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SunscreenYou don’t have to be luxuriating on a beach in the Carribean this summer to be in danger of serious skin damage. As recent record-breaking temperatures have shown, the sun can be just as intense — and just as dangerous to your health — in the middle of Times Square as it is on the sparkling shores of the Bahamas.

Dermatologists generally recommend that people use sunscreen to protect against damage from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, regardless of where they are. But not all sunscreens are equally effective, and labels can be misleading. The Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines regarding sunscreen labels have remained largely unchanged since 1978, providing little guidance to consumers in a market that has changed rapidly over the last 30 years.

A proposal for updated FDA guidelines in 2001 would have required sunscreen manufacturers to add ratings for protection against Ultraviolet-A (UVA) radiation, and to cap the maximum Sun Protection Factor (SPF) at 50+ (most experts consider anything above that range to be superfluous). But the process for approving those measures has taken a long time, and the FDA has now delayed its expected deadline to October of this year.

So in the absence of new guidance from the FDA, here are five things you need to know about sunscreen, in order to stay healthy and safe this summer:

The difference between UVA and UVB radiation

Sunscreens sold in the U.S. currently carry a single SPF rating, which measures only the sunscreen’s protection against Ultraviolet-B (UVB) radiation, the primary cause of sunburn. However, Ultraviolet-A (UVA) rays penetrate the skin more deeply, causing the skin to age more rapidly. And both forms of ultraviolet radiation can cause skin cancer.

While many manufacturers market their sunscreens as “broad spectrum,” it is difficult for consumers to know whether they are getting adequate protection from UVA rays, said Steven Wang, director of dermatology and dermatologic surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The FDA’s proposal to add a four-star UVA rating system could solve this problem, though Wang warned that it could also confuse consumers accustomed to the single SPF rating.

“Whether this is a good system, I think the science is sound and it does provide a good start,” Wang said. “I’m afraid you may get some degree of confusion, so a great deal of education is needed to disseminate the information to the public.”

If the proposal for the UVA rating system is finally approved in October, the new labels would hit the shelves in the summer of 2012 at the earliest, according to The New York Times.

Is SPF 100 worth it?

In recent years, sunscreen manufacturers have been producing sunscreens with very high SPF ratings, reaching into the triple digits. Household brands such Neutrogena, Coppertone and Banana Boat now offer sunscreens with SPF ratings as high as 100.

In reality, expensive sunscreens with super-high SPF ratings generally provide the same amount of protection from ultraviolet radiation as sunscreens with lower SPF ratings. For example, sunscreens with an SPF rating of 30 block out about 97 percent of UVB radiation, while suncreens with SPF ratings of 50 block about 98 percent. Sunscreens labeled SPF 100 do only one percentage point better, blocking out about 99 percent of ultraviolet rays, according to the American Cancer Society.

Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, said sunscreens with especially high SPF ratings offer consumers a false sense of security but still leave them vulnerable to the negative health effects of excessive ultraviolet radiation.

“We worry that UVA protection is no where close to that high,” Lunder said. “You may never get a sunburn, but may acquire a lot of damage.”

Europeans have better sunscreens than we do

The sun can be just as intense in Crete as it is in Miami. But as it turns out, Europeans might have much better protection against its damaging rays.

The European Union allows its member states to use 27 different chemicals as ingredients in sunscreens, while U.S. manufacturers are only allowed to use 17 chemicals. An analysis by the Environmental Working Group has shown that the European-approved chemicals are up to five times more effective at blocking ultraviolet rays than ingredients in the U.S.

The chemicals in U.S. sunscreen are also ineffective at blocking the more dangerous UVA rays, and none of them would meet the highest standards of the FDA’s proposed four-star UVA rating system, Lunder said. As a result, the FDA is considering allowing U.S. manufacturers to use several of the European-approved chemicals, or at least to use “new combinations of active ingredients,” according to the 2001 proposal.

Meanwhile, international pharmacies like have started offering European sunscreens to U.S. customers, but at a hefty cost.

Can sunscreen itself cause cancer?

Some experts and advocates have argued that at least one common additive in U.S. sunscreens can potentially cause skin cancer itself. Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A common in many skincare products, can be found in about 40 percent of U.S. sunscreens.

The National Toxicology Program, which tests chemicals used in consumer products for safety, conducted a one-year study in which lab mice were coated with different concentrations of retinyl palmitate and then exposed to light. An analysis by the Environmental Working Group concluded that “tumors and lesions developed up to 21 percent sooner” in the mice treated with retinyl palmitate.

But in a study of the same data, Wang refuted Environmental Working Group’s claim that retinyl palmitate can cause skin cancer. Wang added that dermatologists regularly prescribe Vitamin A to treat skin blemishes, like acne, without cause for concern.

