Every summer, sunscreen is the go-to product for people who spend many days baking in the sun. Recent articles have asserted that certain sunscreens contain harmful chemicals that could lead to some of the same diseases caused by not using some form of sun protection at all. Dr. Diana Stephens, a dermatologist with Cayuga Medical Associates (CMA) Dermatology has seen the confusion lead to an abundance of questions. For the most part, she has found most of the articles have little to no evidence to back them.
“At this point, there have been no studies that have shown there to be any known medical consequences of using the current FDA-approved chemical-based sunscreens,” Stephens said. “There has been confusion due to a recent article that discusses the absorption of several sunscreen ingredients into the body and calls for the need for additional safety data. However, the data presented in this article do not conclude that there are any effects on a person’s health and more research is needed before that can be determined. Most importantly, the study author’s stated that individuals should continue to use sunscreen.”
For those looking to avoid sunscreen with chemicals, they would have to look for mineral-based sunscreens. These types of sunscreen, which are also known as inorganic or physical blockers, contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These reflect harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays off the skin, whereas chemical absorbers, called organic sunscreens, absorb the UV rays and convert them to non-damaging rays, which dissipate as heat. Aside from using these, Stephens found the only other way to stay protected from the sun without sunscreen is seeking the shade.
“Seeking shade, especially during the hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., is the most effective way to avoid the sun’s harmful rays,” said Stephens. “Wearing wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, and sun-protective clothing (UPF designated clothing) are other ways to block UV rays without wearing sunscreen.”
While most chemical and non-chemical sunscreens are equally effective, there are some differences between the two. Chemical-based sunscreens protect from either UVB or UVA rays but not both, according to Stephens. She said that using sunscreens that have the term ‘broad spectrum’ on the label to ensure a person is getting UVA and UVB protection. For kids, though, she said, parents should be careful about exposing young kids to sunscreen.
“For infants less than six months of age, it is best to avoid sunscreen,” Stephens said. “Therefore, sun avoidance is recommended for this age group. For kids older than 6 months, physical sunscreens (those containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) are best for their sensitive skin.”
Her final piece of advice in the big sunscreen mystery is to choose wisely when it comes to sunscreen but to also check what goes on your skin.
“The best type of sunscreen is one that you will use, whether physical and chemical-based,” Stephens said. “Go for sunscreens labeled ‘broad spectrum,’ with an SPF of at least 30-plus, and ideally labeled water-resistant. Re-apply every 2 hours while outdoors, or after sweating or swimming. Remember that proper application is important – it takes about 1 ounce of sunscreen (a shot glass) – to cover an entire adult body. Sunscreen should be worn year-round, as the sun is always emitting UV rays; you can get burned even on cloudy days. And lastly, if sunscreens aren’t your jam, seek the shade or wear sun-protective clothing if you must be in the sun.”