Luckily, you don’t have to sacrifice your fun outside to protect your skin. Here, answers to your sun care questions, and the most foolproof ways to safeguard yourself.
First, the basics: What’s the difference between chemical and physical sunscreens? Aren’t all sunscreens made of chemicals?
Yes and no. Chemical sunscreens are made from complex ingredients created in a lab to absorb and neutralize damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays (oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, mexoryl, homosalate, octycrylene and octinoxate are the most common). Physical sunscreens (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) are tiny naturally occurring metal particles found in sand and rocks that block UV radiation by creating a reflective shield. Technically, though, both types of sunscreen are chemicals, because the FDA calls all active ingredients in a drug—yes, the FDA considers sunscreen a drug—chemicals, says Jeannette Graf, M.D., a dermatologist in Great Neck, N.Y.
So is it true that chemical sunscreens can penetrate my skin and enter my bloodstream?
Studies have shown small traces of oxybenzone in urine after topical application, which means the chemical gets absorbed through the skin and processed by your body, says Heather Woolery-Lloyd, M.D., a dermatologist in Miami. And though those studies didn’t yield totally conclusive results on whether or how damaging that intake may be, other preliminary research (done on animals and therefore not considered viable by some scientists and physicians) suggests that the absorption of oxybenzone can create free radicals on the skin that could cause cancer and mess with hormones, leading to infertility. Scary stuff. But there have also been studies conducted by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, the FDA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program and the European Union Cosmetics Directive showing that oxybenzone has no effects on human hormones. Bottom line: The jury is still out, but if you want to play it safe while more research is done, stick to titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
Yikes! That sounds pretty bad. So what’s worse… chemical sunscreen or no sunscreen?
No sunscreen, hands down, said every single dermatologist we spoke to. Sunscreen is proven to protect skin from cancercausing and aging UV rays, so if the choice is between a chemical sunscreen or wearing no protection at all, go for the chemical, Woolery-Lloyd says. When used correctly, sunscreen offers 100% protection against skin cancer, per a study in the journal Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research.
What about vitamin D? Should I head out for a stint each day without sunscreen to get my quota?
The skin-damaging effects of UV rays most likely outweigh the benefits of getting your vitamin D from the sun, experts say, especially since vitamin D from food and supplements offers similar bone- and immunity-strengthening results without the added danger of sun exposure, says Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a dermatologist in Cambridge, Mass. Eggs, fortified milk and fatty fish like salmon, tuna and trout are all good sources. If you’re concerned about deficiency (from eating vegan, for example), talk to your doctor about a blood test before you start taking supplements.
OK, always wear sunscreen. Got it! But can I DIY one to guarantee it doesn’t contain chemicals?
Please do not make sunscreen at home, begs Ni’Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist with Catalyst Cosmetic Development in Union, N.J. Formulating sunscreen is extremely complicated, with strict regulations from the FDA and extensive testing to make sure the SPF listing on the bottle is accurate. Manufacturers work hard to keep the ingredients stable and properly distributed, Wilson says. Remember, sunscreen is a drug. You wouldn’t try to make ibuprofen in your kitchen, would you?
So my only option is sunscreen from a drugstore?
Not necessarily. You can opt for clothing with Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF), Hirsch says. Mott 50, Athleta, Coolibar, Parasol and Patagonia all make cute dresses, shirts, pants and hats with UPF 50 (about an SPF 30), which means the fabric blocks up to 97 percent of UV rays. Just remember, if you choose a sleeveless top or a short dress, your arms and legs will still be exposed, so you won’t be able to completely skip the SPF.
Ugh, I don’t know what half of the words on a sunscreen label mean. What should I look for?
In 2011, the FDA issued brand new requirements and regulations for sunscreen labels. (Can you believe that before this ruling, there were very few guidelines in place?) Here’s what changed and what you should pay attention to:
Only the term sunscreen can be used on packaging. Formulas that use titanium dioxide and zinc oxide were sometimes referred to as sunblock in the past, but the FDA determined this overstated their effectiveness.
Water- and sweatproof are false claims. Instead, labels now say water-resistant and must indicate whether they remain effective for 40 or 80 minutes during swimming or sweating based on tests.
Only sunscreens with SPF 15 or more can claim to reduce the risk of skin cancer and early aging. Sunscreens with a lower SPF or that aren’t deemed broad-spectrum can only state that they help to prevent sunburn.
All sunscreens labeled broadspectrum are proven to protect skin from UVB (short-wave, skin-burning) and UVA (long-wave, aging and cancercausing) rays. This term was previously unregulated.
What’s coming down the pike?
The FDA has proposed regulation (with no timeline for its approval) to cap SPF values at 50, because there’s no sufficient data to show an SPF 75 or 100 provides greater protection.
If I wear makeup that has SPF, I don’t need to use sunscreen, right?
