Is Your Sunscreen Safe?

The Editors at RealAge
Healthy Living
May 24, 2012


Don't get burned by your sunscreen.
Don't get burned by your sunscreen.

You should use sunscreen year-round, but chances are you're using a whole lot more of it these days. If not, here's some motivation for you: A recent study revealed an eightfold increase in melanoma cases in women under 40 (due in part to tanning bed use) and a fourfold increase among men. But here's the good news: Last year, an Australian study found that using sunscreen daily can cut your risk of melanoma -- the deadliest kind of skin cancer -- in half.

Is sun damage aging your skin? Take the Skin's RealAge Test.

Even if you're good about using sunscreen, you want to be sure you're using the right kind. Not all sunscreens are created equal, according to the 2012 Skin Deep Sunscreens report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Some may even pose a health risk. Here's what to look for -- and avoid -- in your sunscreen.

Use a mineral sunscreen. Look for a full-spectrum sunscreen (the kind that protects from both UVA and UVB rays) made with micronized zinc oxide. That's what's known as a physical sunscreen, meaning it sits atop your skin to form a barrier between you and the sun. Unlike old-school zinc, micronized zinc oxide doesn't turn white when you apply it.

Avoid toxic ingredients. "Read labels and avoid sunscreen with oxybenzone," says RealAge cofounder Michael F. Roizen, MD. Oxybenzone is a common ingredient, especially in kids' sunscreens. It's an endocrine disruptor that stimulates estrogen and can cause endometriosis. Retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) is another controversial sunscreen ingredient. In lab conditions, it triggers potentially cancer-causing genetic mutations when exposed to sunlight.

Watch out for "SPF inflation." Roizen recommends sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. "You'll get better protection against UVA rays," he says. "They're the kind that penetrate deeper and cause skin damage that leads to wrinkles and skin cancer." The EWG advises against sunscreens with an SPF 50 or higher, which will tempt you to stay in the sun longer than you should.

Skip sunscreen sprays or powders. The EWG advises against these because the risks of inhaling chemical nanoparticles are unknown. Use cream sunscreens instead.

Use enough sunscreen. Adults should use least 1 ounce of sunscreen -- the equivalent of a shot glassful or a ping-pong ball -- and slather on a 1mm-thick layer. "That's much thicker than most of us use."

Using that much sunscreen means your family will go through a lot of it. Most cheaper generic brands are fine -- just double-check ingredient labels -- and Roizen says they're a smart idea. "You want a less-expensive sunscreen so you'll be sure to use enough."

Get more health tips from RealAge:

Get your body's true age with the doctor-created RealAge Test.

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