You may have seen sunscreen in the news after a government-funded study found that twelve common active ingredients may be absorbed into the bloodstream. Only six of the studied ingredients are commonly used in the United States: ensulizole, octisalate, homosalate, octocrylene, octinoxate, oxybenzone, and avobenzone. The study’s author noted that just because ingredients get absorbed doesn’t make them harmful or unsafe; we don’t know enough about these ingredients to deem them as such.

All this small pilot study tells us is that these ingredients may enter the body in levels greater than previously understood. The American Academy of Dermatology commented that these ingredients have been used for several decades without any reported side effects in people, so it’s not time to ditch your sunscreen supply (unless it’s expired)! We can soon expect sunscreen manufacturers to fund research to fill knowledge gaps about how much sunscreen your skin absorbs and whether this absorption has any effect on your skin or body. In light of the findings, The American Cancer Society, The American Academy of Dermatology, the US FDA, and the study’s authors urge that people continue using sunscreen because it is proven to reduce risk of skin cancer, sunburns, and signs of premature skin aging. With one in five Americans at risk for developing skin cancer in their lifetime, the benefits of using sunscreen far outweigh the risks! If you’re a concerned consumer, you can take measures to protect your skin while reducing your exposure to the ingredients under review.

Selecting sunscreen

Fewer than half of people surveyed knew the meaning of sunscreen terms like “broad spectrum” and “SPF.” If you’re in the majority, deciphering labels and choosing the right product can surely be challenging! It doesn’t help that some terms are backed by precise US FDA regulations, while others lack official meaning. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, sunscreen that keeps your skin safe comes down to three characteristics: broad-spectrum, water-resistance, and SPF 30 or higher.

  • Broad-spectrum: This term indicates protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet A (skin aging) and ultraviolet B (skin burning) rays. Some broad-spectrum sunscreens can protect against ultraviolet C rays, but these rays are too weak to reach the earth’s atmosphere. Broad-spectrum sunscreens can reduce skin cancer risk, signs of early aging (as premature age spots, wrinkles, sagging skin), and sunburn.
  • Water-resistant: Sunscreen can be water resistant or very water resistant. Water resistant sunscreens are effective for 40 minutes in the water. Very water-resistant sunscreens are effective for 80 minutes in the water. There is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen! Sweat and water wash it away. Sunscreen with “sport” on the label usually indicates some level of water and sweat resistance. However, there is no official definition.
  • Sun protection factor (SPF): It might help to think of this term as “sunburn protection factor.” The number that follows “SPF” tells you about how much UVB light can be filtered out by the sunscreen. No SPF level can filter out 100% of UVB rays, so SPF 30 does the trick.
    • SPF 15: filters 93% of UVB rays
    • SPF 30: filters 97% of UVB rays

Sunscreens contain either physical or chemical UV blockers. Physical sunscreens (a.k.a. mineral sunscreens) contain titanium oxide or zinc oxide. These minerals protect against UV light by deflecting sun rays like a shield. These ingredients are known to sit on the skin and are less likely to enter the bloodstream. They are also more likely to leave a white film. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends individuals with sensitive skin and children six months of age and older use physical sunscreens.

Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun’s UV rays like a sponge. These sunscreens may contain any mixture of the ingredients currently under US FDA review. These sunscreens are easier to rub into skin and leave less of a white residue. Both chemical and physical sunscreens can meet the American Academy of Dermatology recommendations for sunscreen.

Tips for applying sunscreen

Now that you are no longer a sunscreen novice, it’s time to start using it. Remember, it’s not effective at protecting your skin unless you apply it correctly. If you tend to burn even when you use sunscreen, you likely are not using enough of it, using an expired product, or not using it often enough.

  • Use it generously—Most adults need one-ounce (a shot glass) of sunscreen to cover their body adequately. Rub it thoroughly into all exposed skin, including your neck, face, ears, tops of feet and legs. Ask someone to help apply sunscreen to your back or use spray sunscreen. Use sunscreen on your scalp if you have thin hair or wear a wide-brimmed hat. Protect your lips with SPF 15 or greater lip balm!
  • Apply it indoors—It can take 15 minutes for sunscreen to absorb into your skin and start working, so apply it while indoors, then go outside.
  • Reapply it outdoors—After two hours outdoors, reapply another dose. If you get wet or go swimming, reapply the sunscreen as soon as you’re out of the water. If you’re swimming or sweating, keep in mind that water resistant sunscreens last for 40 minutes in the water and very water-resistant sunscreens last 80 minutes in the water.


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