Sunscreen Decoded: The Truth About Your Summer Skin Protection

sunscreen on woman's shoulder at beachFor spending time outdoors and soaking up warm, blissful sunshine, there's just no better season than summer. But this time of year doesn't come without its consequences -- like sunburn. On my recent beach vacay, I learned the hard way by refusing to use the only chemical-laden sunscreens we had in the house. I figured I might get a little color, but no biggie. In retrospect, what on earth was I thinking?!

We all know that once skin feels the wrath of too much sun exposure, you've got yourself a one-way ticket to looking like a lobster and feeling like you're on fire. Later, you're en route to Creepy Dead Skin Peeling Town (not to mention the long-term effects, like cancer). Ack!

So, if we want to be in the sun, we've got to protect our skin. But what to make of all the confusing sunscreen labeling? What ingredients are safe? What's the truth about SPF? Here, your ultimate guide to decoding sunscreen this summer, so keeping skin healthy won't even be a question!


Chemical sunscreen: What I was most concerned about when I was refusing to use conventional sunscreen was the creepy group of chemicals known as "the benzones," aka dioxybenzone and oxybenzone, said to protect against UVB radiation and some, but not all, UVA rays (longer rays that go deeper and can lead to premature aging and skin cancer). Chemical sunscreens may also use the ingredients avobenzone (Parsol 1789), octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate), and retinyl palmitate.

The toxic truth is that oxybenzone readily absorbs into the body and has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption, cell damage -- even low birth weight in baby girls whose mothers are exposed during pregnancy. And a recent FDA study showed that retinyl palmitate may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions. Can you imagine? Isn't that what we're trying to avoid? So, that leaves us with ...

Physical sunscreen: As alternatives to chemical sunscreen, lots of "natural" sunscreens are now hitting the market. Their active ingredients are usually either just zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, which sit atop the skin to deflect both UVB and UVA rays. And the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has said that these formulations are "among the safest, most effective sunscreens on the market based on available evidence." That's good enough for me! Here are a few brands that fit the bill. (I like Goddess Garden or Loving Naturals Clear Sunscreens.)

SPF: SPF is supposed to indicate the amount of sun exposure needed to cause sunburn on sunscreen-protected skin vs. unprotected skin. But SPF ratings are averages. In other words, for someone who's prone to burning, a sunscreen that's labeled SPF 30 may act more like an SPF 10. For another person, the same product may act like an SPF 60, experts say. Plus, the FDA has proposed capping the highest SPF value at 50, unless companies can do testing to support SPFs of 75 and 100. Bottom-line: The American Academy of Dermatology recommends both adults and children use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

What "broad-spectrum" really means: A sunscreen with this label is supposed to guard against both UVA and UVB rays, and this year, the FDA changed the law and made it so sunscreens will be required to either label their products as broad-spectrum or include a warning. The good news, if you go the physical sunblock route, is that active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide both provide broad-spectrum protection, according to

There's no such thing as ...: Waterpoof, sweatproof, or immediate protection. The FDA will prevent sunscreen marketing of the future from making these claims, because they're "exaggerations of performance." So don't be fooled!

In the end, I'll be slathering on some physical sunscreen when I'm out of the shade. But there's always an even safer alternative: A big floppy hat and enjoying the rays from shady territory afar!

What kind of sunscreen will you be using this summer and why?

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