competitively raced ultramarathons, and is most passionate about climate change storytelling.

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