10 Disturbing Sunscreen Secrets

Just when you thought you knew everything there was to know about protecting yourself from damaging rays, we uncovered some sneaky sun-care truths.

By Kimberly Goad, Women’s Health

Slathering on sunscreen is the best way to ward off evil rays, but don’t put blind faith in its efficacy. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C., reviewed nearly 1,400 sunscreens in 2010 and found that only 8 percent made the grade in terms of preventing skin cancer and signs of aging. (Scary, right?) So choosing the right one is critical. These fascinating facts and tips will help keep your skin healthy this summer and beyond.

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1. Some Dangers Lurk Within
A form of vitamin A is added to some sunscreens to minimize the aging effects of the sun. What’s not to love about that? Potentially plenty: Researchers with the National Toxicology Program say retinyl palmitate–a vitamin-A compound used in at least 40 percent of American sunscreens–may speed up the development of skin cancer–related tumors and lesions when used on skin hit with sunlight. Lab animals coated with a vitamin A–laced skin cream and exposed to the equivalent of just nine minutes of midday sunlight every day for a year developed tumors and lesions up to 21 percent sooner than animals coated in vitamin A–free block.

While there’s disagreement in the medical community about whether vitamin A has the same effect on humans, it’s best to proceed with caution.

“If there’s a question about the safety of something, avoid it. Plenty of sunscreens don’t have retinyl palmitate,” says Robert J. Friedman, M.D., a dermatologic oncologist in New York City and a clinical professor at the New York University School of Medicine. Try Jason Family Natural Sunblock SPF 45 ($12, at health-food stores).

Vitamin A isn’t the only controversial ingredient slipped into some SPFs. Oxybenzone and octinoxate, common block chemicals, are linked to allergic contact dermatitis and photocontact dermatitis (irritation caused when certain chemicals are on skin that’s exposed to sunlight), as well as hormone disruption, in lab animals.

2. Sunscreen Can Harm the Environment
Twenty thousand tons of sunscreen wash off swimmers, divers, and surfers into the oceans every year, eventually affecting marine life, according to a 2008 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives. And coral reefs are getting especially creamed. Researchers say sunscreens with octinoxate, oxybenzone, parabens, or camphor derivatives are killing hard corals (which could negatively impact biodiversity and reef ecosystems). None of this is a problem if you’re hiking, biking, or sunbathing on dry land. But if you plan to swim in the sea, slather on a biodegradable sunscreen that doesn’t contain ingredients that are mean to marine life. Try Alba Botanica Very Emollient Fragrance Free Mineral Sunblock SPF 30.

3. SPF Doesn’t Always Block UVA Rays
The magic number shown on the bottle refers only to a sunscreen’s ability to block the sunburn-inducing UVB rays, not to be confused with UVA rays, the ones that cause wrinkles and skin cancer (though excessive exposure to both rays can lead to skin cancer). The FDA is considering a set of guidelines that would use a four-star system to rate a sunscreen’s effectiveness against UVA rays. In the meantime, check the ingredients on the bottle for one of these UVA blockers:

Titanium dioxide or zinc oxide: These ingredients are famous for their UVA blockage, and new formulas won’t leave you with a Casper-like film on your face. Try Episencial’s Sunny Sunscreen SPF 35 Water-Resistant Protection for Face and Body.

Avobenzone (a.k.a. Parsol 1789): This common UVA fighter is among the most effective chemical-based blockers. Choose one like MDSolarSciences No Touch Body Spray SPF 40.

Ecamsule (a.k.a. Mexoryl SX): This chemical ingredient is 3.8 times more protective than avobenzone and has long been a staple in European and Canadian sunscreens. It’s now available in a few American blocks, including La Roche-Posay’s Anthelios line and L’Oreal’s Ombrelle line. But it’s not cheap–a 3.4-ounce bottle of La Roche-Posay costs $30 (laroche-posay.us).

4. Sunscreen Expires
If you pull a half-empty, sand-caked tube of last summer’s sunscreen out of your beach bag, check the expiration date before using it. Most sunscreens are designed with specially formulated stabilizers that protect its potency for up to three years, but that’s assuming you didn’t let it bake for days in your backyard. “Leaving sunblock in intense heat for a prolonged amount of time may make it less effective,” says Mitchell Chasin, M.D., medical director of Reflections Center for Skin and Body in New Jersey and fellow of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery. So store sunblock in a cool place, and while you’re at the beach, keep it in the shade.

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5. Meds Can Make You More Vulnerable
Medications like tetracycline, diuretics, and painkillers such as Celebrex, Aleve, and ibuprofen up your chances of getting a burn, says Barbara Gilchrest, M.D., professor and chair emeritus of the department of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine and chief emeritus of dermatology at Boston Medical Center. “They make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, specifically to UVA wavelengths, which means you need to be extra vigilant about sunscreen when you’re taking them.” Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays, like Neutrogena Pure & Free Liquid SPF 50 ($10, neutrogena.com), to ward off sunburn and photo damage, which results from chronic exposure to UV rays.

6. Certain Foods Can Turbocharge Your Protection
One more good reason to load up on lycopene-rich fruits and veggies such as watermelon, guava, pink grapefruit, and tomatoes: A 2010 study published in the British Journal of Dermatology suggests the potent antioxidant lycopene acts as a sunscreen from within. Women whose diets included 16 milligrams of lycopene every day (the amount in about two cups of diced watermelon) for 12 weeks showed a reduction in the damaging effects of UVA and UVB rays, including sunburns and cellular damage. Tomatoes are the richest source of the antioxidant, especially when cooked (heating tomatoes releases more of the lycopene). Of course, this doesn’t mean you can skip the sunscreen. These fruits and veggies help boost your SPF but don’t replace it.

