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Staying Safe in the Sun
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— July 15, 2019

Staying Safe in the Sun

By Brittany Anas
  • Using sunscreen is important—as is choosing one that’s nontoxic and effective.
Stasying Safe in the Sun

When Laura Rubin was pregnant with her son in 2017, she became much more conscientious about her sunscreen use. 

“I learned that certain sunscreen ingredients weren’t safe for my baby, which led me to wonder if they were safe for anyone,” says Rubin, 30, who is from Denver, but is spending the year traveling in an RV with her husband and toddler. Rubin was specifically concerned about oxybenzone, which, according to several research studies, is a potentially hormone-disrupting chemical easily absorbed by the body and widespread in US sunscreens.

Sunbathers like Rubin face a difficult catch-22: Lathering up in sunscreen is necessary to help protect against skin cancer caused by UV ray exposure, but many of the sunscreens on the market today contain dangerous chemicals. In fact, the majority of sunscreens being marketed in the United States either don’t go far enough in offering adequate sun protection or they contain troubling ingredients, according to the 2019 “Guide to Sunscreens” from the Environmental Working Group, a public interest organization.

“In this year’s assessment of more than 1,300 products, we found that two-thirds of sunscreens still offer inferior sun protection or contain concerning ingredients,” says EWG analyst Carla Burns, who managed the 2019 guide update.

If new FDA sunscreen standards were to go into effect now, a quarter of the products now available wouldn’t measure up. Click To Tweet

So what ingredients are actually safe?

Harmlessly Effective

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are generally recognized as being safe and effective, according to a February 2019 proposed regulation from the Food and Drug Administration. But, for the dozen or so other ingredients commonly used in sunscreens, the FDA has said there isn’t enough data to determine whether they are indeed safe.

What Makes Sunscreen Reef-Safe?
Not only can chemicals in sunscreen cause health concerns, but they can also be troublesome for the environment.

Both oxybenzone and octinoxate, common sunscreen ingredients, can lead to bleaching in coral reefs. Oxybenzone can also cause deformations in young coral. 

Recognizing these ingredients are harmful to aquatic life, Hawaii became, in 2018, the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate. Municipalities, including the Florida Keys, are beginning to follow suit.

Rubin—who spends a good deal of time outside hiking, running, swimming and playing with her son—now only uses sunscreens with zinc oxide. Her go-to is the brand Thinksport, which fares well on the EWG’s ratings. Rubin, managing editor of the site, also says that she pays close attention to sunscreens that are deemed reef-safe, avoiding oxybenzone and octinoxate—chemicals believed to cause bleaching of coral reefs, a major disruption of marine ecosystems.

Since becoming a mom, Rubin finds herself using more sunscreen.

“I probably apply sunscreen to myself more now that I have a toddler because I’m constantly slathering it on him,” she says. “That said, I’ve also done a lot more research to choose safer products than I ever did in the past.” 

When choosing a sunscreen, Anthony Youn, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon from Troy, Michigan, recommends looking for ones with zinc oxide. “It has the best full-spectrum coverage and doesn’t impact your health or the environment,” he says. One downside of zinc oxide sunscreens: They can leave a whitish hue on your skin.

Which sunscreen ingredients can cause harm?

Stuff to Avoid

As for ingredients to steer clear of, the EWG has compiled a comprehensive list. Some ingredients are especially concerning because of their potential to be hormone disruptors, according to the EWG, with research linking them to such effects as lowering testosterone levels, affecting birth weights and delaying the onset of puberty.

Protecting Your Tresses
Summer sun can be tough on even the healthiest hair, drying it out to a limp mess. Throw in salt (from either the sea or your own sweat) or chlorine, plus wind, and you can end up with hair that’s hard to control and unattractive.

To keep your tresses healthy and presentable:
Don’t wash your hair every day; if you feel you must, choose a mild shampoo and always follow it up with a conditioner suitable for your hair texture and type.

Avoid heating your hair, such as by blow drying it, as much as possible, and use a wide-tooth comb instead of a brush.

Wear a hat or a cap; if that’s just not you, use a leave-in conditioner (remember that a wide-brimmed hat also protects your face, neck and ears from the sun).

Have your hair trimmed on a regular basis to avoid split ends.

Because sunscreens often include ingredients that are “penetration enhancers” to help the lotions or sprays adhere to skin, many of the chemicals are absorbed into the body. These chemicals can then be found in blood, breast milk and urine samples.

