Sunscreens. Shedding Light on the Facts.

Sunscreen. Protect your children!
Sunscreen. Protect your children!

NOTE: Sunscreens? What in the world do they have to do with pets?? To be honest, not much. However, they have everything to do with PurSpray Pet Care's commitment to "healthy pets, healthy people and a healthy planet." We plan to bring you more articles with the best advice on healthy, eco-friendly living for your entire family!

With the end of the school year in sight and the official start of summer looming on the horizon, we’re thinking about family vacations, pool parties, days on the beach and just enjoying being outside after a long, cold winter.

But what about all that sunshine? You probably don't need to be reminded that overdoing your time in the sun can have serious consequences. According to the National Cancer Institute, the rate of new melanoma cases among American adults has tripled since the 1970s. That’s why we love sunscreen! Just slap some on and we’re all set, right?

Maybe not.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has just published its 2015 Guide to Sunscreens, and what they have to say is rather sobering. After testing and rating an impressive 1700 products -- sunscreens, SPF-rated moisturizers and lip balms -- EWG’s news should grab our attention, to wit: nearly 80% of these sunscreen products are either ineffective or potentially harmful. That’s bad enough. But who is one of the worst offenders?



I feel like someone just told me there’s no Santa Claus.

This is news that deserves our attention, and I highly recommend that you get your own copy of EWG’s Guide to Safer Sunscreens (free when you make a donation of as little as $5). They've made it easy for you to find the safest sunscreens.  In the meantime, to be sure you and your family are really getting the best protection, here are 10 things, culled from the experts, that you need to know.

1.  Yes, Virginia, you do need to use sunscreen.

We’ll start simple –sunscreen is a must! But you need to be selective. Choose from EWG’s list of safer sunscreens and avoid those on their “Hall of Shame” list.

2.  Sharing the blame

Admit it. You and I are part of the problem. We may be using sunscreen, but if we’re not using it correctly, we might as well not bother. Here are 5 tips from the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

  • Apply before going outdoors. Yup.  It takes 15 minutes (the CDC says 30) for sunscreen to be absorbed and truly protect your skin.
  • Use enough. The AAD says it takes 1 oz of sunscreen to fully cover an adult’s exposed skin. That’s literally a handful!   Be sure to rub it in well.
  • Apply everywhere. Neck, face, ears, tops of feet and legs. Everywhere. We women are more apt to develop melanoma on our lower legs, men on their backs. Thinner hair? Apply sunscreen to your scalp or wear a hat. And use lip balm. Finally, don’t rely on makeup alone to protect your face, because you probably don’t use enough for good protection.
  • Reapply often. That means at least every 2 hours or immediately after swimming, sweating or toweling off.

Remember that sun exposure isn't limited to the beach or poolside. Yard work, hiking, biking, frisbee-throwing in the park, walking your dog -- you can be in the sun for significant amounts of time doing all kinds of activities. Be sure to protect yourself.

3.  Know your rays

We’ve all heard of UVA and UVB rays, but what are they, really? Here’s a quick primer:

  • UVB rays damage the superficial layers of the skin, causing sunburn and skin cancer. Their intensity varies by season, location and time of day but is worst during the summer months. Clouds and fog only partially block these rays, making protection necessary even on overcast days.
  • UVA rays are less powerful than UVB, so they were once thought to play little or no role in skin cancer. In recent years, however, scientists have concluded that, because they penetrate the skin more deeply, UVA rays contribute to and may even initiate the development of skin cancers. There are more of these rays, too – about 30-50 times more – and they are damaging all day long, all year long, and are not blocked by clouds or glass.

4.  Where our sunscreens get it wrong

Clearly, sunscreens should protect us from both UVA and UVB rays. However, while most U.S.-made sunscreens do a good job of screening UVB rays, they get failing grades when it comes to UVAs. Worst of all, we won't know the difference. Why?  UVB damage is  visible:  a sunburn. UVA damage is invisible as it occurs below the surface of the skin. So when we don’t turn lobster-red, we think our sunscreen has given us good protection. In reality, chances are it's only done half the job.

Why don't our sunscreens provide adequate UVA protection? The FDA has approved only 3 chemicals that filter UVA rays. Compare that to the 7 available to European sunscreen manufacturers, and it’s no wonder our sunscreens are short on UVA protection.

Sunscreens. SPF over 50 is a rip-off.
Sunscreens. SPF over 50 is a rip-off.

