Your Sunscreen Is Filled With Lies. Here's How to Buy the Best One.

woman applying sunblock on the beach

Sunscreen use is one of the easier healthy habits you can have during the summer, especially since you're going to be ruining your body with copious grilled meat and alcohol consumption -- all you have to do is go into your local drugstore, buy a bottle, spray or wipe it on, and you'll never get cancer, right?

Spoiler: wrong. For starters, sunscreen doesn't protect you against all forms of skin cancer, which is supposed to be its big selling point, right? And if you re-apply continuously -- which is what mom told you to do, right? -- you may just be rubbing potentially harmful chemicals into your skin.

This doesn't mean you should avoid rubbing on some sunscreen before you pass out on the beach. It just means you should be smarter about the kind of sunscreen you do buy.

applying sunscreen

You need to make sure you're protected from both kinds of UV rays

There's UVA and UVB rays, with the former penetrating deeper into the skin, and the latter being more responsible for your classic sunburns. This is why many sunscreens focus on UVB protection; that's what keeps you from getting burned.

But the nature of UVA rays makes them potent carcinogens... and if you’re lucky enough to be traveling in Europe, you're a bit safer than jealous stateside sunbathers. A few years ago in the US, the FDA established a standard for "broad spectrum" sunscreens, but European sunscreen brands offer more UVA protection than those found in the States.

That's because European manufacturers are allowed to use more UVA-blocking ingredients than American manufacturers, largely because overseas sunscreen is considered a cosmetic item, while in the States it's an over-the-counter drug. You can thank the good ol’ FDA for that one, though a law signed in 2014 aims to correct the fact that the agency hadn't approved any new ingredients since 1999. Not exactly the kind of 15-year gap you want from a regulatory agency.

Stay away from those extra chemical ingredients

The flip side of the 15-year ingredient gap is that the FDA didn't have the resources to investigate every new claim that an ingredient might be harmful. So on all accounts, you want to have at least a basic understanding of what you're putting on your skin.

The sun-blocking ingredients in sunscreen typically fall into two categories: mineral-based or chemical-based, and each is designed to filter -- or screen -- ultraviolet rays. Like many chemical additives in food, those in your sunscreen may not have robust scientific evidence supporting their long-term safety. And that's precisely what's held up approval of new ingredients; the FDA wants more information about how they'll affect kids and pregnant women.

This isn't to say that SUNSCREEN WILL GIVE YOU CANCER, but there are certain ingredients that could act as hormone disruptors or skin irritants. Instead of relying on price to determine if that fancy sunscreen is worth buying, you’re better off checking the ingredient label -- pay attention to the following, which may interfere with your endocrine system:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Homosalate
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Paraben preservatives

The two primary mineral-based sunblock ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and nanoparticle technology has made it possible to find mineral-based sunscreens that don't feel greasy or leave a white film on your skin.

sunscreen spf 30

Don't believe "go big or go home" applies to SPF

One more thing. Despite what you’ve been told about higher SPFs, or sun protection factors, they will not make you invincible to the sun's scorching rays.

Here's the real deal with SPF: it's not a measurement of protection against cancer-causing UVA rays. SPF only measures your sunscreen’s ability to block UVB rays from damaging your skin. The higher the SPF, the higher the percentage of protection.

This would be great, except that it works algorithmically, not linearly. Check out this math:

  • SPF 15 weeds out 93% of UVB rays
  • SPF 30 catches 97%
  • SPF 50 filters 98% of UVB radiation

As you can see, despite going up 20 digits in your SPF, you only get a 1% point increase in UVB protection, not a 20-point increase in protection.

Would this negligible amount be helpful for those with fair skin that burns easily? Maybe! But when you're buying that super-high SPF protection, know that it's not buying you much in added protection. In fact, the FDA wants the highest allowable SPF to be 50+, since that SPF 85 sunscreen is essentially selling you a false promise.

The other issue with spending more for higher SPFs is that these numbers aren't always accurate, especially if you're jumping in a pool regularly, or sweating, or not putting on enough. So you don't always need the highest SPF in town, and you can’t always trust the bottles, or your own ability to apply correctly.

There is good news, though! You don't have to lock yourself in your apartment until winter, as long as you stick to a few basic rules.

Before running around shirtless all summer...

  • Avoid those lazy sprays: I know it’s a million times easier to spray on your sun protection, but these sprays can cause you to breathe your sunscreen, plus they tend to cause missed areas of protection.
  • Find sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection: If your sunscreen is only fighting UVB rays, it’s like choosing to avoid cigarettes by only smoking cigars -- it makes no sense. You need protection from both UVA and UVB rays, so find a sunscreen that offers this.
  • Re-apply often: Sunscreen’s not a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing. Despite the fact that your bottle may claim to be water- and sweat-proof, re-apply according to the directions for best coverage and maximum protection.
  • Choose mineral-based ingredients: Now that you’ve tossed out your chemical-laden sunscreens, replace them with versions you can feel good about. Look for sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide… if you can't or don't want to go that route, avobenzone is your best bet in the United States.

If you want a comprehensive, brand-by-brand guide to what's in your sunscreen and what science says about it, check out the EWG's recommendations. Remember: it puts the lotion on its skin; it does this whenever it's told. You need that vitamin D, after all.

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Devan Ciccarelli is a writer and marketing specialist who got burned one-too-many times by shady sunscreen advertising. Follow her on Twitter at @DevanCiccarelli as she dispels other myths we don’t know about being “healthy.”