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Choosing the most effective sunscreen

Know what to look for in your sunscreen to keep healthy this summer. Decide whether mineral sunscreen is right for you and if spray is really the best choice.
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Summer is around the corner and as the weather warms, you'll most likely be heading outside for fun and yard work. The sun is your natural Vitamin D but it's also very damaging to our biggest organ.

If you're not lucky enough to produce enough melanin, sunscreen is your best friend. Melanin is the chemical in the skin that controls its color and how much sun is absorbed. It's also why some people can tan while others burn. A tan is the skin's way of protecting against the sun naturally but not everyone can produce one. Today we'll look at what happens if you absorb too much sun and what's in sunscreen to stop that from happening. Even people with darker skin, or a lot of melanin, need sunscreen for prolonged periods of time. Here's why. 

Is being in the sun really bad for you?

The sun is a great ball of fire that warms us after months of cold and makes the flowers look nice. What danger could it pose? Well...

  • Sunburn - Too much exposure to the sun's rays can literally burn the top layer of skin. That's what a sunburn is. It's like touching a stove but with your whole body. No wonder it hurts so much. A bad sunburn can blister and get infected, causing fever and other health problems.

  • Aging - The sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays damage our skin fibers, wearing down its elasticity - the ability to stretch. This makes it sag, wrinkle and bruise more easily. While this is a normal part of life, sun exposure increases these effects.

  • Radiation - UVA and UVB rays are types of radiation that our skin absorbs. Too much of this radiation over time can affect how our skin cells develop, causing discolorations, lesions, and even tumors. Yes, this also means cancer.

  • So fun in the sun isn't completely carefree. It doesn't have to be scary though. You just need the right protection.

    What's in sunscreen?

    If you're a regular reader, then you know we love to examine the ingredient list and explain what the active components contribute to the cause. In sunscreen it's no different.

  • Oxybenzone - A natural chemical found in some plants. This makes sunscreen so effective against the sun. It blocks out UVA and UVB rays which is the main cause of concern. However, it's been getting criticism for a few reasons. We'll get to those later.

  • Retinyl Palmitate - Derived from Vitamin A. This ingredient helps reduce the signs of aging so you can fight appearance and damage all at once.

  • Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide - Found in mineral sunscreens that don't use oxybenzone, these are what block out the sun. They weren't popular until recently because they stayed white on the skin (like a lifeguard nose). Now, they've shrunk the molecules to what's called "nanoparticles" to make them colorless when rubbed in and easier to use.

  • There's a lot of choices to think about when choosing a sunscreen like mineral or chemical, lotion or spray sunscreens. Learn what's healthy and why.

    Which sunscreen is most effective?

    Picking a sunscreen may seem easy but if you're trying to make the best choice, it's all about knowing the facts. And there's a lot of hearsay out there about sunscreen ingredients. 

    The first is overexposure. The CDC found an increase of oxybenzone exposure of the population in 2003-2004. While the survey doesn't give reasons for the increase, it could be because Oxybenzone, also known as Benzophenone-3, is used in many cosmetics, skincare products and plastic bottles that use the chemical to protect the inside contents.

    Another reason people are concerned is due to an animal study where oxybenzone acted like estrogen when fed to rats in large amounts, increasing the size of their uteri. Many articles will cite this study and has a lot of people concerned about what widespread use of this chemical is doing to our own system.

    The FDA and dermatologists still recommend oxybenzone for use. For one, the New York Times has pointed out the flaw in the much-cited study - it's impossible to reach that level of oxybenzone in humans through topical use. Darrell Rigel, M. D., a clinical professor of dermatology at New York University has said, "If you just use sunscreen in the way people normally use it on a regular basis - on the face or head and neck or back of the hands - it would take over 200 years to get the dose that those rats received." I would bet there's wiggle room for a beach day in there.

    But really, you decide whether or not it's safe to use on yourself and your family. We sell both kinds of sunscreen with and without oxybenzone.

