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Experts' tips for choosing the safest sunscreen

5/23/2017, 7:56 p.m.
Throughout the summer, consumers struggle with how to best protect their skin from the harmful rays of the sun. But ...
Learn simple steps you can take to protect your body from sun damage and still enjoy the sun’s healthful effects. (From NIH News in Health)

— Spray-on sunscreens

Whether for wrangling little ones at the pool or looking for quick protection on the go, aerosol sunscreens have gained popularity as quick and mess-free alternatives to traditional creams.

But researchers say aerosol sunscreens, often marketed as "sport" versions, could offer less protection. A 2015 study found that people who used sprays applied less than those using creams.

Although Lunder says the EWG "recommends people avoid aerosols," Davis notes that those products "can be effective, and you can get the SPF protective factor, but you have to be conscientious to apply it homogeneously. And of course don't inhale the sunscreen, or it can be irritating."

There have also been separate concerns raised over a potential danger from inhaling sunscreen when its sprayed.

The chemical factor

Many products rely on chemicals to create a barrier on the surface of the skin to block rays. Some of these chemicals are extremely helpful, but others may have damaging effects.

Davis suggests that people with skin allergies or sensitive skin should "look for a sunscreen that contains zinc oxide and titanium oxide, which are physical blockers and tend to be hypoallergenic."

EWG representatives say parents and consumers should use caution with two ingredients, oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.

Lunder says the first, oxybenzone, "is a hormone disruptor that mimics body hormones and affects reproductive tract and other hormones."

Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, has been the topic of years of debate and research. Some researchers have found it to be dangerous and say it may be linked to the development of skin tumors under direct UV light. However, these studies have examined retinyl palmitate only as it reacts to UV radiation in isolation, not on human skin.

Other researchers have found no link to between the chemical and skin cancer and determined that any potential dangers of retinyl palmitate are countered by antioxidants like vitamins C and E present in the body.

Where do we stand?

Not everyone is convinced of the claims made in the report. The Personal Care Products Council, an industry trade group, says that "While the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) 2017 Guide to Sunscreens helps raise awareness about the dangers of sun exposure and the importance of using sunscreen to prevent skin cancer, the report also contains several inaccuracies that can confuse consumers and be potentially harmful to public health."

The council's chief scientist, Beth Jonas, says the "rigorous" FDA testing and regulation of these products is sufficient.

"Consumers can rest assured that this reliable and credible testing method results in sunscreens that are safe and effective in protecting them from harmful UV rays. Broad spectrum sunscreens with SPF 30 and greater must protect against both UVB and UVA radiation. To achieve high SPF protection values, products have to screen both UVA and UVB radiation."

In its report, the EWG recommends a number of sunscreen products that are safe and offer adequate sun protection. Although more research is needed, the group says consumers should look for three things: an SPF between 30 and 50 to protect from UVB rays, zinc oxide and titanium oxide to ward off UVA rays, and no oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.

Still, even the safest sunscreens need to be reapplied every two hours, sometimes more if you're sweating or in the water -- even if using a "waterproof" or "water-resistant" product.

"There is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen, and the FDA has now suggested its removal of the term of sunscreen bottles, no sunscreen is waterproof," Davis said.

Davis notes that protective clothing can also play a key role in blocking harmful rays. "Of course, no sunscreen talk is complete without the mention of broad-rimmed hats and sunglasses."