Does Your Sunscreen Really Protect You?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released its annual Sunscreen Guide. Almost three-fourths of the 750 products examined “offer inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients.”
Two of the problematic ingredients are oxybenzone, a UV filter that disrupts hormones, and retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that may harm skin. Government-funded animal studies indicate that retinyl palmitate (also known as retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and retinol) can increase the risk of skin cancer when used on sun-exposed skin.
And despite what the EWG calls “little scientific evidence,” the Federal Drug Administration still permits sunscreens to claim they play a role in preventing skin cancer.
UVB plus UVA sun protection
Research over the past decade has determined that sunscreen should not only guard against sunburn, primarily caused by UVB rays, but also protect people from lower-energy UVA rays, which penetrate deep into the dermis. So choosing a product with an SPF higher than 50 doesn’t necessarily indicate more protection. SPF stands for “sun protection factor,” but the term refers only to protection against UVB rays that burn the skin. Most products this year contain an ingredient that filters UVA rays, but the FDA’s rules are not as stringent as those in Europe, where UVA protection has to rise in proportion to SPF.
Mineral-only sunscreens are on the rise, reaching 34 percent of products in 2016. You can find them at stores such as Whole Foods. Sunscreens using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are stable in sunlight, offer a good balance of protection from the two types of ultraviolet radiation (UVA and UVB) and typically don’t contain potentially harmful additives.
Be wary of sprays
EWG is also wary of sunscreen sprays, suggesting that people avoid them. The EWG fears the products pose an inhalation risk and may not provide a thick and even coating on skin.
• Green vegetables. The carotenoids in green vegetables prevent sunburn.
• Red fruits and vegetables. Watermelon and tomatoes contain lycopene, a natural sunburn protector. Participants in a German research study who ate a combination of tomato paste and olive oil (for absorption) reduced their sunburn by 41 percent.