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7 Expert Tips for Choosing the Right Sunscreen

Here’s what you need to know to select sun protection that’s healthy for you and good for the planet


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You probably already know that using sunscreen regularly can slash your risk of skin cancer, reduce wrinkles and slow the effects of aging.

But recent concerns about sunscreen ingredients have made it more difficult than it used to be to choose a safe sunscreen. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit advocacy organization, says about 75 percent of sunscreens on the market provide inferior sun protection or have worrisome ingredients. 

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Studies also show that some sunscreens may cause damage to oceans and coral reefs. A growing number of destinations, including Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have banned sunscreens with certain chemicals.

While more research is needed to prove whether sunscreen ingredients are harmful, the concerns have left many Americans with questions about sunscreen safety and uncertain about which products to purchase.

What’s important, experts say, is not to let those concerns stop you from using sunscreen altogether, because there’s no doubt that leaving your skin unprotected puts you at greater risk of skin cancer.

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Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, and about 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Both melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers have been rising in recent decades. While melanoma accounts for only 1 percent of all skin cancers diagnosed in the U.S., it is the deadliest.

“Any sunscreen is better than none,” says Mona Gohara, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). “We know that the sun can you give you cancer. There is thus far no proven data that says sunscreens can give you cancer.”  

Can sunscreen ingredients harm your health?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) a few years ago decided to reevaluate the safety data on sunscreen ingredients. After an extended clinical study, the agency found that some commonly used sunscreen chemicals — avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate and octinoxate — can seep through your skin and into your bloodstream. The study found that even after a single application, the chemicals remain in your body for an extended period.

But the fact that those chemicals get into your blood doesn’t necessarily mean those ingredients are harmful, says David Fivenson, an immunologist and dermatologist in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Some laboratory-based studies indicate that chemical ingredients could interfere with the normal function of the body’s hormonal system, affect infant development or cause other health issues. 

But Fivenson notes, “there has never been good, practical evidence of harm in a realistic study of people.”

If there’s one ingredient to avoid, it’s probably oxybenzone, says Tasneem Mohammad, senior staff physician in the department of dermatology at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. “In a lot of areas of the world, like Europe, it’s not really used anymore,” Mohammad says.

Here, he and other dermatologists offer 7 more tips for choosing a sunscreen this summer:

1. Consider a mineral-based sunscreen

If you are concerned about health effects, the safest choice is a so-called “mineral” or “physical” sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, dermatologists say. Those are the only sunscreen ingredients that the FDA says are “generally recognized as safe and effective.”

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Mineral sunscreens also cause fewer skin reactions compared to those that rely on chemicals.

While chemical sunscreens act like sponges and absorb ultraviolet light, “a physical sunscreen acts like a shield,” Gohara explains. It sits on top of your skin and deflects UVA and UVB rays away from your body.

2. Check to see if it’s reef-safe

Lab research shows some chemical sunscreen ingredients can be toxic to coral and other marine organisms, says Fivenson, who is a cofounder of an American Academy of Dermatology group that examines environmental issues. However, the true impact is unclear because the concentrations of chemicals used in some studies were as much as 1,000 times higher than the amount in most real-world environments, he says.

If you are concerned about the environment or traveling to a place that bans certain chemicals, look for sunscreens labeled “reef-safe” or “reef-friendly.”

Keep in mind, however, that those terms are not regulated by the FDA, Fivenson says. So you should also check the ingredients to ensure they don’t contain oxybenzone or octinoxate — the chemicals most often banned because of their detrimental effect on marine life.

3. Choose an SPF of at least 30

Short for “sun protection factor,” SPF is a measure of a product’s ability to protect you from the sun’s UVB rays, which cause sunburn.

Choose a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, which blocks 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays. SPFs over 30 are only slightly more effective, so don’t let sky-high SPFs lull you into thinking you are totally protected from sun damage.

4. Look for “broad spectrum” 

Sunscreens that are labeled “broad spectrum” will ensure you are protected against UVB rays, which cause sunburn, and also from UVA rays, which cause wrinkles and aging. UVA rays also contribute to skin cancer.

(Note: EWG testing found that many sunscreens labeled as “broad spectrum” do not protect as well as promised against UVA and UVB rays.)

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5. Beware of sprays 

Although sunscreen sprays are easy to use, many dermatologists don’t recommend them. For one thing, there’s a risk of lung irritation or damage if you inhale it. Never spray it near your face.

In addition, getting adequate coverage can be tricky. “It’s tough to get even product application, and a lot of sunscreen gets blown away by the wind,” Mohammad says.

If you do decide to use a spray, apply it outside or in a well-ventilated room, and rub it in by hand to ensure a more even application.

6. Look for targeted formulas if you have darker skin

Even those with darker skin tones need daily protection. The problem is, some sunscreens — especially mineral-based ones — leave people of color looking ashy.

“The sunscreen industry has risen to the occasion and formulated tinted sunscreens that don’t look chalky on darker-skinned individuals,” says Allison T. Vidimos, a board-certified dermatologist and chair of the Department of Dermatology at the Cleveland Clinic.

Top Sunscreen Picks

Still struggling to pick a product? For its 2023 Guide to Sunscreens, the Environmental Working Group rated the safety and efficacy of 1,700 products advertising sun protection and published a list of 233 sunscreens that meet its standards.

Instead of skipping protection altogether, look for formulas that use micronized particles or tints to minimize chalkiness, Vidimos says.

7. Apply properly 

One study found that people apply only about 20 to 50 percent of the amount of sunscreen they need to achieve the amount of SPF on the label. 

To get full protection, most adults need about one ounce — or enough to fill a shot glass — to fully cover their entire body.

“For your entire body, use a teaspoon on your face and neck, two teaspoons on your trunk, one on each arm, and two on each leg,” Vidimos says. “That gives you the labeled amount of protection. Most people put on a quarter to a half of what they should put on.”

Reapply every two hours or after swimming, and don’t forget your back, neck, face, ears and the tops of your feet.

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