Sunscreen suspicion is at an all-time high. In February, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took a long-awaited step and called for a referendum on the safety of 12 chemical ingredients. And then in May, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association backed up previous research, and demonstrated that some of the chemical ingredients in question entered the bloodstream at a level substantially higher than the FDA’s threshold. At the very least, the question marks hanging over SPF’s head are frustrating for anyone trying to prevent skin cancer without inadvertently creating another health issue. But it’s not a reason to abandon SPF altogether; rather, it’s an endorsement for mineral sunscreen. Here’s how to navigate the aisles and find the safest, most effective formulas.
Why Mineral Matters
The only two ingredients the FDA cleared outright for safety in their most recent proposal were titanium dioxide and zinc oxide—the only mineral sunscreen ingredients. Part of the reason they’re inherently safer is because they aren’t designed to seep into skin. They work by sitting on top of skin to physically block UV rays.
Chemical filters, on the other hand, must “absorb into the skin and create a chemical reaction that changes UV rays into heat,” says NYC dermatologist Dendy Engelman. That’s problematic because many of the common chemical filters in sunscreen—which include oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, and avobenzone—are demonstrated skin irritants and hormone disruptors, i.e. things you really don’t want getting under your skin and into your bloodstream.
On top of that, they’re a hazard for the environment. Just last year, Hawaii passed a bill banning oxybenzone and octinoxate as they were found to “cause mortality in developing coral; increase coral bleaching; and cause genetic damage to coral and other marine organisms.” (The word on the street is that many states in the U.S. will soon follow suit.)
Mineral sunscreen is also more beneficial for your skin. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are naturally anti-inflammatory, making them ideal for sensitive and breakout-prone skin, and they go to work immediately: whereas chemical formulas take up to 30 minutes to soak in before working, mineral formulas are active the second you put them on. When looking for one, just check for the term non-nano, which indicates that the formula is free of nanoparticles. While they can make mineral sunscreen blend in better, nanoparticles are questionable health-wise, so it’s best to avoid them if you can. Two staff favorites: Two staff favorites: BurnOut SPF 30 for body and Suntegrity SPF 30 for face.
Stick with Lotions
While sunscreen powders and sprays are convenient, they’re potentially more harmful to your health as they can be easily (and accidentally) inhaled by you and people around you. For this reason, the safest thing you can do is use good old-fashioned lotion. Besides, dermatologists anecdotally report they provide better coverage than sprays, which tend to scatter equally between our skin and the air. If you must use sprays and powders, however, try to rely on non-aerosol and talc-free formulas, only for touch-ups. Just remember to keep your nose and mouth closed, or spray them into your hand first, before applying to your face or body.
Choose SPF 30 (or Higher)
Simply put: the higher SPF, the higher the protection from accelerated aging and, more importantly, skin cancer. Engelman recommends using SPF 30 for a typical weekend and then bumping up your coverage to an SPF 50 or higher for times when you’ll be out in the sun longer. Be sure to also look for a mineral sunscreen with “broad-spectrum” coverage, which means the formula will protect you from UVA (causes skin to tan, creates wrinkles, and skin damage) and UVB (the cause of sunburns and skin cancer) rays. "When I talk to my patients about whether we need an SPF 50 or 100, the reality is we never apply the amount in practicality that they do when they’re testing it in the studies," she says. "Rule of thumb, take whatever is on the bottle and divide it by two and that is about what you’re getting."
Boost Your SPF with Antioxidants
Engelman explains that even the best sunscreens still allow a small percentage of UV rays through (and that’s if you use it perfectly). That’s why a little backup can be helpful. Research has shown that antioxidants help neutralize the free radical damage caused by the UV rays that sneak past sunscreen. Plus, they also neutralize the free radical damage from the sun that your SPF can’t help with—infrared, or heat, radiation. Although some mineral sunscreen formulas have them mixed in, the concentrations are likely minimal. It’s best to apply an antioxidant blend alone, like the Vitamin C Booster, before your SPF to get the most benefit.
The Vitamin D Debate
While the sun can get a bad rap, a little exposure can have health benefits, including a boost to your mood, better sleep, and potentially a longer life says one study. And it’s essential for our production of vitamin D, which supports our bone health, immune system, and more. There has been some debate about whether wearing sunscreen inhibits vitamin D synthesis, but the data seems pretty clear. A study in the Archives of Dermatology showed no difference in vitamin D levels between people using sunscreen and using a placebo. And a similar conclusion was reached in a recent report in the British Journal of Dermatology. If you’re concerned about your vitamin D levels, talk with you doctor—but don’t use it as an excuse to forego SPF.
Other Sources of Sun Protection
Sunscreen isn’t the only form of sun protection. There are plenty of ways to defend against UV damage that don’t involve slathering anything on. UV-protective clothing abounds, including hats, shirts, and covers of all kinds, that are surprisingly chic. Best of all, there’s shade. Slipping under a tree when the sun is at its strongest (between 10am and 3pm) offers extra protection —and a peaceful escape to boot.