It seems the more research that goes into the safety and effectiveness of sunscreens, the more confusing it is for consumers to use these formulations with confidence.

The science of using topical creams to protect our skin from harmful sun rays is still relatively new, and conflicting information is to be expected from different quarters of the scientific community.

It is safe to say that sunscreens in general have helped people protect their skin from sun exposure. But slathering on sunscreen can provide a false sense of security leading to excessive sun exposure, and for some users the chemicals in sunscreen formulations may cause photo-sensitive allergic reactions to the skin. And the long-term health effects of some chemicals found in sunscreens applied regularly to the skin are not fully understood.

In the past few years, the FDA has tried to address consumer confusion regarding sunscreens by requiring manufacturers to label their products with an SPF (sun protection factor) numbering system and to state whether or not the product provides broad spectrum coverage (UVB).

To further help consumers make informed choices among the hundreds of sunscreen brands and formulations, a new guide has recently been released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The 2012 Sunscreen Guide, provides a list of recommended sunscreen brands which provide protection from the sun without the use of potentially harmful ingredients.

In developing the Sunscreen Guide, the EWG found that only 25% of 800 tested sunscreens are effective at protecting your skin without the use of potentially harmful ingredients. The following recommendations were used as parameters in determining a sunscreen’s safety:

1. Use Broad Spectrum Sunscreens

Broad spectrum refers to sunscreens which protects against both UVA and UVB rays. UVA radiation causes premature skin damage and aging, while UVB acts to protect the skin from rays that cause sunburns. There is consensus among scientists that broad spectrum sunscreens are preferable to UVA-only sunscreens.

Recommended broad spectrum sunscreen brands are AquaSport and Goddess Garden Organics Natural Sunscreen, which has been rated Best Sunscreen pick in 2013 by the EWG for its superior effectiveness and non-toxic formula.

2. Choose Products with an SPF Range Between 15 and 50

The SPF, a number appearing on the label of all sunscreens, is a measure used to show the degree to which a sunscreen protects the skin by absorbing or reflecting the sun’s rays. The EWG report recommends that consumers purchase sunscreens with SPF greater than 15 but no more than 50.

Many brands of sunscreen available today have SPF ratings of 70, 80 or even 100+. But ratings above 50 do not give a proportionate level of protection. Studies show that sunscreen with SPF 15 can block about 93% of all incoming UVB rays. SPF 30 blocks 97%. SPF 50 blocks 98%. The higher SPF, while not offering much more protection, can mislead a user into thinking he or she is safe from prolonged exposure to the sun. The higher SPF sunscreens are also more expensive, while the added protection is minimal.

3. Avoid Sunscreen Formulations Using Retinyl Palminate

Retinyl palminate is a type of vitamin A which has been associated with an elevated risk of skin cancer when used on sun-exposed skin. The effects of retinyl palminate on humans is still under review and current studies are inconclusive, but there is enough concern that today only about 25% of sunscreens contain retinyl palminate.

The EWG says retinyl palminate does not make sunscreen more effective, and until definitive research is available, consumers should avoid sunscreen products containing this ingredient.

4. Use Cream Rather Than Sprays for Best Protection

The spray-on sunscreens are more convenient but less effective than rubbing a cream sunscreen onto the skin.

What About Oxybenzone?

Some sunscreen formulations, primarily those labelled as “sport” and “beach”, include the chemical oxybenzone, which is used to absorb UV rays. There is conflicting information about the safety of this ingredient in sunscreens.

The EWG cites research showing oxybenzone can be absorbed through the skin, and some toxicology experts believe that oxybenzone is linked to hormone disruption and potentially to cell damage that may lead to skin cancer. The American Academy of Dermatology, however, has approved oxybenzone for use since 1978, and maintains that oxybenzone provides effective broad spectrum protection from UV radiation. The Food and Drug Administration has approved oxybenzone in sunscreen for use on children older than 6 months.

Sunscreen or Sunblock – What is the Difference?

Sunscreens use chemicals that change the incoming sun rays into hormone-like substances that are absorbed into the body. Sunblocks act in a more mechanical way by simply reflecting the rays, and there are no significant health or safety issues associated with their use. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are sunblocks, and sunscreen brands which include these ingredients offer an added level of protection.

Who is the Environmental Working Group?

The EWG is an environmental organization that specializes in research and advocacy in the areas of toxic chemicals, agricultural subsidies, public lands, and corporate accountability. EWG is a non-profit organization (501(c)(3)) whose mission, according to their website, is “to use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment.”

The EWG specializes in providing practical resources, like the 2012 Sunscreen Guide, to consumers while simultaneously pushing for national policy change.

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