DDo It seems that there’s some sort of sunscreen controversy every summer. And with its annual Sunscreen Guide, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is usually behind it. For 2015, the EWG went beyond shedding light on the potential health risks associated with sunscreen, and actually pointed fingers at several well-known and widely available brands.
The EWG claims that more than 80 percent of big-name sunscreens contain harmful ingredients and fail to provide adequate protection against UV rays. As a dermatologist, I share a few of their concerns, but I believe the potential health risks associated with skipping the sunscreen (i.e. skin cancer) far outweigh the concerns outlined by the EWG.
If you want to err on the side of caution, here’s what to look out for. If you see retinyl palmitate in the list of ingredients, move on. Although the risk is uncertain and controversial, this member of the vitamin A family has been shown to speed the growth of cancer cells in mice when exposed to UV light. Using retinyl palmitate with sunscreen is safer, but retinyl palmitate does not work well in sunlight so there is really no reason to use it in a sunscreen product.
Sunscreens with chemical-based UV filters such as oxybenzone are extremely common as well, and studies have shown that it is excreted in the urine after application to the skin. Although we don’t have concrete proof that this is harmful, there’s no proof that this is 100 percent safe either.
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I prefer to avoid chemical-based sunscreen ingredients on a daily basis and use physical UV-blocking ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide instead. I like EltaMD’s UV Physical Broad-Spectrum SPF 41 because it’s very lightweight, doesn’t leave white residue and absorbs fast so I don’t have to wait to apply my makeup.
For extra protection against environmental skin damage, I also take Heliocare antioxidant supplements that contain a fern extract that has been found to have protective benefits for the skin. However, when I’ll be outdoors for a prolonged period of time, like out on my husband’s boat or playing a round of golf, I will use SkinCeuticals Sport UV Defense SPF 50 layered over La Roche-Posay Anthelios 45 Body, which does contain avobenzone and other chemical ingredients, but I need the extra protection in the intense Miami sun. Good organic sunscreens are very hard to find. If you need one that stays on for hours for surfing or water sports, try Raw Elements. It is messy and a bit hard to get off, but it’s a very safe way to get a high level of sun protection without chemicals.
One other hot topic when it comes to sunscreen safety is sunscreen mists. I do not recommend these as the primary mode of sun protection. First, if there’s a breeze most of the product goes downwind—not on your skin. This false sense of security means you’re not adequately protected, and this can lead to sunburn and skin cancer. I also worry about inhaling these ingredients, because there’s no way that can be healthy for our lungs. These products are best used as a spritzer over makeup to boost sun protection during the day without having to redo your makeup.
You still need to use a sunscreen cream or lotion in the morning under your makeup, but use the mist every hour to boost protection. Be sure to hold your breath when using these sprays, and walk away from the area you used them before inhaling. And forget the powders and foundations with SPF. They do not provide enough protection.
Beyond sunscreen, a hat and a sun-protective shirt or zip-up jacket are the best ways to shield skin from UV rays. There are many good sun-protective clothing brands on the market, and I love Bloxsun scarves that now come in different designs and provide extra protection for your chest and shoulders.
Remember that consistency is the key. You need sun protection EVERY day in South Florida, and should use an SPF of at least 15 on your face every day and 30 or higher when out in the sun for more than 20 minutes. Ask your doctor what sunscreen is right for you because there are so many to choose from that it gets confusing—and they are not all created equal.
Dr. Leslie Baumann is a board-certified dermatologist, New York Times best-selling author and CEO of Baumann Cosmetic & Research Institute in Miami.