Ideally, your tinted moisturizer or BB cream with UVA and UVB protection would be enough, but there are two main problems with makeup that contains sunscreen, Hirsch says. First, unless you’re applying about half a teaspoon of your favorite foundation or powder—which would give you major “cake face”—you’re probably not getting the amount of SPF protection advertised. (Not to mention, foundations usually offer only SPF 15, which is OK for a workday, but doesn’t give you enough protection for a day at the beach.) And second, you tend to apply more makeup where you’re trying to hide imperfections (like under your eyes and around the nose and lips) and not enough on other areas, like your cheeks and forehead, which means you’re not protecting your entire face evenly. You don’t need to toss your favorite foundation. Instead, apply a facial sunscreen (half a teaspoon!) under it to ensure you’re getting the right coverage.
Should I be worried about inhaling spray sunscreen when I apply it?
The FDA is looking into the data to determine the effectiveness of spray sunscreens and whether they present a safety concern if inhaled—but there’s no ruling yet. The formulas work, but they make it impossible to gauge how much sunscreen you’re using, so there’s a risk of under applying, says Meghan O’Brien, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. Also, most of them contain avobenzone and oxybenzone, so they aren’t considered natural. If you love the convenience of sprays, spritz more than you think you need—a bottle should only last one weekend at the beach. To avoid inhaling the product, never spray it directly on your face, and hold your breath while you apply it to your body. One more thing: Aerosol sunscreens contain ozonedepleting ingredients; if you opt for a spray, choose a non-aerosol formula. Replenix Sheer Physical Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 50+ is the only spray we’ve found that is non-aerosol and uses zinc oxide ($38, skindirect.com).
I apply and reapply my sunscreen, but I still burn. Why?
If you’re being super careful about covering every inch of your skin with sunscreen (meaning your sunburn isn’t patchy) 30 minutes before sun exposure and you’re still getting burned, you’re probably not applying enough, Woolery- Lloyd says. The rule is one shot glass or about 1 ounce for face and body. If you’re doing that (and wearing a hat and sitting in the shade) and still getting red, your skin could be extra sensitive. Look for sunscreens containing antioxidants, like resveratrol, licorice, caffeine, lycopene, green tea and vitamins C and E, which are proven to boost sun protection by preventing UV-induced inflammation. (All sunscreens in this story contain antioxidants.) Give your skin a greater line of defense by eating lots of kale, oranges, blueberries and pomegranates or taking one daily capsule of Heliocare, a natural, plant-based antioxidant ($30 for 60 capsules, drugstores).
And what’s up with all these sun spots? Am I using the wrong sunscreen?
The freckles and dark spots you’re seeing now have been developing for years and are a giveaway that you haven’t been quite so scrupulous with sunscreen in the past, O’Brien says. As you get older, your skin loses its ability to regenerate and discoloration caused by UV rays appears. You might see them right after a visit to the beach, because you got just enough extra sun exposure to bring them to the surface. To lighten spots, apply a serum with vitamin C, glycolic acid, retinol or kojic acid every morning on clean skin until they fade. We like Jasön C Effects Pure Natural Hyper-C Serum ($37, Whole Foods stores).
I forget to reapply every two hours. Is there an easy way to remember?
Set an alarm on your phone or get a little help from a cool sensor. Strap a Sunscreen Band ($9 for 10 bands, sunscreenbands.com) around your wrist, then apply sunscreen to it; the bracelet will turn bright pink when it’s time to reapply. Or place a UV-detecting Sun Signals Sensor ($6 for 18 stickers, sunsignals.com) on your forearm; when the sensor turns bright orange, it’s time to slather on more SPF. Keep in mind, the only way these innovative nudges will make an impact is if you don’t ignore them.
Do I have to resign myself to pale skin or is there a way to naturally fake a tan?
Good news: You don’t have to be alabaster all summer! Dihydroxyacetone (DHA), the ingredient in selftanner that changes your skin color, can be naturally derived (from beets, sugar cane and corn). Try True Natural Tropical Tan Self- Tanner ($23, truenatural.com), which is free of the harmful parabens and synthetic fragrances usually found in self-tanners. Scared you’ll get a streaky application? Keep a Bronze Buffer ($10 for 2 sponges, bronzebuffer.com) close by. If you see an area that’s too dark or uneven, use the nifty sponge to gently scrub off color. Or try a body bronzer that washes off in the shower, like paraben- free Hampton Sun Airbrush Bronzing Mist ($42, hamptonsuncare.com), for a foolproof glow.
Before I hit the sunscreen aisle, are there any great natural options?
Gone are the days when physical sunscreens were hard to spread and left a white, chalky residue. New technology has made sunscreen particles smaller (but not small enough to penetrate skin), so they’re barely detectable, and work just as well. Here’s what’s new!
Lightweight, all-natural and vegan 100% Pure Green Tea SPF 30 Oil-Free Hydration won’t clog pores. ($26, 100percentpure.com)
EltaMD UV Physical Broad-Spectrum SPF 41 has a sheer tint to even skin tone, and is vegan, paraben- and fragrancefree. ($29, dermstore.com)
Perfect for swimmers, water-resistant Alba Botanica Very Emollient Sunscreen Sport Mineral SPF 45 doesn’t contain parabens or phthalates. ($12, Whole Foods stores)
The vegan and lightweight formula of derma e Antioxidant Natural Sunscreen SPF 30 Body Lotion absorbs quickly and moisturizes skin. ($20, dermae.com)
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