We’re just going to put this out there: You need sunscreen. That’s true regardless of your age, race, gender, or skin type, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Unfortunately, most people don’t have great skincare habits. Although 71 percent of Americans say they regularly practice sun-protective behaviors, only 34 percent say they applied sunscreen with a rating of SPF 15 or higher, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
To stay safe outdoors, you need protection. However, over-the-counter sunscreens certainly aren’t identical, and most people don’t spend much time evaluating things like ingredient lists and SPF ratings when prepping for the summer. We’re guilty: While researching this article, we realized that we didn’t even know how sunscreen works, and we certainly didn’t know what deep, dark secrets lie inside that bottle of Coppertone.
I like that we all made a pact to never find out how sunscreen works.
— Sean Thomason (@TheThomason) May 9, 2018
Nonetheless, we kept our burnt noses buried in the books. Here’s everything you need to know to keep your skin safe—without wasting money or damaging the environment.
1. You probably don’t know what that SPF rating means.
Admit it. You’re not really sure how SPF works.
We can relate. When we shop for sunscreen, we typically go down the aisle of our local supercenter and look for the highest SPF rating. If it’s lower than SPF 1,000,000, we don’t even consider it. Granted, we had little idea what SPF actually meant before researching this article. Forced to guess, we went with “Skin-Peeling Factor.”
We weren’t that far off. SPF stands for “sun protection factor,” and it’s the metric most people use when evaluating different sunscreens. You might assume that the number in an SPF rating corresponded to a number of hours of protection (so SPF 15, for example, would offer 15 hours of protection), but that’s not the case.
The number refers to the amount of protection that the sunscreen provides against UVB rays (the rays that cause sunburn) in comparison to bare skin. In other words, if you wear SPF 15, you’ll have 15 times the protection that you’d have if you weren’t wearing sunscreen—but that doesn’t have any bearing on the sunscreen’s lifespan. Even high-grade SPF products need to be applied regularly.
The CDC recommends reapplying sunscreen every two hours, particularly if you’re swimming, covering yourself with handfuls of Jell-O (just us?), or doing anything else that might cause the product to rub off. Remember, ratings aren’t everything; while higher numbers indicate more protection, the American Academy of Dermatology noted that products rated SPF 30 and above are perfectly fine.
Of course, if you’re just looking at SPF, you’re taking manufacturers at their word. That might be a problem. In 2017, Consumer Reports released a study showing that some manufacturers misstate their products’ SPF. Of the 60 products tested, 23 tested at less than half of their label number.
It’s worth noting that Consumer Reports didn’t just test sunscreens; they also tested sun-blocking lip balms, lotions, and other products (we should also mention that Coppertone, the brand we joked about in the intro, passed the Consumer Reports tests with flying colors).
2. Some sunscreens might hurt the environment.
Let’s say you slather on some sunscreen and immediately jump into the ocean. You might be safe, but are you putting wildlife at risk? If you get eaten by a shark, will the shark survive?
Jaws will probably live (we’re pretty sure Jaws was the name of the shark from Jaws), but your nearest coral reef might not be so lucky.
hi folks!! as summer is coming around and it’s so nice to be outside again, remember that sunscreen that contains oxybenzone and octinoxate is damaging and killing coral reefs !!! so please do NOT buy suncreen that contains these chemicals 🙂
— mantha (@catmom7000) May 6, 2018
“Oxybenzone is the most warned about and commonly used sunscreen ingredient in today’s consumer sun-care products,” Caitlin Hoff, health and safety investigator at ConsumerSafety.org, tells Urbo. “If you’ve read the news recently, you may have seen that Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of non-prescription sunscreens containing oxybenzone.”
That ban doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 2021, but it is a notable piece of legislation. It bans products with oxybenzone and octinoxate, two ingredients that chemically block sunlight without leaving behind a white residue. Sunscreens that use those ingredients are fairly popular, mainly because they don’t make you look like a lame dad from an 80s movie, but there’s some evidence that they’re unsafe for certain marine organisms.
Scientists believe that these chemicals gradually bind to coral reefs, building up to unsustainable levels. That same effect doesn’t apply to fish or other organisms, since they’re able to easily move away from the threat.
