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Which Sunscreen Is Right for You?

Tips to help you pick the right sunscreen.

A picture of a towel, sunscreen, and sunglasses on the beach

While recent research shows that a little sun exposure each day may benefit your health, most experts suggest that you protect yourself if you plan to spend long stretches in the sun.

The problem is many sunscreen products contain harmful chemicals, and some are not as effective as they seem, says Sonya Lunder, MPH, a senior analyst at the Washington, D.C.–based Environmental Working Group (EWG).Two-thirds of the products the group looked at for its 2018 Sunscreen Guide contain harmful ingredients and offer weak sun protection.

How to Pick a Safe Sunscreen

To help you find an effective and safesunscreen, here’s advice from EWG’s 2018 Sunscreen Guide:

  • Beware a “50+” SPF. According to the FDA, no reliable research has shown that sunscreens with sun protection factors (SPF) above 50 offer significantly better protection than those with a 50 SPF.And, notes the EWG, the FDA has called SPF values over 50 “inherently misleading” because they lull consumers into a false sense of security.What’s more, SPF values refer only to protection from sunburn. They don’t indicate protection against UVA rays, which can damage skin cells and play a role in accelerated skin aging and skin cancer.
  • Look for UVA protection on the label. Almost all sunscreens are great at blocking UVB rays. But for protection against the far more damaging UVA rays, which can cause malignant melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer), choose mineral-based sunscreens rather than their chemical counterparts. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are active ingredients in mineral-based sunscreens that block UVA rays.
  • Opt for lotion over spray and powder sunscreens. Because spray and powder sunscreens are more easily inhaled (and hence more directly accessible to the bloodstream), opt for lotions, which are considered safer, when choosing a mineral-based option.
  • Beware oxybenzone. Stay away from sunscreens that contain this active ingredient, which has been linked to allergic reactions and potential hormone disruption. It is particularly harmful for children and has been linked to low infant birth weight.
  • Avoid vitamin A in your sunscreen. Studies suggest that lesions are quicker to form on skin slathered with creams containing retinyl palmitate, which also appears on labels as “retinol” or “vitamin A.” This potentially harmful ingredient was found in 12 percent of the sunscreens reviewed by the EWG in 2018. (You still want vitamin A in your food; just avoid it in your sunscreen.)
  • Avoid sunscreens with insect repellent. A two-in-one product sounds great, especially if you’re trying to wrangle little kids, but avoid the temptation. The two products may need to be applied on different schedules.
  • Don’t rely solely on sunscreen when UV radiation is at its peak. At midday, when UV radiation is at its highest, you’ll get the best sun protection when you use sunscreen as part of a broader sun-protection strategy. Hats, sunglasses, shirts, shorts, and rashguards can help keep you covered. Try to take breaks as well and find shady spots to picnic or read.
  • Reapply, reapply, reapply. Cream sunscreens can wash off in the water, rub off on towels, and wear off in the sun. Make regular reapplication part of your routine.
  • Men, take note! Nearly twice as many men as women will die from melanoma in 2018, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

If you want to see how the prod­ucts you already have in your cabinet stack up, visit the EWG Sunscreen Guide here.

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