Family Matters

Choosing a Sunscreen: Some Tips from an Expert

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Is there anything worse than trying to make informed decisions in the sunscreen aisle? The very attempt is an exercise in frustration: on a recent trip to Target, I scanned the dozens of products on the sunblock display alongside a similarly stymied mother. I left empty-handed.

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced new rules that will hopefully clear up some of the confusion. For the first time, companies will have to report how effective their sunscreens are against both UVA and UVB rays. While UVB is implicated in sunburns, both types of ultraviolet rays contribute to skin cancer and wrinkles.

But the new rules, set to go into effect within a year, don’t address which ingredients are safe to use on your skin — or your child’s. A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) emphasized the importance of slathering sunscreen on even very young babies as research has found that infants’ skin shows evidence of UV-induced pigmentation starting with their first exposure to summer sun. That, along with repeated exposure, can set the stage for the development of skin cancer later on.

MORE: Babies In Need of Some Serious Sun Protection

So it follows that selecting an effective sunscreen for your progeny is a pretty weighty task. Dermatologists often recommend mineral sunscreens that use titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which perch on the surface of the skin, in contrast to chemical sunscreens, which contain substances that may be absorbed by the skin. Yet as Amy Paller, the AAP report’s lead author and the chair of the dermatology department at Northwestern University, noted:

It can be hard to find affordable physical sunscreens, though — often marketed as “natural” sunscreens — that don’t contain preservatives such as parabens, which some experts worry may disrupt the endocrine system. “It’s hard to get away from additives,” says Paller.

So are parabens a problem? “They can be a sensitizer, but they’re not as bad as many think,” says Paller.

Befuddled by my Target experience, I decided to check in with the Environmental Working Group, which rates sunscreens based on safety and how well they protect against UV rays. Unfortunately, the sunscreens that rate the highest are typically far more expensive than reasonably priced mass-market brands. The most mind-boggling sell for $15 or more for a small amount — often less than 3 ounces. Taking into consideration that an ounce of sunscreen is recommended per application for the average adult, that tiny bottle isn’t good for much.

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“Although we do have a list on our website for recommended brands, we understand not everyone can afford that,” says Nneka Leiba, a research analyst at EWG who works on their cosmetics and sunscreen databases. “If you have a larger family, it’s not always the most convenient because they do come in smaller packages.”

Here, Leiba shares some insights for those who want to make better choices but can’t afford to break the bank to do so:

  • Zinc or titanium dioxide? Zinc is a better UV filter, but titanium dioxide works well too.
  • Parabens, which function in sunscreen and cosmetics as preservatives — yea or nay? There’s more concern about the longer-chain parabens — butylparaben, isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben and propylparaben — which can mimic estrogen and disrupt normal hormone function. Methylparaben and ethylparaben are shorter-chain chemicals that appear to have fewer associated hazards. “You obviously would prefer a sunscreen without any parabens, but we are less concerned with the shorter chain parabens because the effects appear to be weaker,” says Leiba.
  • Oxybenzone versus avobenzone? Like night and day, says Leiba. Avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone, which can disrupt hormone function. But avobenzone is recommended as a good UVA filter.
  • Steer clear of retinyl palmitate, despite its anti-aging properties. “It’s a form of Vitamin A so this is a little shocking to people,” says Leiba. It sounds safe, but an FDA study showed it can speed the development of skin tumors and lesions on sun-exposed skin. It’s often included in night creams, which is not cause for concern because sleeping isn’t associated with sun exposure.
  • Pay attention to where a questionable chemical falls in the ingredient list. Active ingredients are cause for more concern because they can constitute a significant proportion of the product. “It’s like food,” explains Leiba. “What you see first is the highest percentage.”

Leiba acknowledged how overwhelming trying to make sense of polysyllabic chemical names and their perceived safety can be: “It is a daunting, daunting task. We use lots of personal care products each day. When you combine that with what we eat and the cleaning products we use, people just want to give up.”

Don’t. For starters, learn more about how EWG and Consumer Reports rate sunscreens. Then, for $5, you can download EWG’s handy tipsheet on what chemicals to avoid in the beauty aisle. Print it out and stick it in your wallet, and you’ll never again be bemused in the sunscreen aisle.