Concern: Sunscreens don't protect enough against ‘aging’ UVA rays.
Background: In this case, the fears are founded. In a recent study of 13 popular sunscreens, only 5 offered a high degree of protection against UVA rays (though not the highest possible amount); the majority yielded only a medium level. Those are scary findings, considering that UVA accounts for more than 95% of the UV rays we're exposed to and triggers far more free radicals that lead to wrinkles and brown spots.
The bottom line: To get the best UVA protection, you have to be a real label hawk. Keep an eye out for these ingredients: avobenzone, Mexoryl, and zinc oxide. To be sure that avobenzone has staying power (ironically, the sun quickly renders it ineffective), it should be paired with stabilizers like octocrylene, Polyester-8, butyloctyl salicylate, or ethylhexyl methoxycrylene. (Helioplex, which is available in Neutrogena sunscreens, is a stabilized form of avobenzone.) To guard against free radicals, choose sunscreens that contain antioxidants like vitamins C (aka ascorbic acid) and E (aka tocopherol), which reduce these dangerous molecules by as much as 74%. The higher up they're listed on the ingredient panel, the greater the concentration.
Are you getting the protection you need from your sunscreen?
Concern: They contain ingredients that raise your risk of breast cancer.
Background: A popular ingredient in sunscreens, oxybenzone (also known as benzophenone-3) has the unique ability to protect against both short UVA rays and the entire UVB spectrum. But consumer groups like the Environmental Working Group have questioned its use because a few studies suggested the chemical mimics the effects of estrogen — potentially causing cancer cells to grow more rapidly. In one, mice were fed a whopping dose of oxybenzone — an amount significantly higher than what you'd be exposed to during a day at the beach. "Even then, though, its estrogen-like effect was very weak," says Henry Lim, MD, chairman of the department of dermatology at Henry Ford Health System, a respected name in sunscreen circles.
In another study, volunteers applied highly concentrated oxybenzone-containing sunscreens all over their bodies every day for 4 days. Although the oxybenzone absorbed into their bloodstreams, it had no impact on reproductive hormones, including estrogen.
Much ado has also been made of the fact that oxybenzone — which is in everything from cosmetics to food — showed up in trace amounts in 97% of urine samples analyzed by the CDC. But "that doesn't mean it causes an adverse health effect," including triggering any form of cancer, says CDC scientist Antonia Calafat, PhD. Still, because the health effects of everyday exposure to oxybenzone are unknown, experts believe more research is needed.
The bottom line: No studies prove, nor even strongly suggest, that oxybenzone causes cancer. What is proven: Sunscreens are one of the best ways to protect against UV damage. "We know the benefits of using them," says Kenneth Portier, PhD, of the American Cancer Society. "We don't know that there's any harm." If the FDA becomes aware of information indicating that any sunscreens are unsafe, it says it will warn the public. Still concerned? Opt for one that doesn't have oxybenzone.
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Concern: Tiny particles may get into skin and trigger health problems.
Background: If you use sunscreen geared for sensitive skin, it probably contains titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These ingredients work by reflecting — instead of absorbing — UV rays, so they tend to be less irritating. In their regular form, both are made up of large particles that leave a white film on skin — think of the thick white coating you used to see on a lifeguard's nose. To make sunscreens more transparent and less like clown makeup, titanium and zinc are now often engineered into ultrasmall nanoparticles. (As a bonus, they fit better into the nooks and crannies of the skin to create more even coverage.) The problem: No one really knew whether these tiny particles could penetrate skin and build up in the body — and if they did, whether that was dangerous. (One theory is that they might get into cells and cause DNA damage.)
Turns out this worry about nanos might have been for naught, as a growing body of research — including two studies published earlier this year, one by FDA scientists — shows these particles don't absorb through healthy or damaged skin.
One still unanswered question is whether nanoparticles trigger free radicals when exposed to UV light. Manufacturers can squelch their production with a specific form of titanium dioxide, but a recent study suggests that some of them may not be using it. Unless the FDA mandates its use, consumers can't know for sure if it's in their sunscreen.
The bottom line: "It's virtually impossible to prove something is completely safe no matter how many studies are done, but the weight of evidence suggests that nanoparticles in sunscreens won't present a risk to your health," says Andrew Maynard, PhD, director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center. Even the EWG now recommends these sunscreens as "among the safest, most effective on the market."
Concern: Sunscreen blocks production of Vitamin D.
Background: Though an SPF 30 sunscreen blocks 97% of UVB, the rays that enable skin to create vitamin D, research shows that normal use doesn't generally result in vitamin D deficiency — in part because few of us apply (or reapply) enough. Still, with its growing reputation as a wonder vitamin, Vitamin D is one nutrient you don't want to be lacking in. Studies indicate many people are.
The bottom line: The simplest solution is to get more Vitamin D into your diet (good sources include salmon, cheese, and fortified milk and juice), and take a daily supplement of 1,000 IU of vitamin D3. "It's so easy and a whole lot safer than frying your skin in the sun," says James Spencer, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.