Screened: Making Sense Of Sunscreens

Benji Weatherley

Benji Weatherley knows when to lather up in sunscreen... Photo: Checkwood

Screened: Making Sense Of Sunscreens

For decades, people have worn sunscreen with an almost blind trust. In the past few years though, more studies have been done and more questions have been raised about its effectiveness, safety, and claims of sun protection. Despite that, maybe because of it, there seems to be more confusion than ever about what's safe, what's not, and what's the best way to keep yourself best protected while in the sun.

It seems that for every study that suggests one thing, you can find another that counters it. For instance, back in 2001, a University Of Zurich study on rats found that oxybenzone, back then a very common ingredient used to block UV light, might promote the growth of cancer cells. Last March, researchers at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center countered that humans would never be subjected to those levels of the chemical through normal use of sunscreen.

More recently, zinc oxide--an ingredient that's long been used as a staple for blocking UV rays--has even been suggested to be potentially hazardous. Research at Missouri University of Science and Technology found that the mineral can undergo a chemical reaction when illuminated by bright light that could release unstable molecules known as free radicals, which can damage cells. However, the study's author admitted more study and clinical trials will be needed before conclusive evidence is available. In addition, some have been skeptical of the study's results on lung cells, which are much different than dead skin cells, where sunscreen is applied in real-world usage.

And then there's world champ Kelly Slater, who tweeted about how he rarely uses sunscreen, and has talked about his belief that eating healthy can help your skin deal much better with exposure to the sun.

To wade through it all, first you should know that UV radiation harms our skin cells through two wavelength ranges. UVA rays are linked to long-term skin damage like wrinkles. UVB rays cause more direct damage to the DNA with sunburns and are considered the main culprits for most skin cancers. To protect yourself, choose a sunscreen that offers protection from both UVA and UVB, called broad spectrum protection. The FDA, which has been glacial in keeping up with sunscreen regulation, has rolled out new guidelines that require products that claim "broad spectrum" protection to protect equally well against both types of UV rays.

While the FDA has been slow with updating their guidance on sunscreen, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has offered up some very specific recommendations and ratings on sunscreens that offer the best broad-spectrum protection and the fewest potentially harmful chemicals. Most of these contain the minerals zinc or titanium, which block both UVA and UVB rays. You can also search out individual sunscreens on their site, where they provide a "hazard rating" to both the overall product and to individual ingredients within it. Check out the site and look for their article recommending the best "beach and sport" sunscreens.--Casey Koteen

Simplified Sunscreen Tips:
1. Go Broad
Your best bet is to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which means it protects you from both UVA and UVB rays. Use 30 SPF or above.

2. Get Liberal
Make sure you're using enough sunscreen. To cover your body properly you need about an ounce (a shot glass full) per application. And if you're in the water a lot, reapply.

3. Cover Ups
Sunscreen is key, but when you can, cover up with a hat and shirt.