5.  High SPF does not mean greater protection

EWG says that SPFs higher than 50 are a ripoff. Even the FDA has called them “inherently misleading,” as effectiveness tops out at about SPF 50. Products with SPF ratings above 50 are banned in Europe, but attempts to do the same here have gone nowhere since 2007. EWG’s bad boy, Neutrogena, has a dozen or more products with "shamelessly high" SPFs of 70 or above. The added protection is negligible – higher SPFs filter less than 1% more UV rays.

Apart from being a waste of money, high SPFs can lull us into a false sense of security. Thinking that SPF 60 means we have twice as much protection as SPF 30, we tend to stay in the sun longer and reapply less frequently.

6.  Go broad-spectrum

Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect from both UVA and UVB rays. Sadly, we Americans will be hard pressed to find many truly good ones. “Broad-“ or “full-spectrum” on the label is no guarantee of good UVA protection, as FDA regulations are weak on this score. Once again, European sunscreens outdo ours, so much so that a good 50 percent of our “broad-spectrum” sunscreens wouldn’t even make it to store shelves in Europe.

Then what are our options? EWG recommends mineral sunscreens that use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. While there is some concern about nanoparticles -- tiny particles that help these creams rub on clearly and smoothly – EWG gives zinc oxide-based sunscreens a very low risk rating.

7.  It’s what’s inside that counts

Apart from their ineffectiveness against UVA rays, many sunscreens contain ingredients that can actually harm us. If you're lathering this stuff on your children, you have even greater cause for concern.  Here are three ingredients you should avoid.

  • Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate): Vitamin A sounds healthy, right? It is. Unless it’s absorbed through the skin. In that case, it’s suspected of increasing your risk of skin cancer.
  • Oxybenzone (or benzophenone-3): EWG warns that this UV filter can cause allergic skin reactions and may disrupt hormones (not a good thing) as it mimics estrogen in the body. Found in about 80 percent of chemical sunscreens, oxybenzone has also been connected to low birth weight in newborn girls.
  • Methylisothiazolinone (MI): MI is a preservative that has the rather dubious distinction of being named “allergen of the year” by the American Contact Dermatitis Society. Serious skin allergies have been reported, particularly in children exposed to MI in baby wipes and similar products that are meant to be left on the skin. Once again, Neutrogena gets a black mark for including MI in the sunscreen they have chosen to call “Pure & Free Baby.” A misnomer perhaps?

8.  Ditch the spray

They may be fast, convenient and less messy, but aerosol sprays can be inhaled. That means double trouble: absorbing toxins through your skin and breathing them into your lungs. They are also flammable (don't light up a cigarette or offer to grill those burgers) and a quick spray will give you next to no protection. Better to use creams or lotions.

Sunscreen is just one way to protect your child from UV rays. Hats and sunglasses rock!
Sunscreen is just one way to protect your child from UV rays. Hats and sunglasses rock!

9.  A multi-pronged approach

Don’t depend on sunscreen alone. Ideally, none of us should be baking in the sun. At the same time, we shouldn’t be afraid of the sunlight if we’re taking some common sense precautions.

  • Stay in the shade whenever possible, especially between 10 AM and 4 PM when the sun is most intense -- keeping in mind, however, that UVA rays are damaging all day long.
  • Wear sunglasses that block 100% of UV rays.
  • When outdoors, wear wide-brimmed hats that shade face, neck and ears.
  • UVA rays penetrate glass, so consider UV-protective film for your car windows as well as those in your house. It will still let in up to 80% of visible light while blocking up to 99.9% of UV radiation.
  • Consider UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) clothing which claims to block up to 98% of UVB rays (note that they say nothing about UVA rays, however). You’ll find everything from swimsuits and beach cover-ups to dresses and pants. L.L. Bean has a large selection, as does Coolibar.

10.  Let the sunshine in!

Finally, sunlight isn’t all bad! In fact, it’s one of our main sources of Vitamin D. If you wear sunscreen a lot, live where you have long winters with gray skies, or simply don’t get outside much, have your vitamin D level checked. Far too many of us are deficient in this important vitamin, leaving us at greater risk for everything from obesity and hypertension to heart disease and colon cancer.

What are your strategies for protecting your family from the sun? Did this article give you some good ideas?


“Eight Little-Known Facts About Sunscreens." No date.

“Sunscreen: How to apply.” No date.

“The Trouble With Sunscreen Chemicals." No date.

“Understanding UVA and UVB.” No date.

“UV Radiation.” No date.

“What’s Wrong With High SPF?” No date.

Savage, Jen. “80% of sunscreens are useless or harmful, says EWG.” May 19, 2015.