Sunscreen Safety Guide – How to Stay Safe in The Sun This Summer

With summer in full swing and vacation (hopefully) days away, it’s time to take a look at sun safety. Most dermatologists tell us to never leave home without lathering the stuff on, but they rarely speak about the importance of choosing a natural, poison-free kind of sunscreen. Thankfully, the Environmental Working Group has created a helpful guide about suncreen safety, also listing the best brands to choose from.

A few months ago, super model Gisele Bündchen got in trouble for calling sunscreen “poison.” What she really meant, language barriers aside, was that most sunscreen brands out there today are loaded with harmful chemicals and all kinds of bad stuff (i.e. poison) — and she’s right. Protecting ourselves against one type of cancer with something that can potentially cause another kind sounds pretty crazy to me. But, this is what most of us are doing when we smear on the suntan lotion, unless we make sure that we are buying a good brand that uses no potentially hazardous ingredients.

The best thing we can all do to protect ourselves from the sun is to stay in the shade in the middle of the day, when it's at it's strongest. Bring a pretty umbrella to the beach and give yourself a break from the rays every now and then.

The best thing we can all do to protect ourselves from the sun is to stay in the shade in the middle of the day, when it’s at it’s strongest. Bring a pretty umbrella to the beach and give yourself a break from the rays every now and then.

EWG’s 2011 sunscreen guide rates more than 1,700 sunscreens, lip balms, and SPF moisturizers and makeup. Only about 1 of every 5 sunscreens passes the test. Learn why so many brands fail and what you can do to stay safe in the sun.

Here are their top sun safety tips:

1. Quick tips for a good sunscreen.
Ingredients matter – learn if your brand leaves you overexposed to damaging UVA rays, if it breaks down in the sun, or if it contains potential hormone-disrupting compounds. Avoid those containing Oxybenzone, Vitamin A (Retinyl Palmitate) and added insect repellent and look for those containing Zinc, Titanium Dioxide, Avobenzone or Mexoryl SX instead. What kind you choose also matters, avoid sprays, powders and SPF above 50+ (sounds weird, right?!) and opt for cream, broads-spectrum protection, water-resistance (for beach, pool & exercise) and SPF 30+.

Goodlifer: Sunscreen Guide

2. But first things first – do these before applying sunscreen.
The best defenses against getting too much harmful UV radiation are protective clothes, shade and timing. Check out the checklist:

– Don’t get burned. Red, sore, blistered (then peeling) skin is a clear sign you’ve gotten far too much sun. Sunburn increases skin cancer risk – keep your guard up!

– Wear clothes. Shirts, hats, shorts and pants shield your skin from the sun’s UV rays – and don’t coat your skin with goop. A long-sleeved surf shirt is a good start.

– Find shade – or make it. Picnic under a tree, read beneath an umbrella, take a canopy to the beach. Keep infants in the shade – they lack tanning pigments (melanin) to protect their skin.

– Plan around the sun. If your schedule is flexible, go outdoors in early morning or late afternoon when the sun is lower in the sky. UV radiation peaks at midday, when the sun is directly overhead.

– Sunglasses are essential. Not just a fashion accessory, sunglasses protect your eyes from UV radiation, a cause of cataracts.

When bringing children to the beach it's extremely important that you protect them by using the best sunscreen possible.

When bringing children to the beach it’s extremely important that you protect them by using the best sunscreen possible.

3. Now put on sunscreen – here are the essentials, beyond the quick tips.

Some sunscreens prevent sunburn but not other types of skin damage. Make sure yours provides broad-spectrum protection and follow our other tips for better protection.

Don’t be fooled by a label that boasts of high SPF. Anything higher than “SPF 50+” can tempt you to stay in the sun too long, suppressing sunburn but not other kinds of skin damage. FDA says these numbers are misleading. Stick to SPF 15-50+, reapply often and pick a product based on your own skin, time planned outside, shade and cloud cover.

News about Vitamin A. Eating vitamin A-laden vegetables is good for you, but spreading vitamin A on the skin may not be. New government data show that tumors and lesions develop sooner on skin coated with vitamin A-laced creams. Vitamin A, listed as “retinyl palmitate” on the ingredient label, is in 33 percent of sunscreens. Avoid them.

Ingredients matter. Avoid the sunscreen chemical oxybenzone, a synthetic estrogen that penetrates the skin and contaminates the body. Look for active ingredients zinc, titanium, avobenzone or Mexoryl SX. These substances protect skin from harmful UVA radiation and remain on the skin, with little if any penetrating into the body. Also, skip sunscreens with insect repellent – if you need bug spray, buy it separately and apply it first.

Pick a good sunscreen. EWG’s sunscreen database rates the safety and efficacy of about 1,700 products with SPF, including about 600 sunscreens for beach and sports. We give high ratings to brands that provide broad-spectrum, long-lasting protection with ingredients that pose fewer health concerns when the body absorbs them.

Cream, spray or powder – and how often? Sprays and powders cloud the air with tiny particles of sunscreen that may not be safe to breathe. Choose creams instead. Reapply them often, because sunscreen chemicals break apart in the sun, wash off and rub off on towels and clothing.

Message for men: Wear sunscreen. Surveys show that 34 percent of men wear sunscreen, compared to 78 percent of women. Start using it now to reduce your cumulative lifetime exposure to damaging UV radiation.

Got your Vitamin D? Many people don’t get enough vitamin D, which skin manufactures in the presence of sunlight. Your doctor can test your level and recommend supplements or a few minutes of sun daily on your bare skin (without sunscreen).

Make sure to give the EWG’s entire Sunscreen Guide a read-through. You can search brands, find sun safety tips for kids and learn 9 surprising truths about sunscreen exposed.


About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
2 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. All great advice! The only thing I would suggest is applying your sunscreen first, and THEN the bug spray. I’ve heard this from two different nurses lately, as I’m planning a trip to Haiti and am looking to avoid malaria, dengue fever and sunburn! 😀

  2. That’s a great tip! 🙂

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