Choosing the Best Sunscreens—and Avoiding the Worst

How safe is your sunscreen?

It's sunscreen shopping season and the just-released 2012 Sunscreen Guide published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) helps steer consumers toward healthy, affordable choices. This year's guide rates over 1,800 sunscreens (for both adults and kids), lip balms, and moisturizers and cosmetics with SPF. The leading cause of skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and, according to the National Cancer Institute, over one million people are diagnosed a year.

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Often people grab whatever sunscreen is labeled with the highest SPF and assume it's the best. The EWG guide warns shoppers that choosing a safe product isn't just about the numbers. Their research spotlights potential health hazards:

  • • Dangerous ingredients. Retinyl palmitate (Vitamin A) may cause tumors and lesions to develop more quickly when skin is exposed to the sun. Nneka Leiba, Senior Research Analyst and the guide's lead author, tells Shine, "The FDA and National Toxicology both say it may heighten risk of skin damage and cancer." Oxybenzone is linked to hormone disruption and can cause allergic reactions. EWG recommends choosing products with one of these ingredients instead: zinc, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, or Mexoryl SX.

• Sprays or powders. These formulations can fill the air with tiny particles that EWG says are dangerous to inhale. They can cause lung inflammation and may be carcinogenic.

• SPF values above 50+. The FDA says these labels are misleading and may encourage people to stay out in the sun for too long. Since SPF is based only on UVB protection (which prevents sunburn but does not guard against premature aging and deeper tissue damage), users of super high SPF products often have a false sense of security.

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The guide comes on the heels of a recent announcement by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that they will give sunscreen manufacturers an additional six months to comply with guidelines that were that were outlined in June, 2011 and were aimed to ending confusion about sunscreen labeling. The FDA guidelines, which were to go into effect June 18, encouraged companies to use ingredients that protect against both UVB and UVA rays, required warning labels on products with lower than an SPF 14 rating, and banned manufacturers from using unsubstantiated terms such as "waterproof," "sunblock," and claims of "all-day protection."

Since the FDA guidelines now won't go into effect until long past beach season, the EWG Sunscreen Guide is your best bet for finding effective products.

EWG's list of worst sunscreens

The EWG recommends avoiding these sunscreens because they are spays or powders, have SPF values above 50+, and contain retinyl palmitate and/or oxybenzone.

Neutrogena Fresh Cooling Body Mist Sunblock, SPF 70

Banana Boat Sport Performance Active MAX Protect Continuous Spray Sunscreen, SPF 110

Aveeno Continuous Protection Sunblock Spray Active, SPF 70

Wegmans Sheer Sunscreen Body Mist, SPF 55

Rite Aid Extreme Sport Continuous Spray, SPF 70+

CVS Sheer Mist Sunscreen, SPF 70

Walgreens Sheer Body Mist Sunscreen Spray, SPF 70

Coppertone Sport Clear Continuous Spray Sunscreen, SPF 90

Best affordable sunscreens

Based on its analysis of over 800 beach and sport sunscreens, the EWG provided Yahoo! Shine with its 15 most affordable, recommended products:

Coppertone Kids Pure & Simple Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50

BabyGanics Cover Up Baby Sunscreen for Face & Body, Fragrance Free, SPF 50+

Sunbow Dora the Explorer Sunscreen, Pink, SPF 30

Purple Prairie Botanicals SunStuff Mineral Lotion, SPF 30

Nature's Gate Aqua Block Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50

Solbar Shield Sunscreen, SPF 40

Caribbean Solutions Sol Kid Kare Biodegradable Sunscreen, SPF 25

Tropical Sands Broad Spectrum Sunscreen, SPF 30

KidsUV Natural Sunscreen, Blue, SPF 30

Color Me Pink Baby UV/ Kids UV 100% Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30

Alba Botanica Natural Very Emollient Sunblock, Kids Mineral Protection, SPF 30

Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen, Face, SPF 30+

Healing-Scents Live Long Mineral-Based Sunscreen, SPF 25

Hara Body Care Hara Sport Sunscreen, SPF 30

Vanicream Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 35

All of the above meet the following criteria:

• Good, stable sun protection

• Fewest ingredients with toxicity concerns. Do not contain the worst offenders: retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone.

• No sprays or powders

• No SPF values above 50+

Applying sunscreen correctly

It is important to be aware that sunscreen isn't going provide you with proper protection if you don't apply it correctly, and only about one in five people actually do so on a daily basis.

"Adults need to apply a palmful [an ounce] of sunscreen every two hours," Leiba tells Shine. "Don't slather it on once and stay out all day." Leiba also recommends that you avoid the sun completely from 10AM to 2PM and use a hat, clothing, and sunglasses as your primary protection.

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