But there are so many different sunscreens currently on the market...sprays, wipes, sticks, lotions...Banana Boat, Neutrogena, Coppertone, Hawaiian Tropic...how do you choose the most effective sun protection products?
First, it is important to understand how UV rays work. The sun emits both harmful UVA and UVB rays to the earth's surface. UVA rays are long rays that are present year-round. They penetrate far into the skin and are responsible for causing wrinkles and sunspots. On the other hand, UVB rays are short rays that are present year-round, but become stronger during the summer and weaker during the winter. These rays hit the surface of the skin and are responsible for causing sunburn and skin cancer.
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Next, it is important to understand how sunscreens work. There are two different types of sun lotions, physical sunblocks and chemical sunscreens. What's the difference? Physical sunblocks are most often found in the form of titanium dioxide and and zinc oxide. They work to battle the sun damage by reflecting rays when they hit the skin. One advantage of physical blocks is that they are safer. Physical blocks are generally more natural, since they are derived from minerals. Their mineral particles are most often large enough, where they cannot be penetrate the skin and get absorbed into the bloodstream, unlike the particles in most chemical sunscreens. Another bonus? Mineral blocks are often less irritating and are particularly suitable for those of you with sensitive skin. Zinc oxide, in particularly, is great for blemish-prone skin types. The downside to physical blocks? The large mineral particles are insoluble making physical blocks often more difficult to smooth over the skin and sometimes leaving your skin with a white, matte finish.
On the other hand, ingredients like avobenzone, oxybenzone, octorylene, octinoxate, or octisalate indicate that a product is using a chemical sunscreen against the sun. These products work by fighting sun damage as your skin absorbs sun rays. Avobenzone offers the broadest protection of any chemical sunscreen, but unfortunately, it is not a very stable ingredient. Neutrogena’s products contain Helioplex technology, which combines Avobenzone with Oxybenzone to stabilize the sunscreen and prevent it from losing effectiveness after a few hours of sun exposure. Similarly, Aveeno uses an Active Photobarrier Complex for the same purpose. The most powerful chemical technology involves Mexoryl SX (Ecamsule) and was pioneered by L’Oreal. It combines Avobenzone with Octocrylene to offer very broad, superior protection against UVA rays due to its high photostability. These ingredients are cheaper and usually dominant in common drugstore sunscreens like Coppertone and Hawaiian Tropic products. The main advantage of chemical sunscreens and the reason why they are generally preferred by consumers is that they have a lighter feel and sheerer appearance. However, chemical sunscreens are usually derived synthetically, and there have been a lot of controversies lately about how safe they are to use. Keep in mind that no studies have actually proven that there is a direct relationship between the use of chemical sunscreens and adverse health effects. Whether or not you choose to use them is a personal choice. I do use some chemical sunscreens, but try to avoid ingredients like oxybenzone, which are most often discussed in research studies. There are plenty of oxybenzone-free sunscreens on the market, so it's not hard to find healthy products. Another disadvantage of using chemical sunscreens is that some scientists believe that they can release free radicals, which contribute to skin aging, in the process of battling sun damage.
*Check the "Active Ingredients" section of a label to see if the product contains physical of chemical protectors.
Both chemical sunscreens and physical sunblocks have the ability to protect against both UVA rays and UVB rays. However, physical sunblocks provide a more powerful defense against UVB rays that chemical sunscreens do, and some chemical sunscreens may protect against a slightly wider spectrum of UVA rays than physical sunblocks do. Overall, many dermatologists argue that physical blocks will be your best defense against the sun. The only problem is that you may miss out on protection against a few UVA rays that only chemical sunscreens may block.
What does this mean? Both UVA and UVB rays can be damaging. Always look for products that have "Broad Spectrum" protection, or protection against a range of both UVA and UVB rays. During your summer activities, whether it is swimming, playing tennis, walking along the beach, or golfing, your main concern should be avoiding sun burn. It is especially important to pay attention to those strong UVB rays. So, make sure that your sun protects contain either titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide.
Additionally, for outdoor activities choose a product with an SPF of 30-50. SPF stands for sun protective factor and refers to approximately how long the product will delay sunburn. For example, a person wearing SPF 30 can stay out in the sun without burning 30 times longer than if he/she were not wearing a sunscreen. SPF 30 products filter out about 97% of UVB rays. SPF 15 filters out 94%, while SPF 45 filters 98%. In other words, SPFs greater than 30 offer only marginal time benefits. And there has been some research on whether or not sunscreens with very high SPFs (greater than 50) are safe. To be on the safe side, just stick to SPFs that are between 30 and 50.
As with all of your personal care products, make sure that your sunscreen is free of toxins like parabens and phthalates! A sun product that is labeled "natural" does not necessarily imply that the product contains physical sunblocks only and/or that the product is toxin-free. So be sure to read labels carefully.
Your best bet against the sun are in the forms of moisturizers, which are more reliable than sprays or wipes. Stay away from sunscreens that use words like "translucent" or "sheer." They often use very small chemical sunscreen particles that can easily be absorbed into the bloodstream and are less effective in blocking UV rays. Although the chalky look of physical blocks may not be flattering, it is certainly more flattering than burned skin.
Lastly, keep in mind that sunscreens are only effective if you apply enough. You should be using approximately a shot glass full of sunscreen for your whole body during each application. All sunscreens lose effectiveness with time, so it is essential to reapply every few hours, especially if you are swimming or sweating. Formulas that contain SPF are not very stable and can lose effectiveness over time. So when you break out the sunscreen at the beginning of the summer, double check to make sure the product hasn't expired. In addition to sunscreens, sun protective clothing (material that is specifically designed to protect against UV rays), hats with some sort of brim, and sun glasses are also great defenders against the sun.
THE BOTTOM LINE?
For the beach, choose a toxin-free, broad spectrum physical sunblock with an SPF of 30-50. I really like the Aubrey Natural SPF 30 Green Tea Antioxidant Sunblock ($15.95 at Whole Foods).
Since UVA and UVB rays are present everyday of the year, it is important that you are protecting your skin everyday, even if you are staying indoors. Certain light bulbs can emit UV rays, and windows let in sunlight. As always, make sure you are protecting yourself physical blocks, which will protect you against both UVA and UVB rays in a healthier way. If you feel comfortable using them, you can also add a safe chemical sunscreen that will cover those few aging UVA rays that physical blocks may miss.
For everyday, choose a toxin-free products or combination of products that contain sunscreens with an SPF of 15-50 as well as antioxidant protection. Try the Olay Complete All Day Moisture Lotion with SPF 15 for Sensitive Skin ($8.99 at drugstores) for those of you, who want a combination of physical and chemical blocks. If you prefer to just stuck with physical blocks, try Bare Minerals Advanced Protection SPF 20 Moisturizer ($30 at Sephora). Both moisturizers won't clog your pores and are light-weight...great for hot weather.
I like to layer some Alison Raffaele Face Forward Primer with SPF 15 ($46 on http://www.alisonraffaele.com/primers.html) on top. The powerful fruta di vita complex provides a powerful antioxidant shield that can help defend your skin against any free radical damage that my chemical sunscreen may cause. It also adds an extra layer of mineral block for extra, longer-lasting daily sun protection.
Have lots of fun in the sun this summer...just remember to bring along your favorite healthy sunscreen!