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How to choose the best sunscreen for your skin – and the Earth, too

It’s August and sunny days are in, but two of the top sunscreen ingredients are out. In July, Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens with the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, because of the reported damage they cause to coral reefs as they wash off swimmers’ bodies in the ocean.

“Just three drops of oxybenzone in an Olympic-sized swimming pool is enough to damage coral larvae,” says Nathan Donley, senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity. The CDB recently petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban the same ingredients on a national level.

Some dermatologists and consumers have preferred sunscreen without those ingredients anyway, using protection with physical blockers such as zinc and titanium oxide for sensitive skin or other reasons. There is some question as to whether certain chemical sunscreens disrupt the endocrine system, notes Kimberly Morel, pediatric dermatologist at the Columbia University Medical Center. But, she adds, “There is no controversy that ultraviolet light is a carcinogen, and so sunscreen is still important to use on areas of skin that cannot be protected by other means.”

No matter what you choose, be sure it’s labeled as broad spectrum, meaning it filters both UVA and UVB rays, says Morel. Look for products that are water resistant for 80 minutes, and for at least SPF 15, but preferably in the SPF 30 to SPF 50 range (and no higher). When shopping for these physical blocks, check ingredients, even if a sunscreen purports to be “natural,” as some physical sunscreens still incorporate chemical ingredients.

“Sunscreen brands can also change their ingredients, so it’s better to become a label reader than to look for a specific brand,” Morel adds.

However, if you want to get out under the sun fast, Morel and others have some suggestions to get you started.

Mary Sheu, assistant professor of dermatology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, vacationed with her family in Hawaii soon after the sunscreen ban, but she would have packed physical sunscreen anyway. “Physical blocks are easier for people with sensitive skin,” she explains. “They’re less irritating and they last longer. They don’t break down and become inactive with sun exposure.” Sheu likes EltaMD UV Elements Broad-Spectrum SPF 44 Tinted 2.0 ($25.77, walmart.com) because the tinted nature moderates that chalky white look physical blocks can give skin.

Paula Begoun, the Seattle-based skin care expert and “Cosmetics Cop” of Paula’s Choice Skincare, likes Clinique’s Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Mineral Sunscreen Lotion for Body, though it is admittedly pricey. She prizes its “elegant, non-chalky texture” and the fact that it contains antioxidants, “which boost a sunscreen’s effectiveness” ($32, nordstrom.com). She recommends avoiding sunscreens that contain fragrance, natural or synthetic, as they can cause skin irritation and long-term damage.

“Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are also the safest options for kids,” says Donley, who is based in Olympia, Washington. “It’s important to ensure that children are always adequately protected from UV rays … as skin cancers are the most preventable types of cancer.” For kids, both Sheu and Begoun like Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen, which uses zinc to protect the skin ($8.39, target.com).

When trying to decide between zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, Brian Underwood, the beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine in New York, says to go for a product that has a mix of the two. Bare Republic Mineral Mousse SPF 30 is one of his favorites – it’s a “solid option,” “reasonably priced,” and doesn’t “leave an undesirable whitish cast on your skin” ($16.99, ulta.com). “The best sunscreen is one you’ll actually use, so you want to look for a formula that feels good on your skin, doesn’t leave any sticky or whitish residue, and is generally pleasant to use,” he says. Meaning, you should want to use your sunscreen of choice.

Sometimes reapplication can be tricky. Morel, who is also an associate professor of dermatology and pediatrics at the Columbia University Medical Center, says the rule of thumb is to reapply every two hours, but even that guideline can vary. “For example, swimming or actively participating in sports on hot days with an 80-minute water-resistant sunscreen means you should reapply every 80 minutes, and even sooner if you towel dry and rub off the sunscreen,” she explains. For reapplying over makeup, Kara Ferguson of the blog Politics of Pretty recommends Supergoop’s 100% Mineral Invincible Setting Powder ($30, supergoop.com). “This comes in a translucent color or you can choose one close to your skin tone and it has a matte finish,” she says. “I usually stick this in my handbag for work and the weekends and it’s great for travel too.”


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