“Hawaii state legislators took this action because the active ingredient oxybenzone has devastating effects on the ocean’s coral reefs, killing off many organisms and coral reef ecosystems around the world,” Hoff says. “Not only has oxybenzone been called out for its effects on ocean life, but … early stages of research have found that this ingredient also affects humans through hormone disruption. Further testing is needed to define the true long-term impact this ingredient may have on human health.”
That last sentence seemed particularly important to us, so we reached out to the American Chemistry Council to find out whether humans need to worry about oxybenzone (or any other sunscreen substances).
“According to science, these chemicals are not as harmful as people think,” a spokesperson tells us. “… No published studies show that sunscreen is toxic to humans or hazardous to human health.”
Oxybenzone has been around for over 40 years, and while some studies indicate that it might have a hormonal effect in large enough concentrations, recent research suggests that it isn’t bioaccumulative. Even if you’re covering your body with gallons of SPF 80 (eww), the active ingredients simply won’t build up in dangerous amounts.
Remember, coral reefs are notoriously delicate—even touching coral can cause significant damage—and humans aren’t nearly as fragile. With that said, we’re certainly susceptible to skin cancer, so sunscreen has more benefits than disadvantages.
To put that another way, if you’re avoiding sunscreen in order to minimize your risks, you’re definitely moving in the wrong direction.
“Sunscreen is critically important, and when used as directed, it can protect against sunburn, reduce the risk of skin cancer, and help to prevent the early signs of skin aging,” the representative says. “In addition, the FDA regulates the safety and effectiveness of both chemical and mineral sunscreens and their active ingredients, including titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Both of these chemicals are included on FDA’s list of acceptable active ingredients in sunscreen.”
To summarize: The active ingredients in sunscreen aren’t dangerous to humans, but certain ingredients like oxybenzone can be dangerous to marine life.
We know, we know. This is getting complicated. The good news is that there is a simple way to get high-quality sunscreen.
3. To get real protection, you’ll need to look closely at the bottle.
Ready for the cheat code?
As we mentioned earlier, SPF ratings only show the protection from UVB rays. There’s another type of UV ray: UVA. While UVA rays won’t burn your skin (or even give you a tan, for that matter), they can be dangerous and potentially carcinogenic. To protect your skin, you’ll need to pull out the big guns.
“Look for sunscreen with ‘broad-spectrum’ protection, which means you will get protection from both UVB and UVA rays,” Beverly Hills dermatologist Tess Mauricio tells Urbo.
If you understand how sunscreens work, that’s a much simpler process.
“Sunscreens come in two types: physical sunscreens, which reflect the sunlight, and chemical sunscreens, which absorb the UV light, ” says Mauricio. “Ingredients to look for are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which are the most common physical blockers. They provide broad spectrum coverage but tend to be more opaque.”
In other words, they’re more likely to leave behind a visible residue. Chemical blockers (like the aforementioned oxybenzone) work differently.
Great question. I asked a top dermatologist and she says sunscreen first if it is a chemical sunscreen. If you it is a physical or mineral sunscreen it should come after.
— dave lackie (@davelackie) June 12, 2018
“There are now micronized products that are more cosmetically elegant, and some come tinted so they can be used as a light foundation,” Mauricio notes. “The chemical blockers all have names that are harder to pronounce. Look for oxybenzone [or] dioxybenzone for UVA and UVB protection. Avobenzone protects against harmful UVA, but not UVB. PABA [P-aminobenzoic acid, a nutrient found in b-complex vitamins] protects against UVB, but not UVA.”
Skip the oxybenzone if you’re swimming in the ocean, and if you’re outside for any considerable length of time, you really should choose products that physically block both types of UV radiation. That means going with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
Sunscreens with chemical UV blockers are still helpful, and they seem safe for human use according to research. Look to SPF ratings to get information about the concentration of active ingredients, but if possible, look at the active ingredients first.
Finally, be sure to buy from well-known brands, and do a bit of research before you buy. Once you’ve found a sunscreen you like, make sure to use it regularly. There’s no such thing as a safe tan, and getting sunburned just once every two years can triple your risk of skin cancer.