In February 2019, the Food and Drug Administration started to consider stricter regulations for sunscreen manufacturers. The FDA evaluated the 16 active ingredients commonly used in sunscreen; of the 16 ingredients, only two were found to be "generally recognized as safe and effective," two were deemed unsafe, and the other 12 need more data in order to reach a definitive answer. (source)
In a separate study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, 24 healthy individuals applied different forms of sunscreen four times a day for seven days. The idea was to test exposure of four common active ingredients in sunscreen as the label says is intended use.
This study found that four active ingredients in sunscreen exceed the maximum threshold for systemic absorption established by the FDA. This means that if someone uses this sunscreen as the bottle instructs (such as applying it every two hours), their skin will absorb an unsafe amount of the active ingredients.
Although these studies make it sound like sunscreen is ultimately unhealthy, that couldn't be further from the truth. As the number of skin cancer cases in the United States continues to rise (with an estimated 96,480 new cases of melanoma predicted in 2019), sun protection has become increasingly crucial to our overall health and wellness.
One of the most effective ways to prevent skin cancer is to wear sunscreen daily. But due to the results of these two reports, it is also critical that we choose the right sunscreen to use daily so that our bodies do not absorb too much of ingredients that have not been generally recognized as safe and effective.
Listen to Dr. Arthur's Thoughts on Sunscreen!
Hear what Dr. Arthur had to say about sunscreen on the Shannon Joy show:
Understanding Different Sunscreen Options
There are many different forms of sunscreen: creams, lotions, sprays, powders, and even cosmetics that include sun protection factor (SPF). Across brands, there is not a singular formu
la for sunscreen, so there are different kinds of sunscreen as well. Compare sunscreens based on:
- Chemical vs physical sunscreen
- UVA vs UVB protection
- Sun protection factor
- Water resistancy
What's the difference between physical and chemical sunscreen?
"Chemical sunscreens" and "physical sunscreens" refer to the active ingredients used in the sunscreen. Chemical sunscreens use active ingredients that absorb the sun's rays and are more easily absorbed into the skin while physical sunscreens sit on top of your skin and use active ingredients that deflect the sun's rays.
Physical sunscreens contain the active ingredients zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, which are the two ingredients that the FDA deemed both safe and effective in February 2019.
Because chemical sunscreens are absorbed into your skin (often at unhealthy levels when used as recommended), we do not recommend these sunscreens for daily use. A physical sunscreen will protect your skin effectively and safely, so look for sunscreens that include the ingredients zinc and titanium.
What is the difference between UVA and UVB rays?
The sun radiates three different types of rays:
- UVB rays (burning rays) are the main cause of sunburn
- UVA rays (aging rays) cause tanning and prematurely age your skin
- Infrared rays warm up your skin by heating deep tissue
Most sunscreens on the market today include a chemical screen that guards your skin against superficial rays (UVB rays) so you don't get sunburnt, but don't protect you from either UVA rays or Infrared rays. Using a full-spectrum physical sunscreen will protect your skin from all three harmful rays.
What SPF is best?
An SPF of 30 can block up to 97% of the sun's UVB rays, so we recommend at least using an SPF of 30. As you increase your sunscreen's SPF, you will block a slightly higher portion of the sun's UVB rays.
It's important to recognize that no sunscreen will block 100% of the sun's UVB rays, but if you follow a proper sunscreen application regimen, you will be protected best.
What is the best water resistancy?
Sunscreen manufacturers are prohibited by the FDA to claim to be "water-proof" or "sweat-proof" because no sunscreen is waterproof. Sunscreens can be either water resistant or very water resistant meaning they will last up to 40 minutes or 80 minutes, respectively, in water or sweat.
Regardless of which water-resistant option you choose, be sure to reapply after the 40 or 80 minutes of water exposure is complete.
The Best Sunscreen for All
Remember that there is no safe way to tan. Every time your skin is exposed to the sun, you are susceptible to damage, burning, premature aging, and even skin cancer. Using the proper sunscreen is a great first step.
Look for a non-chemical, physical sunscreen that contains zinc and titanium.
You can also decrease your sun exposure by wearing protective hats with brims, wearing moisture-wicking clothing, avoiding tanning beds, seeking shade when outside, and spending time outside before 10:00 in the morning and after 4:00 in the evening when the sun's rays are less direct.
A Note on Skin Cancer Detection
Although using sunscreen daily and limiting your sun exposure are steps in the right direction on the road to skin cancer prevention, other factors can play a role in the development of skin cancers such as melanoma. Monthly self-examinations and annual skin checks with a board-certified dermatologist are important for early detection and skin cancer treatment.