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Understanding Sunscreens

by Lisa O’Gorman, CEC

photo by :Goop

With all the different types of sunscreens available, its easy to get overwhelmed when trying to choose the right one that will safely protect you from the harmful rays of the sun.

What to look for:

UVB rays are responsible for producing sunburn where UVA rays penetrate more deeply into the skin and are responsible for premature skin aging, the formation of wrinkles, dark spots and the formation of skin cancer.

Check the SPF (sun protection factor) for UVB protection. If you’d normally get a sunburn after 10 minutes of exposure to the sun, an SPF of 15 extends the time by 15. With the proper use of that sun screen, you could be in the sun 150 minutes before burning. Many dermatologists recommend using a SPF of 30 or higher. SPF of 15 blocks out 93% UVB rays and SPF of 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays. The problem with higher SPF is people fail to reapply as recommended, leading to a false sense of protection. SPF only indicates how well it works for UVB rays which can be misleading. In addition to UVB (burning) protection, make sure your sunscreen states that is has Ultraviolet A protection. UVA (aging) rays have their own risks so make sure your sunscreen has UVA, broad spectrum or multi-spectrum protection.

Look for water resistance. These products are not water proof but last longer than non-water resistant. They still wear off and need to be reapplied after being in the water or sweating. Don’t forget to read the label and see how often it is recommended to reapply for proper protection.

There are two ways that sunscreen can protect the skin from sun damage: with a mineral barrier or a chemical one.

Mineral sunscreens usually include ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide which create a physical barrier to protect the skin from the sun. Both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide according to the FDA are GRASE, Generally Regarded Safe and Effective. Dermatologist agree that when used correctly, mineral formulations are effective and safe especially for people with sensitive skin and children. When choosing, make sure the label states protection from UVA and UVB rays (or broad spectrum) and is water-resistant.

Chemical Sunscreens are chemical based and use one or more chemicals including oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. The Environmental Working Group and other organizations do have concerns with some sunscreen ingredients- especially oxybenzone as it penetrates the skin and is believed to be linked to hormone disruption and potentially to cell damage that may lead to skin cancer.

Environmental concerns to coral reefs and ocean life led Hawaii and Key West, Florida to ban the use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Much more testing is necessary to determine what level of absorption if any is safe from the chemical barrier sunscreens. Other ways of limiting exposure to sunlight is to avoid direct sunlight when it is the strongest between 10am and 2pm. Wear sun protective clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating, wearing long-sleeve shirts, hats, long pants and sunglasses.

I highly recommend going to the Environmental Working Group website www.ewg.orgwhere they have a great list of tested sunscreens and their results to help you pick what would be best for you.

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