Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Eco-friendly sunscreen manufactured by actress Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company made headlines recently when customers took to social media to complain that the product didn’t work. Photos of burned backs, chests and heads sparked a debate on Twitter about the efficacy of so-called “natural” sunscreens, which contain ingredients that physically block the sun.
In contrast, many popular name-brand sunscreens contain compounds that react with and absorb UV rays before they reach the skin. But critics worry that some of the chemicals might do more harm than good when absorbed.
With dozens of brands sitting on supermarket shelves touting SPF this or that, broad spectrum coverage, water resistance and the like, which do you choose? How do you decipher lists of ingredients? And, above all, are sunscreens safe?
Types of sunscreen
SPF: It stands for sun protection factor. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends people choose a sunscreen with SPF 30 or more.
UVA/UVB: “Broad spectrum” means the sunscreen will protect you from both UVA and UVB rays. Products have to undergo a test by the FDA to bear the label.
Water resistant: That means the sunscreen will stay on your skin even if it gets wet. Sunscreens must specify how long after getting sweaty or being in water you should reapply. The FDA allows producers only two options for water resistance timeframes: either 40 minutes or 80 minutes.
What SPF is right for you?
SPF 2-14: Sunscreens with SPF 2 to 14 protect only against sunburn and must carry a warning specifying they don’t protect against skin cancer or early aging.
SPF 15+: Sunscreens with SPF 15 or higher protect against sunburn and, if used with other sun-protection measures, can reduce the chance of skin cancer and early aging.
SPF 50+: Sunscreens with SPFs of more than 50 have not demonstrated any additional protection, according to the FDA. So the highest number you should see on any sunscreen is SPF 50+.
How different sunscreens work
Chemical sunscreens: The most common type, these have ingredients that absorb UV light before it gets to your skin. But the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, cautions against using sunscreens with some of those chemicals; the group says oxybenzone and octinoxate have higher toxicity concerns. Still, many dermatologists who have reviewed the group’s research say it lacks scientific rigor.
Among the ingredients the FDA has approved for use in sunscreen: oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, avobenzone
Physical sunscreens: These have ingredients that reflect and scatter UV light. They are an option for people worried about chemical absorption. But they sometimes can make the skin look chalky or greasy.
Examples: titanium dioxide, zinc oxide
Homemade sunscreens: Doctors advise against using homemade sunscreens, mainly because mixing a sunscreen that offers adequate and consistent sun protection can be difficult outside a professional lab. “If you’re a great biochemist who understands the absorbance of sun, you might be able to,” oncologist Wolfram Samlowski said. “I’d rather buy things off the shelf than concoct things.” The primary sun-blocking ingredients in many homemade sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium oxide, both of which can be difficult to distribute evenly.
How to apply sunscreen effectively
• Use about 1 ounce of sunscreen — the amount you can hold in your palm or would fill a shot glass. Most adults will need at least that much to cover all exposed parts of the body.
• Rub sunscreen thoroughly over your skin. Don’t forget your neck, face, ears, tops of your feet and legs. Ask someone for help if you can’t reach your back. If you don’t have a lot of hair, also apply sunscreen to the top of your head or wear a hat.
• Be sure to wear a lip balm that offers broad spectrum protection and has an SPF of at least 30.
Who is most at risk for a sunburn?
• Pale skin
• Blonde, red or light brown hair
• A history of skin cancer
• A family member who has had skin cancer
• Medications that increase sun sensitivity
Sunburns early in life or chronic exposure to the sun in adulthood can lead to skin cancer later in life.
Dr. Wolfram Samlowski of the Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada said most of his skin cancer patients in Nevada spent much of their lives in the sun in California.
“Here, it’s 120 degrees — you’re not going to spend a whole lot of time in the sun. That would be physically uncomfortable,” Samlowski said.
Still, anyone who does spend a lot of time in the sun, such as construction workers, should take extra precautions to cover up.
How to stay safe in the sun
• Limit time outside when the sun’s rays are strongest, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
• Apply sunscreen before heading outside. It takes about 15 minutes for the skin to absorb sunscreen and for the sunscreen to start protecting you.
• Cover as much of your body as possible when going outside. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, long sleeves and pants or carry an umbrella
• Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours to remain protected — or right after swimming or sweating profusely.
• Apply sunscreen year-round. You can burn any time, even when it’s cloudy or temperatures are cool.
• The American Academy of Dermatology recommends against buying sunscreen combined with insect repellant. While sunscreen should be applied every few hours, insect repellant can be applied much less often and in lower quantities.
For your family
• Safety experts recommend sunscreen sprays not be used on children, as they could squirm around and accidentally inhale the spray. For adults, they recommend not spraying sunscreen directly on your face but rather onto your hands first.
• Additionally, the FDA recommends people stay away from open flames while wearing sunscreen spray, as there have been reports of people catching fire.
• FDA-approved sunscreens are safe to use on babies 6 months and older.
• For babies younger than 6 months, the best solution is keeping them out of direct sunlight. If they have to go outside, be sure to cover them with clothing, brimmed hats and sunglasses, and keep them in the shade. Experts disagree about whether you should put small amounts of sunscreen on areas that can’t be covered, so check with your pediatrician.
Sources: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, American Academy of Dermatology, American Cancer Society, Skin Cancer Foundation, Mayo Clinic