Sun Safety: Guide to Sunblock

Bask in the sunshine. Boost your Qi. Absorb Vitamin D. But stay safe. Not only do you not want to soak up all the good stuff the sun provides, you want to protect against skin cancer, sunburns, and sunspots/aging.

We’re starting to hear some creepy stuff about sunscreens and sunblocks—that maybe using sunblock doesn’t also prevent skin cancer. Turns out that SPF 50 you were putting on only prevents sunburn, not skin cancer, like we thought. And some of the chemicals in sunblock can cause serious hormonal imbalances and allergic reactions. Guess we didn’t know everything 30 years ago when sunblock came out.

As a wellness practitioner, I get this question all the time—What sunblock should I be using?

My go-to resource is the Skin Deep database from the Environmental Working Group. It is seriously one of the greatest resources ever! The EWG is an independent group that researches chemicals and how they can affect the body. Then they compiled this gigantic database of products and rated them based on the hazards of using the ingredients. Check out their findings on everything from sunblock to fragrances!

Don’t have time or desire to dig in yourself? Here’s a cheat sheet with what I’ve learned:

1. The number-one chemical to avoid is oxybenzone. There are two kinds of sunblocks: chemical (e.g. oxybenzone, octisalate, etc.) and molecular/physical (e.g. zinc oxide).  Of the chemical sunblocks, the most toxic ingredient is oxybenzone. It can causes photoallergic reactions and is considered an endocrine disruptor. If you have a young child, are trying to get pregnant, or a teen concerned about your hormones, don’t use oxybenzone. Some sunblocks have avobenzone in place of oxybenzone, which seems to be safer.

2. Zinc oxide is our friend. As a physical sunblock, the sun’s rays can’t penetrate the molecules when they’re rubbed onto your skin, thereby providing full spectrum coverage similar to the way a T-shirt would. Happily, zinc oxide is one of the safest sunblocks to use, if you can stand to wait for the white color to absorb into your skin. Some zinc oxide products are better looking than others (I’ll share my favorite on Friday).

3. Check your labels to make sure your sunblock has both UVA and UVB protection, aka “full spectrum coverage,” to prevent cancer and aging. Most sunblocks have both UVA and UVB protection now, but that wasn’t always the case. Most of the old sunscreens even from 3 years ago had only UVB protection, which was great for protecting us from sunburn but new studies show it doesn’t protect us from skin cancer. So all those years you were slathering on SPF 30 and staying in the sun all day, you were exposing yourself to harmful UVA cancer-causing rays. Sorry to break it to you. Plus UVA rays also increase wrinkles and aging. Not good. Correct it now and start using sunblock with both UVA and UVB protection. (Remember it this way: the A in UVA stands for aging, the B stands for burns. Now you know why you need both!)

4. Reapply, reapply, reapply. It drives me bonkers when people tell me they put on SPF 50 and they still got sunburned. Then they tell me they put on the sunblock, went swimming, sat in the sun and sweated, went swimming again, then laid out sweating some more. Of course you got sunburned—your sunblock washed off hours ago! Be smart and reapply after every time you jump in the water or play a sweaty game of volleyball. Sunblocks now say “Water resistant (40 minutes)” or “Water resistant (80 minutes),” which means that it’ll stay on for 40 or 80 minutes when you’re submerged in water. So at a minimum reapply at least that often. SPF 30 or 50 will protect you longer, but it’s not infallible, people!

Stay tuned for Fabulous Friday, when I’ll be sharing my own favorite sunscreens.