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Posted by on Jul 13, 2013 in Health & Nutrition, Products | 1 comment

Buying Sunscreen: How To Pick The Best Sunscreen.

turkey batherAbout 3 years ago, one of my friends made the comment, “You’d be surprised by the ingredients that are in beauty products”…

Well, I must admit, I didn’t look into it… until now.

An interesting point that I found in my research is from the 1960s through the mid 1980s, the regulation of health, safety and environmental risks was generally stricter in the United States than in Europe. Since the mid 1980s, the obverse has often been the case: a wide array of European consumer and environmental regulations, including those governing GMOs, are now more restrictive than in the United States. In a number of important respects, European regulatory politics and policies over the last fifteen years resemble those of the United States between the late 1960s and the mid 1980s. They are often politicized, highly contentious and characterized by a suspicion of science and a mistrust of both government and industry. By contrast, the US regulation of GMOs resembles the European regulatory style of the 1970s: regulators have worked cooperatively with industry and been supportive of technological innovation, while non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have enjoyed little access to the policy process. [1]

With summer in full swing, let’s review the various sunscreens and why some may be safer than others.

The first half of this post I defined some terms related to sunscreen and included some back-history to sunscreen.  The latter half recaps the key components of sunscreen.

Just like with food, beauty claims are often misleading and confusing. Some will say the ingredients are fine, some will say they are toxic. With so many different sunscreens to choose from, how does one decide?

What do you look for when choosing a sunscreen?

Sunscreen helps protect against UVB and UVA lights.

Ultraviolet Radiation is part of the electromagnetic (light) spectrum that reaches the earth from the sun. It has wavelengths shorter than visible light, making it invisible to the naked eye. These wavelengths are classified as UVA, UVB, or UVC, with UVA the longest of the three at 320-400 nanometers (nm, or billionths of a meter).

Most people first look at SPF number.

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor.

SPF is not an amount of protection per se. Rather, it indicates how long it will take for UVB rays to redden skin when using a sunscreen, compared to how long skin would take to redden without the product. For instance, someone using a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 will take 15 times longer to redden than without the sunscreen.

Confusion often exists with sunscreens that have over SPF 30. It could give a false sense of protection, which may lead to under-applying and re-application.

The SPF (Sun Protection Factor) scale is not linear:

Most dermatologist and experts recommend the use of SPF 15 or higher, but anything over SPF 50 is deceiving and can lead to false sense of security in regards to sun and UV ray protection. There are products on the market that boast SPF 100, although the FDA is considering whether such should be marketed.

Last year, the FDA announced tighter regulations on how manufacturers label products. The changes, aimed to cut down on consumer confusion, require sunscreen labels to identify if they provide broad spectrum coverage on the front label. Brands also won’t be able to claim products as sweat-proof or waterproof.

However, don’t expect to see these changes on store shelves this summer. Last week the FDA announced it is giving manufacturers six additional months from their original deadline to meet the new requirements. Look for the new labeling in December.

I was actually surprised that, based on my assumption that UVA rays were worse than UVB, I had always thought sunscreen protected more against UVA… But, actually SPF refers to UVB.




UVA, which penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB, has long been known to play a major part in skin aging and wrinkling (photoaging), but until recently scientists believed it did not cause significant damage in areas of the epidermis (outermost skin layer) where most skin cancers occur. Studies over the past two decades, however, show that UVA damages skin cells called keratinocytes in the basal layer of the epidermis, where most skin cancers occur. (Basal and squamous cells are types of keratinocytes.) UVA contributes to and may even initiate the development of skin cancers.

UVA is the dominant tanning ray, and we now know that tanning, whether outdoors or in a salon, causes cumulative damage over time. A tan results from injury to the skin’s DNA; the skin darkens in an imperfect attempt to prevent further DNA damage. These imperfections, or mutations, can lead to skin cancer. 

You may see the term “broad spectrum” on the bottle, which refers to products that protect from both ultraviolet B and A rays. But some say U.S. brands are limited by the lack of long-range UVA filters, or sunscreen ingredients, not allowed by the federal government.

Henry Lim, chairman of dermatology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, says multiple UVA filters still awaiting clearance in the U.S. have been used effectively outside the country for years.

“The U.S. is an island by itself on this one,” he said. “They’re available in Canada, available in Europe, available in Asia, available in Mexico, and available in South America.”

So, both the FDA and the USDA deem GMOs safe but additional UVA filters that are actually available to help protect against skin cancer are not allowed in the US? Other countries have 28 active ingredients to choose from, the US only has 17.

Here a a few more key points about UVA filters from the WSJ article:

  • “In the U.S. we only have three UVA filters that can extend the range of the UVA protection to the long range,” said Steven Wang, director of Dermatologic Surgery and Dermatology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New Jersey”.
  • Both UVA and UVB rays contribute to skin cancer, but the damage caused by UVA rays is harder to measure. UVA filters block the rays from the sun that penetrate deep into the skin, causing collagen to break down, resulting in wrinkles. They also are a possible cause of melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers, and may impact the immune system.
  • Julie Russak, a dermatologist in Manhattan and clinical instructor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said it’s understandable why the FDA would be cautious in approvals for new sunscreen ingredients because of a paucity of research and concerns that some may be highly allergenic or affect estrogen levels.
  • Yet, No such concerns have been cited for Tinosorb or Mexoryl, several doctors said. The filters have been used effectively outside the U.S. for a long time, according to Dr. Lim. The lack of UVA filters in the U.S. “does limit the ability of sunscreen manufacturers to manufacture good, broad-spectrum sunscreens,” he said.

