How to Choose a Sunscreen

how to choose a sunscreenWhile looking down the sunscreen aisle at the drug store, I instantly became frozen with product overload. And yet most recommendations for selecting a “safe” sunscreen include “read the labels”. I would need a 24-hour store to get through them all! So how do you choose a sunscreen?

There are many good sources out there with tips on choosing a “safe” sunscreen, but also a lot of contradictory/confusing information between the environmental groups and the regulators. So I’ve done the research for you – considering both angles.

One-Step Option

If you want to go the more natural route, check out Think Dirty or Skin Deep to see how your current sunscreen fares or to decide on a new one. EWG also has a “Best Beach and Sport Sunscreens” product list.

TIP! In my networks, Green Beaver, Badger, Think Baby, and Goddess Garden are the natural sunscreens that get recommended the most.

Want to know more?

Here’s my 6-step strategy to help you focus on what matters to you, and save you some time and headaches in the sunscreen aisle.

  1. Choose a sunscreen with SPF 30 – 50. SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays, and anything higher offers little additional protection.
  2. Look for sunscreen labelled “broad spectrum” or “UVA and UVB protection”. SPF only measures UVB protection effectiveness. UVB radiation contributes to skin cancer and is the chief cause of sunburn, however UVA rays also accelerate skin aging and contribute to skin cancer.
  3. Skip the sprays and powders. Aerosols should be avoided for everything, but you should also avoid pump-style spray bottles and loose powders because they increase the chance of being inhaled. Sunscreen research is mainly focused on skin absorption, so it’s unclear what the impacts of inhalation are. (This also applies to mineral-based make-up.)
  4. Mineral vs Chemical? “Natural” sunscreens use titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide minerals that physically block UV, and are most often in nano form (extremely small particles). Health Canada’s draft sunscreen guidelines admit that nanoparticles’ effects on the environment and health need to continue to be monitored (i.e. they are still a bit of an experiment even though they’re approved for use). Conventional sunscreens use chemicals that absorb UV, and while they are approved for use, some studies raise concern about the potential for these chemicals to penetrate the skin and disrupt hormones. If you opt for a chemical product, EWG recommends avoiding oxybenzone in particular. Neither are perfect, but EWG, Think Dirty, and Environmental Defense all rank the chemical sunscreens worse than mineral ones based on the information available.
  5. Check Think Dirty or Skin DeepEven if you’re not looking for a mineral-based product, these apps can help you decide on chemical products too.
  6. Retinyl palmitate – proceed with caution. This is a form of vitamin A that Health Canada’s draft guidelines indicate that may increase the skin’s sensitivity to sun. EWG and Environmental Defense warn against using sunscreens with Vitamin A (on ingredient labels often as retinyl palmitate or retinoic acid) as FDA studies have indicated that it can cause changes to cells when exposed to UVA radiation (though the Canadian Cancer Society reports that there is no evidence these changes are cancerous).

Remember that sunscreen should be your last line of defense when enjoying summer. Wear long sleeves, hat, and sunglasses and avoid being in the sun in the middle of the day wherever possible. Happy summer everyone!

What’s your favourite sunscreen? Let me know on Facebook and Twitter.

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