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Is Your Sunscreen Safe & Effective?

Badger is a brand of sunscreen recommended by Environmental Working Group, a non-profit, environmental watchdog organization, which evaluates sunscreens based on types of chemicals and levels of ultraviolet protection.  (Renee Sande / Down to EarthNW Correspondent)
Badger is a brand of sunscreen recommended by Environmental Working Group, a non-profit, environmental watchdog organization, which evaluates sunscreens based on types of chemicals and levels of ultraviolet protection. (Renee Sande / Down to EarthNW Correspondent)

Only 25 percent on the market pass the test

When it comes to playing it safe in the sun, you can’t beat a broad-brimmed hat and light-colored clothing.

However, dressing like this can often be difficult during summer, especially if you’re planning to be active outdoors, and like to feel warm air on your skin and the breeze blowing through your hair.

Therefore, wearing some sort of sunscreen is important. So how do you know which ones are safe and effective when the market is flooded with products that often sound a little too good to be true?

Environmental Working Group, a non-profit, environmental watchdog organization, tries to assist people’s research. Its 6th annual 2012 Sunscreen Guide lists the top-rated sunscreens out of 257 brands and more than 1,800 sun protection products, including lip balm, moisturizers and makeup, which provide broad spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection but contain fewer hazardous chemicals to penetrate skin.

While only about 1 of every 4 of more than 800 beach and sport sunscreens made the EWG cut, this is progress compared to 1 in 5 in 2011 and 1 in 12 in 2010.

On its website, EWG states, “Products with exaggerated SPF claims above 50 still crowd out as better brands, and nearly one-fourth of this year’s crop of sunscreens contains vitamin A, an additive that can accelerate the growth of skin tumors and lesions.”

What do you need to look for or avoid when it comes to protecting your skin from the sun?

While there is no ideal sunscreen that completely blocks UV rays that cause sunburn and immune suppression, remains effective on the skin for several hours and doesn’t form harmful ingredients when degraded by UV light, and also smells and feels pleasant, there are healthier choices.

The major option in the U.S. is between “chemical” sunscreens, which have inferior stability, penetrate the skin and may disrupt the body’s hormone systems, and “mineral” sunscreens (zinc and titanium), which often contain micronized- or nanoscale particles of those minerals.

After reviewing the evidence, EWG determined that mineral sunscreens have the best safety profile of today’s choices. They are stable in sunlight and do not appear to penetrate the skin. They also offer UVA protection (an certain wavelength of ultraviolet ray which has the same strength year round, is used in tanning beds, and is the most damaging of both types of UV rays), which is lacking in most of today’s sunscreen products.

For consumers who don’t like mineral products, EWG recommends sunscreens with avobenzone (3 percent for the best UVA protection) and without the hormone disrupter oxybenzone (scientists urge parents to avoid using oxybenzone on children due to penetration and toxicity concerns).

Here are other terms to know and ingredients you can consider looking for or avoiding when shopping for sunscreen.

* Knowing UVA and UVB

Ultraviolet light from the sun comes in wavelengths called UVA and UVB. UVB, which damages the outer layer of the skin, has been recognized as the cause of sunburn and as a major contributor to skin cancer and skin aging, says James Spencer, a dermatologist in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“When sunscreens were developed, they were made to prevent sunburn” and targeted only UVB, he says. The SPF number refers to the UVB burning protection (SPF 15, applied correctly, allows the user to stay in the sun 15 times longer without burning).

Recently, scientists have learned that UVA rays — while not contributing to sunburns — can damage deeper layers of the skin and likely play an important role in wrinkling, spotting, lost elasticity and, susceptibility to skin cancer melanoma.

There’s also been research that there’s an interplay between UVA and UVB, with UVA magnifying the effects of UVB. UVA rays are a more constant threat, unlike UVB rays, because they’re equally potent year-round and can even pass through windows.

* Make Sure Label Says “Broad Spectrum Protection.”

Broad Spectrum means it protects from both ultraviolet light type A and B. It is also commonly stated as “UVA and UVB protection.” SPF only protects you from UVB.

* Avoid terms like “Sweatproof” and “Sunblock.”

Even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued new regulations in June 2011 to ban certain false and misleading statements on sunscreen labels such as “sweatproof” and “sunblock,” sunscreens were making these claims as recently as May 2012. The FDA has now pushed back the enforcement of these regulations to mid-December 2012.

* OK chemicals

Zinc Titanium dioxide is a naturally occurring mineral that deflects light, including ultraviolet rays from the sun and avobenzone provides comprehensive protection against UVB and both short and long UVA radiation.

Mexoryl SX (ecamsule) is a relatively low-risk, effective active ingredient that provides UVA protection.

* Chemicals to Avoid

Oxybenzone, Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate), and insect repellent may all speed the development of cancer. Oxybenzone can trigger allergic reactions, is a potential hormone disrupter and penetrates the skin in relatively large amounts.

Vitamin A (also called retinyl palmitate) may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to skin in the presence of sunlight.

The industry puts vitamin A in its formulations because it is an anti-oxidant that slows skin aging. That may be true for lotions and night creams used indoors, but the FDA recently found it can possibly promote cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight.

Sunscreen with added insect repellent increases absorption rates, which could mean an increase in the risk of side effects such as skin allergy and headaches.

* Avoid spray and powder sunscreen.

Look for cream sunscreens with broad spectrum protection. Sprays or powders emit tiny particles, that when breathed in, are potentially damaging to lungs. They are also deceiving in that the user may think they are getting comprehensive coverage, when much of the product dissipates in the air before it touches the skin.

* Use a sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 15 and a maximum of SPF 50.

Sunscreens which boast a SPF greater than 50 give consumers a false sense of security and doesn’t offer much more protection, says EWG.

Studies show that sunscreen with SPF 15 can block about 93 percent of all incoming UVB rays. SPF 30 blocks 97 percent and SPF 50 blocks 98 percent.

After SPF 50, the protective factors plateau. A product with SPF 100+ blocks about 99.1 percent of the UVB rays, but you pay more for not much more protection than SPF 50.

* Apply regularly

Apply at least 2 ounces of lotion (about a shot glass full) and reapply often.

The sun breaks down the ingredients in sunscreen. Experts recommend reapplying every two hours, or after swimming or heavy sweating.

To see how your sunscreen rates, or to see a list of EWG’s Top-rated sunscreens, go to

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