In the summer of my 16th year, I ascended to the lofty heights of full-fledged sun goddess. After years in training, including hours of swim team practice in our suburban pool, I climbed the stairs to my throne -- a lifeguard stand -- wearing the prerequisite orange Speedo tank, silver whistle, dark aviators, and, of course, a liberal coating of baby oil. My nose and chest burned those first few days, but who cared? I was a golden girl with sun-streaked hair, perched high above the mere mortals.
Decades have passed, and now I shake my head at the bronzed lifeguards and anyone else who still thinks tanned skin is beautiful skin. I now know all about the sinister sun -- how it ages your skin, and how deadly that damage can be if it turns cancerous. I've felt sure that I've been taking all the right precautions: using sunscreen, seeking out the shade, even adding wide-brim hats this year.
But my confidence was shaken by a recent study conducted by the Environmental Working Group. After analyzing 1,642 name-brand sunscreens on the market, it reports that three out of five offer inadequate protection or contains ingredients with significant safety concerns. A summary can be found here.
A sunscreen's SPF measures how much the product shields the sun's shorter-wave ultraviolet B rays, known as UVB radiation, which can cause sunburn. (This summer, in what was widely reported as a marketing ploy, SFPs hit 100+.) But they don't necessarily guard against the more deeply penetrating ultraviolet A radiation, or so-called UVA aging rays. Both UVB and UVA rays have been linked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to skin cancer and a weakening of the immune system, and also contribute to premature skin aging and cataracts.
The study finds that 1 in 9 products offers "dangerously low levels of UVA protection," which is disturbing but not that surprising, given that the Federal Drug Administration has yet to finalize a proposal it made two years ago that would offer a four-star rating system on UVA protection plus a requirement that the rating appear on sunscreen labels. "No brands are posting the new UVA rating voluntarily," the study notes, "so consumers are left guessing which among the many products on store shelves will give them the UVA protection they need."
The EWG goes on to say the sunscreens themselves have harmful elements, its main concern centering around a compound called oxybenzone, which is used in many popular sunscreens, not to mention the 50+ Kids by Baby Blanket Continuous Spray Sunscreen Lotion I've been sharing with Matthew, our 6-year-old of the soft, flawless skin. The group asserts there are growing concerns that oxybenzone can contribute to hormone and endocrine disruption, cell damage, and, irony of ironies, cancer. However, a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disputes those claims. While the researchers duke it out, I am on the lookout for formulas that skip this ingredient and work just as well without it. (For more on questions surrounding the safety of oxybenzene, as well as controversy over last year's EWG study, see this article.
Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are two good substitutes for oxybenzone. While Treehugger acknowledges that most formulas with these ingredients can leave you "looking ghostly pale if you don't have fair Caucasian skin to begin with," some are better than others. Besides, I'll take the Casper look over lobster red any day. For more product recommendations, go to Treehugger.
So which sunscreens are best? EWG identifies 95 products that it says offer very good sun protection with ingredients that present minimal health risks. Coming in at No. 1: Soleo/Atlantis Resort and Soleo/Atlantis Organics All Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30+. For the full list, go here.
My concern about sun damage isn't just theoretical. Two close friends have had skin cancer -- no surprise, given that more than 1 million Americans are diagnosed each year, making it the most common form of cancer in the country. I turned to one of them for advice. Karl was diagnosed a decade ago, less than a month before he was to move to Israel, his wife's homeland, for a year. Luckily, his melanoma was caught early and his doctor said there was no reason not to relocate to what would seem a dangerously sunny climate as long as he stayed covered up, hat included, used plenty of sunscreen, and stayed out of the sun, especially during the peak late morning-to-late afternoon hours. "I remember his line," Karl e-mailed me. "'It's like you're a lung cancer survivor -- for you, the sun is like cigarettes.'" Ten years and countless chapeaus later, he is cancer-free.
While all the claims and counterclaims about sunscreen safety have my head spinning, here's what I do know I'll do for myself and Matthew, as I work on convincing my olive-skinned, sun-loving DH to do same:
1) Make sure I'm buying a product that blocks UVA as well as UVB rays. The EWG notes that the FDA has approved four strong UVA filters: avobenzone, Mexoryl, and the aforementioned titanium dioxide and zinc; the study says brands that use these ingredients include Solbar, Zia Natural Skincare, Nivea, L'Oreal, Hawaiian Tropic, and No-Ad.
2) Apply a liberal dose of sunscreen -- one ounce, enough to fill a shot glass, is needed to cover you from head to toe, according to the American Academy of Dermatology -- 15 to 30 minutes before heading out.
3) Reapply often, since there is no such thing as completely "waterproof" sunscreen.
4) Seek the shade, since I hate to stay inside on a lovely day. I would never hit the beach without an umbrella.
5) Cover up more. I now own two stylish wide-brim hats and just ordered a rash guard like Matthew's, which I'll wear in the water and on dry land.
Back in 1976, I was young, fancy free, and more than a little bit foolish about a lot of things, including countless hours spent basting away in baby oil. In 2009, I still love my summer fun; nothing beats swimming laps outdoors or playing in the waves. The big difference is that these days, I know enough to practice safe sun.