7. Labels Can Lie
Horrifying but true: The FDA doesn’t regulate sunscreens, meaning manufacturers aren’t legally required to prove the claims on their labels. They can use words like waterproof, all-day protection, and broad spectrum without any evidence to back up their assertions. No wonder sun lovers are lulled into a false sense of protection!

“Overblown claims on the bottle lead you to believe you’re covered,” says Sonya Lunder, M.P.H., a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group. “You may put on a ‘waterproof’ sunscreen promising ‘all-day protection’ and assume, incorrectly, that you don’t need to reapply. In reality, you need to reapply every two hours and each time you get out of the water.”

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8. The SPF Number Doesn’t Mean Much
Conventional wisdom suggests that SPF 30 will give you twice the protection of SPF 15, and SPF 100 will offer twice the coverage of SPF 50. If only.

“The sky-high numbers are a marketing ploy,” says Gilchrest.

Reapply sunscreen every two hours and each time you get out of the water.

“People think they’re doing themselves a favor by using high SPF, but the difference is incremental. SPF 15 filters out 93 percent of UVB rays; SPF 30 protects against 97 percent; SPF 50, 98 percent; and SPF 100, 99 percent–and that’s only if you apply enough of it.”

Don’t fall for the numbers game. When the FDA releases its new guidelines, it’s expected to include a ban on any SPF over 50 because the numbers can be misleading. Until then, use this simple rule from Gilchrest: If you burn easily, go for SPF 50 and apply it generously; otherwise, there’s no need to go above SPF 30.

9. Makeup with SPF Doesn’t Cut It
Makeup and daily moisturizers with SPF will protect your skin if you load them on and reapply every 90 minutes, says Darrell S. Rigel, M.D., a clinical professor of dermatology at New York University. And who’s really going to do that? What’s more, according to a recent study from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, most SPF-spiked beauty products skimp on the all-important UVA-blocking ingredients. Researchers analyzed 29 daily facial creams with an SPF of 15 to 50, and only six of them contained enough UVA-blocking ingredients to provide adequate UVA protection. So think of your moisturizer and makeup as just an extra layer of protection, and always apply a lightweight, broad-spectrum sunscreen such as Clinique’s City Block Sheer Oil-Free Daily Face Protector SPF 25.

10. Soaking Up Vitamin D Is No Excuse for Skipping Block
Vitamin D strengthens your bones and immune system, reduces your risk for breast, colon, kidney, and ovarian cancers, and regulates at least a thousand different genes controlling virtually every tissue in your body. The American Medical Association has recommended 10 minutes of direct sun (sans sunscreen) several times a week to get that dose of D, but the American Academy of Dermatology says no amount of unprotected sun exposure is OK. “Vitamin D is very important, especially for women,” says Friedman.

“But that’s not a reason to get any amount of unprotected exposure to the sun.” Instead, obtain your daily D through your diet (milk, fortified orange juice, and canned salmon are all good sources) or a supplement (under your physician’s supervision). The newest recommendations suggest 1,000 to 2,000 IU a day. Try Nordic Naturals Vitamin D3 ($16, nordic naturals.com).


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Sienna Joy
Past Member 1 years ago

'FDA last reviewed the safety of sunscreen ingredients in 1978. At that time, it announced plans to develop comprehensive standards for sunscreen safety and effectiveness. More than 30 years later, the agency has yet to publish any standards for sunscreen ingredients. As a result, manufacturers in the U.S. are free to market products containing ingredients that have not been proven safe. When many of the chemicals used in popular sunscreens are exposed to sunlight, reactions occur between the sunscreen’s active and inactive ingredients and the epidermis. Toxic reactions include inflammation, dermalogical effects, allergic reactions and photogenotoxic (DNA altering) effects. Chemical sunscreens have ingredients that actually promote cancer.' See more at: http://www.collective-evolution.com/2012/04/10/you-have-the-right-to-know-17-chemicals-to-avoid-in-cosmetic-and-personal-care-products/#sthash.95TDG062.UAADqU5M.dpuf

Colin Hope
Colin Hope2 years ago

Noted and thank you!!

Duane B.
.2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

SeaTurtleZee K.
Helen Porter3 years ago

I live in Arizona and it's hot. Even in the winter time, the sun in Arizona is dangerous.

I don't use sun screen. I think it harms the skin.

I eat almonds and carry a golf umbrella that is BBBBIIIIIIIGGGGG!!!! I see women walking along with regular umbrellas and they don't know their arms are hanging out in the sun!

I'm almost 70 and I don't have skin cancer. In fact, in the past, I spent a lot of time in the sun.
I don't have cancer. I use almonds and a HHHUUUGGGEEE umbrella. In the day time it protects me from the sun. At night, it protects me from........no body bothers an old lady with a BIG!!! umbrella as long as I stay in safe areas. lol

KAREN L.3 years ago


Emily Drew
Emily Drew4 years ago

All this is very true. Go to EWG.com/Skin Deep and u can see their best rated sunscreens. I use Badger.

Kathy Woodruff
Kathy W.4 years ago

When I was a child, there was NOT much consciousness of the importance of sun protection, and NOT much available in the way of useful sunscreens. (Yeah, OK, there was the dreaded stark white zinc oxide stuff that lifeguards coated their noses with!) So, in fact, much has actually improved in the last several decades. At least now there is a choice of many suncreens, some (unfortunately not all) of which are reasonably efficacious and safe.

Debra F.
Debra Forman4 years ago


Simon Voyer
Simon V.4 years ago

I honestly never thought of the possible harm sunscreen could do... thank you for that!

Christina Felan
Christina Felan4 years ago

Found article very informative. Thanks!!