By Eirish Sison
With summer fast approaching, it's hard to resist putting on your bathing suit, pulling up a lawn chair and soaking in the sun's warm rays. But fun in the sun comes with a dark shadow — skin cancer. With more than two million people diagnosed each year, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, accounting for nearly half of all cancer cases in the U.S.
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is considered the main cause of the most common types of skin cancer, and is also a key player in melanoma, the rarer but deadliest form of skin cancer. Because of this, you shouldn't take sun protection lightly.
Your best defense against sun damage is a good sunscreen. Find out how Consumer Reports rated 12 popular sunscreens for their July 2013 issue and get the scoop on the latest ingredients to include — and avoid — in this updated version of our Sunscreen Buying Guide!
Consumer Reports tested 12 different sunscreen sprays, creams and lotions on volunteers to determine each product’s effectiveness in protecting against both UVA rays — thought to be the main cause of skin aging, wrinkles and tanning — and UVB rays, which cause the burning, redness and peeling of a sunburn.
According to the Food and Drug Administration’s new rules governing sunscreens, one of the most important requirements is the testing and labeling of all products that identify as “broad spectrum” (protecting against UVB and UVA rays.) All sunscreens tested by the Consumer Reports lab passed this test. Consumer Reports’ sunscreen rankings were also based the scent and feel of the product on the skin.
Here are Consumer Reports’ top six sunscreen picks of 2013:
Up & Up Sport Continuous Spray SPF 30
Walmart’s Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50
Walgreens Continuous Spray Sport SPF 50
Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50
Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch SPF 30
Coppertone Sport High Performance SPF 30
While many of us might not ever glance at that long list of jargon on the back of every sunscreen bottle or spray, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environment and consumer watchdog organization, some common sunscreen ingredients may not be all that safe for your skin.
According to the group’s 2013 Guide to Sunscreens, a study by U.S. government scientists revealed that a form of vitamin A, called retinyl palmitate “may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight.”
EWG also disputes the safety of oxybenzone, a chemical found most commonly in beach and sport sunscreens. Studies have shown that this chemical can trigger allergic skin reactions in some individuals and that it may also act as a hormone disruptor. However, David Moskowitz, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Kaiser Permanente's Oakland Medical Center in Oakland, California, disagrees with the group's conclusions regarding the two substances. "I think that further study and concern is warranted for anything that we regularly apply to our skin. While I support such research, at this time, I have not seen evidence that has convinced me to recommend that my patients avoid these products," he said in an email interview.
Dr. Moskowitz also pointed out that previous studies on oxybenzone were done on animals that were force-fed large amounts of the compound, and the associated harmful effects were very unlikely — if not impossible — to result from normal sunscreen use, even if a small amount is absorbed into the body through the skin. And while he acknowledges that other studies seem to indicate that retinyl palmitate speeds the development of skin cancer, these studies have not been widely reproduced, and there may have been another ingredient contributing to the tumor and lesion formation. In fact, retinoids like retinyl palmitate are used to prevent skin cancer in certain patients.
Fortunately, those who are concerned about the effect of these chemicals can choose products that do not contain retinyl palmitate, and there are broad-spectrum sunscreens that avoid oxybenzone, instead using minerals to physically block UV radiation. Nanoparticles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are commonly used in these formulas. There is some concern about skin absorption of nanoparticles, but research shows that the outermost layer of the skin, when healthy, is an effective barrier against absorption.
The general consensus is that, based on current data, the benefits from using sunscreen far outweigh the possible risks.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), the ideal sunscreen should be water-resistant, so it cannot easily be removed by sweating or swimming; should have an SPF of at least 30; and should provide protection against both UVA and UVB rays. To ensure broad-spectrum protection, look for one or more of the following ingredients on your sunscreen label:
Be careful of brands that advertise sky-high SPFs, though, as the increase in this number usually corresponds to less cash in your wallet, with little additional sun protection. In fact, the FDA recently put a cap on all SPF labels at 50+ because there is no evidence that a number above 50 provides more protection. The FDA has also set regulations forbidding the use of terms like “sunblock,” “waterproof” or “sweatproof,” because these terms are misleading.
A great sunscreen won't do much if you don't use it properly, of course. According to the AAD, sunscreen should be applied liberally on dry skin 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure, and reapplied every 2 hours, or after swimming or perspiring heavily (yes, even the water-resistant formulas). One ounce, enough to fill a shot glass, is the recommended amount needed to properly cover all exposed skin. Make sure to apply it on oft-neglected spots like your ears and the tops of your feet, and pay special attention to your face, hands and arms. Don't forget your lips, either!
Both the AAD and the FDA also recommend wearing protective clothing; being careful around reflective surfaces like water, snow or sand; seeking shade "when your shadow is shorter than you are"; avoiding tanning beds; and regularly checking your skin for abnormalities, as additional protective measures.
Eirish Sison is a health writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Published June 13, 2013