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Choosing a Safe and Effective Sunscreen

Jean Beaufort

By Becca Cox

Summer vacation. Those two words conjure up images of long sunny days at the beach or by the pool, and that means sunscreen. But which sunscreen to choose? There are a lot of options and a lot of conflicting information about which ones are best for both you and the environment.

Choosing a Safe and Effective Sunscreen
Nneka Leiba, Environmental Working Group

With increased awareness of the sun’s ability to cause skin damage and skin cancer, individuals are becoming more sun-safe. Sun protection encompasses being out of the sun during peak hours (10am-4pm) and wearing hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen.

“Sunscreen should be a part of sun-safe living,” says Nneka Leiba, vice president for Healthy Living Science with the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Responsible for the EWG’s annual sunscreen guide for the past decade, Leiba shared her recommendations for sunscreen health and safety.

  • Use broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UV-A and UV-B rays. UV-B rays cause sunburn, while UV-A rays cause skin damage and skin cancer. A sunscreen’s SPF value only pertains to UV-B rays and the ability of the product to protect against sunburn, which indicates nothing about its ability to protect against UV-A rays. Use of a high SPF product might encourage a person to stay out in the sun longer, soaking up more UV-A rays while not getting a sunburn. Leiba recommends avoiding sunscreens with an SPF higher than 50, as products with those lower values are more likely to protect against both UV-A and UV-B rays. She also recommends using another source, such as the EWG’s sunscreen guide, to ensure a product protects against both types of rays.
  • Use sunscreens with mineral active ingredients, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, instead of chemical active ingredients. Many chemical active ingredients have been linked to adverse health effects. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released a draft of a new set of rules regarding sunscreens that states that 12 chemical active ingredients lack adequate information to prove they are safe and effective. Mineral active ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are the only two ingredients in the FDA proposal that have been listed as safe and effective and are recommended by the EWG.
  • Use lotion sunscreens, not spray. Mineral-based sunscreens can potentially contain nanoparticles, which can cause damage to the body if inhaled or otherwise ingested. Spray sunscreens can increase the likelihood of inhalation, so Leiba recommends lotion sunscreens, which limit the exposure to nanoparticles when used on healthy, intact skin.
  • Avoid sunscreens with vitamin A. Vitamin A is a great antioxidant and anti-aging ingredient, but its use on sun-exposed skin can increase the development of skin tumors and lesions. While retinyl, retinoids, and other vitamin A products are great when used at night, their use in sunscreen and other day-time products is not recommended.

“It’s so much to remember,” Leiba says. “There are many products available that do provide broad-spectrum protection, that have ingredients that the FDA has stated as safe and effective.” This year, the EWG assessed more than 1,300 SPF products and came up with a list of more than 200 that meet these criteria and that are safer and more effective for use.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.