The ABCs of SPF

Woman Applying Sunscreen

Now that spring break is on the horizon, it’s time to restock the beach bag with sunscreen. How do you select the most effective and safest protection?

According to the Environmental Working Group 2014 assessment, only one in three beach and sunscreens on the market last year offered effective skin protection and were free of potentially harmful chemicals or additives.

FDA regulations restricted the “waterproof” and “sweatproof” claims on labels and stopped the sale of powder sunscreens and towelettes too thin to protect from UV rays. Powders contain zinc oxide and titanium oxide nanoparticles, which pose a serious risk when inhaled. The FDA is now considering a ban on sprays for the same reasons.

Broad Spectrum Protection: Just about every sunscreen on the shelves of your local Target or drugstore with an SPF of 15 or above meets the FDA’s standard for broad spectrum protection. Broad spectrum protection, simply put, means protection against UVA and UVB rays. The FDA sets the bar pretty low. The EWG estimates that only half of US sunscreens would make it to the shelves in Europe, where sunscreen makers have complied with restrictive standards.

SPF 50 +: Fifty, thirty, twenty, ten? A sunscreen’s “sun protection factor” is a numerical figure measuring its ability to deflect skin burning UV rays, mostly of the UVB variety. However, the SPF does not reflect the ability to deflect UVA rays, which research has concluded cause skin damage, immune suppression, and possibly even melanoma. People who use high SPF products are more inclined to use less sunscreen, apply less frequently, and spend more time in the sun because they feel they are protected.

Watch Out!: Check out sunscreen labels for some potentially harmful chemicals like  Vitamin A, also listed as retinyl palmitate retinol or retinol, appearing in about 20% of beach and sports moisturizers and 12% of SPF moisturizers. The chemical is also present in regular makeup as an anti-aging component and has been linked to hastened development of skin tumors and lesions on sun-exposed skin. Oxybenzone, in half of beach and sport sunscreens last year may trigger allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. Evidence shows the chemical may be a hormone disruptor, which has been detected in urine and breast milk samples, potentially impacting fetal development and children’s health.

Moisturizers and Makeup: Most of us feel at least somewhat protected when we apply our morning moisturizer or makeup with SPF protection but only one in four offer strong enough protection against UVA and UVB rays.

So, what offers the best protection?

  • Limit time in sun.
  • Cover up with hats, shirts, and sunglasses.
  • Avoid sunburn!
  • Do not use a tanning bed or sunbathe.
  • Protect kids! Early sunburns are the most damaging.
  • Pick a sunscreen with strong UVA protection.
  • Examine your skin. Check your skin regularly for new moles that are tender or growing. Ask your primary care doctor how often you should see a dermatologist.

(Info from EWG, Environmental Working Group, 2014.)

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