Ask any dermatologist her number-one skin care recommendation, and she’ll probably reinforce what your momma always told you: Wear your sunscreen. Yet startling rates of skin cancer—the most common cancer in the United States, which will strike one in five Americans in her lifetime—indicate the need for deeper understanding of how sunscreen works and which types are most effective. Traditionally, dermatologists have steered people toward chemical sunscreens, which are easily absorbed by the skin and may not effectively shield from UVB and UVA rays, says Denis Dudley, MD, an endocrinologist who has turned his attention to researching and formulating safe sun care products.
“Most dermatology literature and the information pamphlets from the professional organizations tend to repeat the industry position that still advocates using soluble filters that give UVB-biased and incomplete protection,” says Dudley. “Rising cancer rates suggest the strategy has failed, and the obvious weak link is the use of sunscreens.”
Experts such as Dudley and consumer health advocacy organizations like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) are helping to change the conversation. They say one of the biggest problems with many sunscreens today is their tendency to focus only on UVB rays (SPF is what tells you UVB protection) but not enough on protecting from UVA rays, which are linked to photoaging and skin cancer. “The global sunscreen market is dominated by UVB-biased sunscreens, particularly in North America,” adds Dudley. “They mostly prevent UVB effects like sunburn to some degree but offer little or no protection against skin cancer or photoaging, where UVA plays a major role.”
Hormone disruptors found in sunscreen
In addition to poor protection from UVA rays, chemical ingredients—particularly oxybenzone—have been linked to hormone disruption. The equally bad news is that these chemical ingredients easily work their way into the body.
The CDC reports that close to 97 percent of Americans have oxybenzone in their bodies; another study found that 85 percent of nursing mothers in the European Union have at least one UV filter in their breast milk.
The use of hormone disruptors is one of several red flags the EWG has found to be common in sun care products as it researches its annual Guide to Sunscreens. “We will continue to see the same trends—high SPFs, hormone disruptors, vitamin A, chemical sprays,” all of which have been proven to be unsafe or misleading in the past, according to Sonya Lunder, an EWG senior analyst.
Although not all dermatologists agree on the dangers of the chemicals used in some sunscreens, they are increasingly recommending minerals over chemicals for their stability and broad-spectrum coverage. Dermatologist Ted Lain, MD, of Austin, Texas, says “there are no studies performed with adequate scientific rigor that show any safety issues with current sunscreen ingredients.” However, like Dudley he recommends products containing minerals zinc oxide and titanium oxide to his patients. And most brands are now offering at least one mineral option, according to Lunder.
Understanding mineral sunscreen
Consensus that mineral sunscreens are superior is forming. But not all mineral sunscreens are created equal, an issue that was illuminated as the EWG researched its 2017 guide, which is set to come out this month. “One thing we are responding to here is that we do see [products claiming to have high] SPF values with mineral sunscreens, [but some of them have] very low concentrations of active ingredients,” says Lunder. The EWG found that companies may be using plant-based antioxidants, which are not approved active sunscreen ingredients, to increase SPF values and hence make the product appear to have greater UV protection. Although the research is still young, the best thing you can do is look for adequate concentrations of the active mineral ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Recommendations for high concentrations of zinc oxide in a product range from 15 percent to 20 percent. “Zinc oxide is the only safe UVA or broad-spectrum filter available to most consumers in North America, so look for adequate amounts,” says Dudley, who tends to recommend 20 percent when used alone (this is challenging to find in most products, however) and 15 percent when used with 7.5 percent titanium dioxide. As for other antioxidants, such as plant-based extracts and oils, consider them perks that may add moisture or contribute other benefits, but don’t factor them into your sun protection until the FDA approves them as UV-protectors.
The biggest takeaway? Wear your sunscreen! Regardless of what kind, it’s critical to wear it daily (yes, even in “off” season). And from what we now know, mineral options are the way to go.