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Does Sunscreen Really Protect You?

Many Sunscreens Fail to Block UV Radiation and May Contain Harmful Chemicals


Woman applying sunscreen to legs.
Southern Stock/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Dear EarthTalk: Are sunscreens safe? Which ones do you recommend that will protect my skin from the sun and not cause other issues?Bettina E., New York, NY

Getting a little sunshine is important for helping our bodies generate Vitamin D, an important supplement for strong bones, and for regulating our levels of serotonin and tryptamine, neurotransmitters that keep our moods and sleep/wake cycles in order. Like anything, though, too much sun can cause health issues, from sunburns to skin cancer. For those of us who spend more time in the sun than doctors recommend—they suggest staying indoors between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on sunny days to be safe—sunscreens can be lifesavers.

Good Sunscreens Can Help Prevent Sunburn and Skin Cancer
Getting too much sun is bad because of ultraviolet radiation, 90 percent of which comes in the form of Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays that are not absorbed by the ozone layer and penetrate deep into our skin. Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays make up the rest. UVB rays are partially absorbed by the ozone layer, which makes preserving the ozone layer crucial for our health. And because UVB rays don’t penetrate our skin as deeply, they can cause those lobster-red sunburns. Both types of UV rays are thought to cause skin cancer.

Do All Sunscreens Protect Your Skin from Ultraviolet Radiation?
Yet while most sunscreens block out at least some UVB radiation, many don’t screen UVA rays at all, making their use risky. According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), by far most of the commercially available sunscreens do not provide adequate protection against the sun’s harmful UV radiation and may also contain chemicals with questionable safety records.

Many Popular Sunscreens Contain Harmful Chemicals
In all, 84 percent of the 831 sunscreens EWG tested did not pass health and environmental muster. Many contained potentially harmful chemicals such as Benzophenone, homosalate and octyl methoxycinnamate (also called octinoxate), which are known to mimic naturally occurring hormones and can throw the body’s systems out of whack. Some also contained Padimate-0 and parsol 1789 (also known as avobenzone), which are suspected of causing DNA damage when exposed to sunlight. Furthermore, EWG found that more than half the sunscreens on the market make questionable product claims about longevity, water resistance and UV protection.

Consumers Need Better Sunscreen Information
As a result, EWG has called on the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to establish standards for labeling so consumers have a better idea of what they may be buying. In the meantime, consumers looking to find out how their preferred brand stacks up can check out EWG’s online Skin Deep database, which compares thousands of health and beauty products against environmental and human health standards.

Safer Sunscreens are Now Available
The good news is that many companies are now introducing safer sunscreens crafted from plant- and mineral-based ingredients and without chemical additives. Some of the best, according to Skin Deep, are:

  • Alba Botanica Sun’s Fragrance-Free Mineral Sunscreen
  • Avalon Baby’s Sunscreen SPF 18
  • Badger’s SPF 30 Sunscreen
  • Burt’s Bees’ Chemical-Free Sunscreen SPF 15
  • California Baby’s SPF 30
  • Juice Beauty’s Green Apple SPF 15 Moisturizer, and
  • Kabana’s Green Screen SPF 15.
Natural foods markets stock many of these, or they can be found online at websites such as Sun Protection Center and Drugstore.com.

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EarthTalk is a regular feature of E/The Environmental Magazine. Selected EarthTalk columns are reprinted on About Environmental Issues by permission of the editors of E.

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