Sunscreen Solutions: Do You Know What Is In Your Sunscreen?

woman-sunNot all sunscreens are created equal.

Many popular sunscreens do not protect from UVA rays, the most damaging of the sun’s rays.  Some sunscreens may protect you in the short term, but break down in the sunlight, leaving the skin exposed and unprotected.  May of the sunscreens on the market contain chemicals that can affect your hormones, putting individuals at risk for endometriosis, low sperm count and problems for developing babies in utero.

With all these variables, what is the best way to choose a good product to protect your skin from the harmful effects of the sun?  See below for a short primer on what is in your sunscreen and what you should look for.

Physical Sunscreens

Remember the days of multicolored zinc oxide sunblock from the 1980’s? Well, it’s back…actually it never left the shelves. ‘Physical’ sunscreens include, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which act to deflect or block the sun’s rays. Both Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide protect from UVB rays, however Zinc protect from all UVA rays and titanium dioxide provides partial protection from UVA.  (Both UVA and UVB ray s contribute to skin cancer and photo aging.  UVA penetrates deeper in the skin and is considered more harmful.  To read more see this link  Titanium dioxide is often found in mineral makeup with SPF. Both types of sunblock typically have a thick, opaque appearance and leave a white cast when applied. Although, these types tend to be more hypoallergenic and less irritating, controversy exists around use of nanoparticles, which help minimize the opaque appearance.

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens absorb or scatter the sun’s rays. The following are just some of the chemical sunscreens that may be found in sunscreens:  oxybenzone, avobenzone, helioplex, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, octinoxate and menthyl anthranilate. These chemicals can have hormone altering effects and cause allergic reactions.  Additionally, many of these chemicals break down when exposed to sunlight.  Yes, you read that right, these sunblock chemicals, break down in the sun!

Most agree that the most harmful of the chemical sunscreens is Oxobenzone which has been shown to cause hormonal affects on the body of men, women and children.  Read the label on your sunscreen and be sure it doesn’t have this chemical in it!

To learn more about chemical and physical sunscreens, check out the EWG blog post on this very subject.  There is a handy chart at the end of the post.

Does Sunscreen Prevent Cancer?

Most of us think about using sunscreen to prevent sunburns, wrinkles and skin cancer, but it’s not quite that simple. Research indicates that wearing sunscreen decreases the incidence of some skin cancers, but not melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers.1 In fact, rates of melanoma are actually rising by 3% per year.  Some say that this may be linked to what kind of sunscreen we use and how we use it.

It turns out that individuals using sunscreen, especially those with high SPF ratings, may actually stay out in the sun longer, increasing their likelihood for sunburn, a risk factor for developing melanoma.  Research shows it is unlikely that an SPF greater than 50 is any more protective than SPF 50.

In addition to the SPF rating, what the sunscreen is made of can also make a difference in the safety and efficacy of the product.    For example, a broad spectrum sunscreen is important for full protection, but the FDA has allowed for many sunscreens to say they are broad spectrum, even when they are not.  This is true of many of the chemical sunscreens.  As a general rule, it’s a good idea to stick with the physical sunscreens, zinc and titanium dioxide.   It’s important to always read labels on your beauty products or other topical products.

 So what is the best way to choose a sunscreen?

The Environmental Working Group has been analyzing and researching which types of sunscreens are most beneficial and effective. In a nutshell, products with vitamin A, oxybenzone, nanoparticles and ultra-high SPF levels are on the ‘no’ list. Zinc and Titanium dioxide on the ‘yes’ list.  Check out this link for full details on EWG’s Best Sunscreens:

Other tips for minimizing sun damage:

  • Wear sunglasses, hats and clothing when out in the sun.
  • Decrease time spent in the sun, especially between 10am- 3pm.
  • Apply enough sunscreen initially and reapply throughout the day.
    • 1 ounce for your body and ¼ teaspoon to your face
    • Reapply every 2 hours, especially with chemical sunscreen


By Amy LaRue, NCNM Naturopathic Medicine Program
Edited by Dr Elise Schroeder