Better Sunscreens: How to Find Ones That Help, Not Harm

Credit:  Natalie Collins /Unsplash

Credit: Natalie Collins/Unsplash

By Jessica Hamlin

Soaking up the sun is a summer rite of passage. Even if you try to avoid the sun’s rays, you’ll still catch some during regular errands like driving or outdoor activities. Plus, depending on where you live, summer is not the only time the sun shines.

Some time in the sun is a good thing—about 20 minutes a day—since Vitamin D can fight disease, reduce depression and boost weight loss.

But too much sun can lead to skin cancer and skin damage like premature aging.  

So slather on the sunscreen, right? Well, not so fast. Some sunscreens have problematic ingredients that may lead to more harm than good. Also, if you use sunscreen as an excuse to stay out even longer in the sun, you may get too much exposure or burn, which can cause damage or skin cancer.

Ideally, we won’t expose ourselves to direct sunlight for long periods of time, but during summer especially, the pool, beach and barbecues beckon.

Before slapping on the sunblock or using sunblock as your only sun defense, use other sun protection such as shade, protective clothing, sunglasses, and large-brimmed hats made of fabric that don’t let sun through.

If you are going to use sunscreen, know what to know before you buy and apply. 


Via Giphy

Via Giphy

SPF stands for sun protection factor and refers to the amount of time you can be out in the sun before burning—but keep in mind everyone’s skin tone and sun tolerance differs and the sun’s intensity can vary based on your location and the time of year. If you would normally burn after 10 minutes in the sun, an SPF 15 would ideally protect you for 150 minutes before you burn. Though experts generally recommend reapplying sunscreen every two hours or after swimming, sweating or toweling off.

Important to note: SPF “refers only to protection against UVB rays that burn the skin. It has little to do with a product’s ability to protect skin from UVA rays,” according to the Environmental Working Group. More on those UVAs below.

An SPF of 30 or higher is generally recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology.

But higher SPF isn’t always better. Higher SPF ratings don’t necessarily offer greater protection from UV-related skin damage and may lead users to spend too much time in the sun.

The EWG has five issues with sunscreens that claim an SPF of 50 or higher:

  • Marginally better sunburn protection
  • Poorer balance of UVA/UVB protection
  • High-SPF products may not really be high-SPF
  • Consumers misuse high-SPF products
  • High-SPF products may have greater risks to health

UVA and UVB Protection

Many sunscreens focus just on UVB, the rays that cause sunburn. Look for a broad spectrum sunscreen that blocks UVA and UVB light equally.

UVA rays

These rays are the most prevalent. There are approximately 500 times more UVA rays in sunlight than UVB rays.  

UVA rays penetrate deep into the body, accelerate skin aging, may suppress the immune system and may cause skin cancer.

UVB rays

High-energy UVB rays are less prevalent, making up just 3 to 5 percent of UV radiation striking the earth’s surface.

However, UVB rays burn skin and directly damage skin DNA. They “also play the greatest role in causing skin cancers, including the deadly black mole form of skin cancer (malignant melanoma),” according to the University of Iowa.

Better Ingredients

Via Giphy 

Via Giphy 

The Environmental Working Group rates sunblock ingredients based on their effectiveness and how they affect the body otherwise.

The least toxic effective ingredients in their evaluation are:

  • Zinc Oxide: Excellent UVA protection.
  • Avobenzone: Best UVA protection of the chemical filters

Ingredients with the worst ratings and highest toxicity concerns are:

  • Oxybenzone: Acts like estrogen in the body; alters sperm production in animals; associated with endometriosis in women
  • Vitamin A (also called retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and retinol): On sun-exposed skin, retinyl palmitate may speed development of skin tumors and lesions, according to government studies.         
  • Octinoxate: Hormone-like activity; reproductive system, thyroid and behavioral alterations in animal studies   
  • Sunscreens with added insect repellent

See ratings for other sunblock ingredients here.

Lotion vs. Spray

Spray sunscreens have gotten more prevalent since they’re easy to apply.

But the EWG has concerns about people, especially children, unintentionally inhaling spray sunscreen while it’s being sprayed. Also, some sprays are not applied as substantially as good old fashioned liquid sunblock.

Water resistance

Look for a label that says water resistant. But remember that doesn’t mean waterproof and sunblock should still be reapplied after swimming.

How Much to Apply

Via Giphy

Via Giphy

If applying a liquid sunblock (which is recommended) try a teaspoon per body part, or one ounce total.

Don’t forget to apply to parts of the body easily ignored, like the ears, inside of the arms and tops of the feet.

The Best Sunscreens

The EWG has an annual list of best sunscreens and best moisturizers with SPF plus best kids sunscreens and worst kids sunscreens, based on criteria including:

  • UVA protection
  • UVB protection
  • Balance of UVA/UVB protection
  • Stability of the sunscreen
  • Sunscreen offers the amount of SPF it claims
  • Chemicals used in the sunscreen

Fun fact: The FDA doesn't have certain requirements for kids sunscreen compared to regular sunscreen, so they may be pretty much the same. 

Here’s a list of 10 of the EWG’s best beach and sport sunscreens of 2017:

  • All Good Unscented Sunstick, SPF 30
  • All Terrain AquaSport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
  • aromatica Calendula Non-Nano UV Protection, SPF 30
  • ATTITUDE Family Sensitive Skin Care Sunscreen, SPF 30
  • Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sensitive Skin Lotion Sunscreen, SPF 50
  • Badger Sunscreen Cream, Unscented, SPF 30
  • Bare Belly Organics Sunscreen, SPF 30
  • California Baby Super Sensitive Sunscreen, SPF 30+
  • Drunk Elephant Umbra, Sheer Defense, SPF 30
  • Goddess Garden Organics Everyday Natural Sunscreen Lotion, SPF, 30

(Thumbnail photo: Natalie Collins, Unsplash)

Jessica Hamlin is an LA-born and bred journalist and editor who started taking pictures of food back when everyone used film cameras. A graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s health coach training program, she’s passionate about wellness and enjoys making and discovering delicious and healthy food. Her work has appeared in Clean Plates, NPR affiliate KPCC, AOL, and Eater LA.   


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