Any day now you’ll be reaching for summer’s first tube of sunscreen. You’re not alone if you’re wondering just what’s in it and, most importantly, if it’s safe for you and your kids to spend the season slathering it all over.
Sunscreens shield us from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation. To provide this defense, they contain chemical and mineral ingredients that scatter, reflect or absorb UV radiation, including oxybenzone, octyl methoxycinnamate, avobenzone, zinc, and titanium.
Oxybenzone and octyl methoxycinnamate are allergens and possible hormone disruptors. Because oxybenzone can penetrate skin in significant amounts, it’s best to avoid using products containing it, especially on children. If you want to go the chemical route, Avobenzone and Mexoryl (a camphor derivative also called ecamsule) are better options.
In the natural realm, zinc and titanium, two non-toxic minerals, provide even safer and more effective sunscreening. Don’t worry, you won’t look white or pasty. Today’s “vanishing” products—as opposed to older formulations—use ultra tiny nano-sized particles that go on clear.
While nanotechnology remains a general concern, studies have found that nano-based sunscreens generally don’t penetrate skin. Due to safety risks from possible inhalation, however, powder and spray sunscreen varieties should be avoided. If you’d prefer to avoid nanoparticles, some mineral sunscreen manufacturers make “non-nano” products that conform to international nanotechnology standards (the FDA doesn’t have any).
When it comes to what SPF (sun protection factor) to use, keep in mind that more isn’t always more. The maximum UVA protection that American sunscreens currently offer is just SPF 15 no matter what the label says. SPF actually refers to a product’s UVB blocking ability. An SPF 20 sunscreen, for example, lets you sunbathe roughly 20 times longer before burning than you could without it.