Nonetheless, the findings by the Environmental Working Group have stirred controversy. In June, New York Sen. Charles Schumer called on the FDA to “immediately address recent reports suggesting a possible link between skin cancer and a common chemical found in sunscreens.” The FDA is expected to release its own conclusions in October.

So how should you buy and use sunscreen?

Buying cost-effective sunscreens can be difficult, given the lack of adequate information on the labels. The Environmental Working Group suggests consumers do some research before purchasing sunscreens, and focus on three important factors: SPF rating, protection from dangerous UVA rays and the presence of active mineral ingredients, such as zinc or titanium. The group publishes a guide to common sunscreens, with scores for sun protection and safety. They also single out sunscreens to avoid, and ones that can be especially hazardous to children.

But even when they do buy the right kinds of sunscreen, consumers often apply it in the wrong ways. For one, Lunder said, people should stick to lotions rather than sprays, so that they don’t inhale potentially dangerous chemicals. Lotions are also easier to apply. As Dr. Wang of Memorial Sloan-Kettering explained, most people fail to apply the recommended amounts of sunscreen, effectively cutting the SPF factor of those products in half. To get the most protection out of your sunscreen, Wang said, you should reapply it at least every two hours.



  • Richard Anderson

    Any word on the safety and efficacy of sunscreens marketed as safe for children? Do they use the same chemicals? If not, are the chemicals they use OK and do they work? And if they’re so good for kids, is there any reason why adults shouldn’t use them?

  • Chuck Perry
  • Shelby Rodriguez

    @ Richard,

    Here is an article by Healthy Child Healthy World about choosing sunscreens for kids.

    Since our chemical policy law is sooooo outdated many chemicals allowed in the marketplace, and yes, even marketed for children, contain harmful and even cancer causing chemicals. The ones recommended by EWG are:
    Keys Soap Solar Rx Therapeutic Sunblock, SPF 30
    Trukid Sunny Days Facestick Mineral Sunscreen UVA/UVB Broad Spectrum, SPF 30+
    California Baby Sunblock Stick No Fragrance, SPF 30+
    Badger Sunscreen, SPF 30
    Marie Veronique Skin Therapy Sun Serum
    Lavera Sunscreen Neutral, SPF 40
    Vanicream Sunscreen, SPF 35
    UV Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30+
    Sun Science Sport Formula, SPF 30
    Soleo Organics Sunscreen all natural Sunscreen, SPF 30+

    Read more:

  • Paula

    How effective is titanium dioxide or zinc oxide compared to the regular sunscreens? I use this on my son because it’s got fewer chemicals and provides a more mechanical block for the sun.

  • Donna

    I’m disappointed to hear that sprays can be toxic to inhale, because I don’t agree that lotions are easier to apply. When sprays came out I was thrilled. It can take a while to apply sunscreen, and if you’re alone or less flexible, almost impossible to reach some places. By the time you’ve finished applying, it’s time to apply it again. But in both cases, sprays and lotions, it’s hard to know how much to apply and whether you hit everywhere. You do end up wasting a lot more of the spray in the process, and it’s not cheap.
    Another question is, how long can you keep a sunscreen before you have to throw it away? I always seem to have a lot of leftovers from the year before.

  • Melissa

    @Donna – There should typically be an expiration date on your sunscreen. There is usually a string of letters and numbers. If the string ends in a number, that is the year the sunscreen will expire (ex: 2004 = 4). But the general rule of thumb is to replace a bottle every 2 years.

  • Pattie S

    I’ve had skin cancer 3 times already 1 dasil cell on my nose 2 squamous on left cheek & recently 1 squamous non lowr left lip.
    I ad to had Mohs surgery to remove all 3.
    I currently use Anthellious sun block #40 , .
    I ahve to use the sunblock due to my history, However I’am concerned about the dangers of the sunsceen itself..very confusing..any advise will be appreciated. Thank You.

  • Joi

    The titanium or zinc oxide content of the sunscreen is a “physical” block as opposed to all the chemical blocks. I, for one, prefer a little white tint to my skin that eventually soaks in and provides me with a more effective layer of protection. I work in the sun 5 days a week and chemical sun blocks just don’t do the job. Now they make clear, which is great. However, it still needs to be reapplied every two hours. And I make sure I scrub it off well at day’s end, to protect my skin in general.

  • Chris

    Especially for kids a lot of the conventional sunblocks could be hazardous, stay away from Oxybenzone!!! It and some others I cant remember off hand are said to be hormone disrupters!!!

  • Anonymous

    Nice information to share with us……….thanks a lot [ Zinc supplement ]

  • Anonymous

    Nice information to share with us……….thanks a lot [ Zinc supplement ]