There are currently 17 active ingredients approved by the FDA for use in sunscreens. These filters fall into two broad categories: chemical and physical.

Another ingredient that is on watchdog lists is: Vitamin A Palmitate.

Government-funded studies have found that this particular type of vitamin A may increase risk of skin cancer when used on sun-exposed skin. However, these reports have been in mice and evidence has been inconclusive for humans.

Several studies suggest that when exposed to UV radiation, retinyl palmitate generates free radicals, 21,22 chemically reactive substances whose interactions with DNA may cause mutations leading to cancer.

But, of course since it is not absolutely definitive, chemical filters and Vitamin A Palmitate are still allowed in sunscreen in the US.

I hear the argument all the time: HOW DO YOU KNOW IT IS NOT SAFE? People often shout in the face of any question of safety.


Ok. Let’s re-cap all of the components of sunscreen. This may help you better decide on how to choose between the different sunscreen varieties. 

Use at least SPF 15 but do not be deceived by high SPF label claims, and remember SPF only protects against UVB.

Recommendation to use Broad Spectrum sunscreen, which means it has both UVA and UVB protection. Although recommended, please note that You may see the phrases multi spectrum, broad spectrum or UVA/UVB protection on sunscreen labels, and these all indicate that some UVA protection is provided. However, because there is no consensus on how much protection these terms indicate, such phrases may not be entirely meaningful.

That is said not to discount the importance of UVA, but rather as a reminder to not be deceived by label claims of broad spectrum. You have to look at the ingredients and look what UVA filters are used in the sunscreen you buy.

It appears that there are two ways to filter UVB and UVA rays out.

  1. Traditional sunscreens use Chemical UV filters. Which means, chemical UV filters are used, and penetrate into your skin. They then absorb the UV rays and a chemical reaction occurs and send back the rays away from your body.
  2. Physically sunscreens use physical UV filters to block UV rays. The active ingredient sits on top of your skin to block out UV rays.

What is the difference between sunscreen and sunblock?
Sunscreens can be classified into two major types: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens contain special ingredients that act as filters and reduce ultraviolet radiation penetration to the skin. These sunscreens often are colorless and maintain a thin visible film on the skin. These sunscreens usually contain UVB absorbing chemicals and more recently contain UVA absorbers as well.

Physical Sunscreens, most often referred to as sunblocks, are products containing ingredients such a titanium dioxide and zinc oxide which physically block ultraviolet radiation (UVR). Sunblocks provide broad protection against both UVB and UVA light. They can be cosmetically unacceptable to many people, because they are often messy, visible and do not easily wash off. However, some new zinc oxide products are available in brightly colored preparations which are popular with young people. The amount of sun protection these sunblocks provide, while potentially high, cannot be quantified in the same manner as sunscreen SPFs.


Traditional or Chemical Sunscreens, use the following (chemical) ingredients to filter UV:

Not allowed in the US:

Physical Sunscreens, that filter UVA and UVB rays use

  • Zince oxide
  • Titanium dioxide

Some advise to avoid sunscreen that contains Vitamin A Palmitate. While studies are not conclusive that when exposed to UV, it becomes carcinogenic, it also has NOT been shown to have additional benefits, thus avoidance may make more sense to those who are concerned with potentially harmful substances.

Look for PABA-Free Sunscreens

PABA stands for para aminobenzoic acid, and was once typically used in sunscreen to protect against UV rays. Most sunscreens are PABA-free these days due to complaints of allergenic reactions. Some studies conclude that PABA is a carcinogenic.

Also, although very convenient for kids, avoid aerosol spray sunscreens. Why? Many explain two-fold reasoning: 1) not applied evenly or consistently and may miss spots
2) due to aerosol natural, can be cause for inhalation exposure risks. In 2011, the FDA actually released warning statement on aerosol sprays, yet they continue to be sold on market.

In conclusion, chemical sunscreens are still FDA approved. My thought is this- since there are alternatives that are now available, that are as effective and for relatively the same price, contain less ingredients, which means you potentially can avoid chemicals that may disrupt hormones or at very least, avoid absorbing synthetic chemicals into your body, I am all for that!

I found this great Sunscreen Guide. Check it out.

One of the top rated products, across many sources is Badger Broad Spectrum Unscented SPF 30 Sunscreen

Key selling points:

  • just 5 ingredients!
  • Broad Spectrum protection from UVA & UVB rays using the mineral Zinc Oxide – NO oxybenzone, octisalate, octinoxate, avobenzone, or added Vitamin A.
  • Water and sweat resistant for at least 40 minutes of swimming or activity.
  • Certified organic sunscreen base of Sunflower Oil, Beeswax, Seabuckthorn and Vitamin E is ultra-moisturizing and soothing.
  • BPA & phthalate-free tube from 40% PCR recycled #2 plastic.
  • No animal testing.
  • Biodegradable and safe for coral reefs and other ecosystems.

Available here and here and also sold at Whole Foods.

Let me know if you try any of theses non-chemical based sunscreens and what your thoughts are.


Related articles on Sunscreen:

1 Comment

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