How to Choose a Safe Sunscreen

By Tovah Paglaro, David Suzuki’s Queen of Green

The most effective sun protection is covering up! Choose sun hats and tightly woven, loose-fitting, long sleeved shirts and pants to keep harmful rays away from skin. And always seek out shade.

When summer situations involve significant doses of sun, choose sunscreen wisely.

(Credit: gezellig-girl via Flickr)

A good sunscreen meets the following five criteria:

1. Well rated by the Environmental Working Group (EWG)

If the EWG recommends the product, it almost certainly meets the rest of my criteria. Want more info? Read on! But if you just want a short cut to safe sunscreen before you hit the beach…your work here is done.

2. Broad spectrum protection

Ultraviolet wavelengths are classified as UVA, UVB and UVC. Even though exposure to both UVA and UVB contributes to the development of melanoma — the most deadly skin cancer — SPF measures only UVB. Broad spectrum sunscreens protect against both.

The U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) moved to require sunscreens not offering broad spectrum coverage to display a warning Health Canada is considering allowing manufacturers that meet Europe’s more stringent requirements to advertise this on packaging.

3. Sunscreen should not contain dangerous ingredients

At the top of the list of sunscreen ingredients to avoid is oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor that can also trigger allergic reactions. EWG rates it an alarming “eight”.

Oxybenzone is added to stabilize avobenzone, a UVA-blocker. The combination is marketed as Helioplex. Find safer UVA protection in mineral-based sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, or non-mineral-based European sunscreens containing Tinosorb S and/or M, or ecamsule (trade name Mexoryl SX).

Retinyl palminate, a form of vitamin A, has been linked to skin tumours and lesions on sun-exposed skin. Health Canada’s draft sunscreen rules (currently under review) would require products containing it to display a warning. (Side note: double check that your face cream doesn’t have Vitamin A)

The Dirty Dozen ingredients, should be avoided in sunscreen as well as cosmetics. These include parabens, phthalates, PEG’s (polyethylene glycols), propylene glycol, phenoxyethanol and sodium laurel sulphates.

4. Is a cream (not spray or powder)

Mineral-based sunscreens probably contain nanoparticles. Research shows that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide do not migrate through skin, but inhaled nanoparticles enter the blood stream through the lungs. Further research is needed into the impact of these particles on the environment and into the safety of skin application so keep your ear to the ground. In the meantime, choose mineral-based creams. (While you might like transparent options, larger white particles provide better UVA protection!)

5. Offers SPF 30 protection

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher do an excellent job protecting against UVB when applied properly. Choosing a broad spectrum sunscreen will ensure adequate UVA coverage, but a higher SPF doesn’t mean better UVB protection. Research indicates that an SPF higher than 30 is mostly marketing and that high ratings give people a false sense of security, which leads to inadequate use and increased exposure. Europe and Australia cap SPF rating at 50 and 30, respectively.


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