    If you're not a fan of the big O-ingredient, you may be looking at mineral sunscreens. These have their own list of issues though. Titanium dioxide, for example, is used in paint to keep light damage from fading the color. It can cause big problems if it enters the bloodstream. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies it as a possible carcinogen. Zinc oxide, the other popular ingredient in mineral sunscreen, can pose serious problems if you take too much of a supplement. MedlinePlus warns of overdosing and symptoms like nausea, stomach pain, yellow eyes and skin.

    There is more to think about with mineral sunscreen, though. According to a published review in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, the titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles weren't found to penetrate skin and get into the bloodstream. So using a regular mineral sunscreen topically to the skin shouldn't cause problems unless you apply it to areas where the skin is broken like scrapes, cuts or eczema patches. 

    One more choice you may find when browsing is - Lotion or Spray?  Bet you didn't think I could make such a big deal out of this. Buckle in. 

    So all of those chemicals above are probably safe when applied topically like in sunscreen lotion but the argument becomes completely different when we're talking about inhaling them. With spray sunscreen, you get new concerns. Not only is there a potential of inhalation of all those chemicals but there have been widespread reports of uneven applications. When applying outside, wind can blow sunscreen away and the spray may not be reaching everywhere you thought you were applying. Yup, it's quick and easy but the FDA is currently investigating the effectiveness and health of it.

    Until a decision is reached, you can make your own decision. We offer everything you need to help you make the best choice. 

    What is SPF and what does it stand for?

    You may have looked at sunscreen and thought that the higher the SPF, the better the protection. That's partly right. SPF stands for "Sun Protection Factor", or how long the sunscreen will last.  What is interesting to know, is that it actually depends on who is using it.

    SPF is based on how long it usually takes for you to redden (or burn). So if it takes you 15 minutes to burn, SPF 5 will increase that amount five times. Crazy right? 

    Although that's only correct if you use a generous coat of sunscreen - more than most people ever conceive to use. So experts say to cut the number in half (because let's face it, none of us use as much sunscreen as we should). So if the bottle says SPF 30, it'll actually take 15 times longer. So does this means you can go a week on one application of SPF 100 sunscreen?  No. 

    SPF only applies to UVB rays. And because the Earth is constantly moving, the sun's rays increase and decrease throughout the day so the effectiveness won't remain the same. While UVB rays penetrate the skin's surface and cause problems, UVA rays color the skin (they're what tanning beds use) and are considered more dominant. So you need to be sure to have a broad-spectrum sunscreen to protect against both.

    It's also why most sunscreens, no matter the SPF strength, urge you to reapply every couple of hours.

    Best Tips for being in the Sun

    You should try to minimize your exposure to the sun.   While being in the sun for 10 or 15 minutes per day may help to increase Vitamin D levels, its generally best to limit your exposure.   No one likes being beet-red for the summer, so take these tips to heart and protect your skin!

  • Use a water-resistant sunscreen when swimming or sweating and reapply every 2 hours.
  • Wear wide-brim hats to cover your face and neck.
  • Cover up with shirts and loose-fitting clothing, especially during peak sun hours (10 am-4 pm).
  • Wear sunscreen even on cloudy days. The sun's rays can penetrate 80% of cloud cover so you could still burn!
  • Remember to cover or sunscreen your feet, nose, neck and hair lines.
  • Wear sunglasses with UV-protected lenses to keep your eyes safe. They can get burned too.
  • Use lip balm with UV-protect and reapply every hour.

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    About The Author
    Dr. Matt Marturano, ND is a licensed naturopathic physician and received his Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and also has a dual Bachelor of Science in Biology and Philosophy from the University of Michigan. In addition, Dr. Marturano currently is a member of the Michigan Association of Naturopathic Physicians and is the Director of Recruitment - Integrative Medicine for Orchid Holistic Search.
    Legal Disclaimer:
    eVitamins recommends that you do not rely on the information presented in this article as diagnosis for treatment to any health claim. Content and information on this site is for reference purposes and is not intended to substitute for advice given by a physician, pharmacist, or other licensed health-care professional. You should not use this information as self-diagnosis or for treating a health problem or disease. Contact your health-care provider immediately if you suspect that you have a medical problem. The information and statements in this article have not been evaluated by the US Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or health condition. eVitamins assumes no liability for inaccuracies or misstatements.
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