The FDA is proposing that sunscreen ingredients be tested for safety, determining whether they can penetrate the skin to cause endocrine disruption, cancer or other health problems.
Here are some of the common sunscreen ingredients that the EWG warns consumers to avoid.

Oxybenzone (high toxicity concern)

A potential hormone disruptor, animal studies have shown exposure to this chemical may lower sperm counts and cause sperm abnormalities. Other studies have shown associations between exposure during pregnancy and birth outcomes, including shorter pregnancies and birth weight abnormalities. Oxybenzone may also increase the risk of endometriosis in females and lower testosterone in men. It can also cause skin allergies.

Octinoxate (high toxicity concern)

Like oxybenzone exposure, animal studies have shown lower sperm counts and sperm abnormalities after octinoxate exposure. It also has potential to delay puberty.

Homosalate (moderate toxicity concern)

This ingredient helps sunscreen penetrate your skin, but it disrupts hormones, including estrogen, androgen and progesterone.

Octisalate (moderate toxicity concern)

The EWG says more research needs to be done on this chemical, which is rarely reported to cause skin allergies.

Octocrylene (moderate toxicity concern)

Again, the EWG believes more research is needed to determine the safety of this chemical in sunscreens. It has been linked with high risk of skin allergies.

Consumers should avoid all sunscreens that include these chemicals until more data is available on their safety to humans and to the environment, says Viseslav Tonkovic-Capin, MD, a Kansas City-based dermatologist and editor at

Instead of chemical-based products, opt for sunscreens containing minerals such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide; they are usually easier on the skin. Click To Tweet

Further, Capin notes that such products probably do not enter the bloodstream as chemical sunscreens have been shown to, and they are often less damaging to the environment.

He also recommends lotions and creams over sprays because sunscreens are designed to go onto your skin and not into your lungs.

Beyond scanning the bottle for ingredients, consumers should also be looking for “broad spectrum” sunscreens, which provide protection against both UVA and UVB rays, says Keira Barr, MD, a dual board–certified dermatologist based in Gig Harbor, Washington.

A common mistake people make: Not using enough sunscreen—one ounce for an average adult. Click To Tweet

“This means that a family of two adults and two teenagers should be tossing the bottle of sunscreen away after each family member applies their first full-body application,” Barr says. Still, they’ll need to reapply after two hours—or sooner if they are swimming or sweating.

As far as SPF values go, the EWG report points out that higher numbers often mislead people. As an example, sunbathers may believe that SPF 100 provides twice as much protection as SPF 50. But, in reality, it’s only marginally better, the EWG observes. When applied correctly, SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays and SPF 100 blocks 99%.

Sunscreen should be a third line of sun protection; the first two are avoidance and protective clothing. Click To Tweet

Tonkovic-Capin recommends “avoiding exposure to the sun when your shadow is shorter than you, which is typically from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.” Wearing protective clothing, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses can also help reduce your exposure to harmful rays, he adds.

Barr also recommends getting enough sleep because your body is regulated by your circadian rhythm, which regulates the hormone melatonin. Melatonin, she explains, helps protect your skin from UV radiation: “Getting quality sleep every night helps block the damaging effects of UV rays.”

Bad Habits

About 5 million Americans are treated for skin cancer every year, according to the CDC. Click To Tweet

Most skin cancers can be prevented by avoiding overexposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning booths. However, a CDC study found that fewer than 15% of men and 30% of women use sunscreen regularly on their face and other exposed areas when they are outside for more than one hour.

Sunscreen use was especially low among non-Hispanic black people and those with less sun-sensitive skin, according to the CDC.

Tanya Kit Caines, 38, a speech language pathologist from Brooklyn, New York, says she became more conscientious about sunscreen habits when she joined a Facebook group for women of color, which stressed the importance of sunscreen use. 

“Many women of color incorrectly assume that sunscreen is not needed because we have lots of melanin,” Caines says. “But we especially need sunscreen. It can help with hyperpigmentation and it’s necessary to protect us from skin cancer.”

Caines, who spends time outside in the sun while playing with her son and enjoying brunch with friends, says that she’s dramatically changed her sunscreen ways.

“My habits have truly changed,” she says. “I use sunscreen every day now, without fail. Even if it is cloudy or I am inside most of the day, I apply my sunscreen religiously.”

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