Summer sun protection

Photo: istockphoto.com/dejanristovski

Summer is here and so is fun in the sun. But our sunscreens may not be offering the full protection we thought. A bit of sun is actually good for us since it helps generate Vitamin D, an important supplement for strong bones, muscles and an immune system. Sunshine also regulates our serotonin and tryptamine levels, those neurotransmitters responsible for helping us feel happy. The problem is most of us don't know when to get into the shade and we have been lulled into thinking sunscreen will protect us from the harmful effects of the sun.

UVA vs UVB

The sun produces two types of ultraviolet rays (UV). Ninety percent of the rays hitting the earth are UVA, which are not absorbed by the ozone layer and penetrate deep into our skin. UVB rays — the rays that turn us lobster-red — are partially absorbed by the ozone layer. Because they don't penetrate the skin as deeply, UVB rays burn the skin. Both types of UV rays are believed to cause skin cancer.

SPF confusion

Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the UV rays. Most of us don't understand the whole Sun Protection Factor (SPF) formula and assume incorrectly that the higher the number the longer the protection. The old formula — now proven to be inaccurate — was that the SPF number indicated how long the protection would last. So, if it took you 10 minutes to burn then SPF 15 gave 150 minutes of protection. But researchers now believe most sunscreens give between 60 to 90 minutes of protection, despite the SPF factor.

Instead, we should be using the SPF factor to determine how much of the UVB rays are being blocked. A SPF 15 blocks 94 percent of UVB rays, while SPF 30 blocks 97 percent, so if you need more protection go with a SPF 30. The FDA has also limited the SPF rating to 30 since higher SPFs don't offer that much more protection and give consumers a false sense of security. It also ruled that no sunscreen is waterproof.

The other thing to consider is that we have no way of effectively blocking UVA or even measuring how much protection is given.

Don't get burned

The Environmental Working Group completed an 18 month research project and found that 84 percent of the 783 sunscreens tests offered inadequate protection from the sun while containing chemicals with significant safety concerns. Typical ingredients like Benzophenone, homosalate and octyl methoxycinnamate (also called octinoxate) are hormone disruptors while Padimate-0 and parsol 1789 (aka avobenzone) are suspected of causing DNA damage when exposed to sunlight. Visit their Skin Deep database to check your brand and find one they recommend.

A white nose may be a safe nose

A safer choice are the physical sunscreens that reflect or scatter UVB rays.These contain mineral ingredients like titanium dioxide (TiO2) or zinc oxide (ZO) that lieon top of the skin creating a barrier from UV rays. But they also leave a telltale white mask on the skin (remember the lifeguard's nose?). To make the product look more attractive, manufacturers use nanometer-sized particles of TiO2 and ZO that become transparent on the skin. A nanometer (nm) is super tiny — about a billionth of a meter. A single human hair is about 80,000 nm in diameter. Scientists are worried these minuscule particles are small enough to slip through the skin's tough outer layer and cause chaos with bodily functions. The Australian government has determined that nano-sized particles larger than 100 nm are too large to penetrate the deepest skin layers and therefore pose no threat. Cosmetic companies often used the term "micronized" to describe nano-sized particles so it's important to verify exactly how small "micronized" is within a particular product. Healthy alternatives The safest way to prevent a sunburn is to stay in the shade between 11 am and 3 pm, and cover your arms, legs and head. Read more about hats and sunglasses in our Sunny and stylish days ahead article. Since staying in the shade is not always possible, check out our list of organic, mineral-based sunscreens:

  • Alba Botanica Sun Fragrance-Free Mineral Sunscreen
  • Avalon Baby Sunscreen SPF 18
  • Badger SPF 30 Sunscreen
  • Burt's Bees Chemical-Free Sunscreen SPF 15
  • California Baby SPF 30
  • Juice Beauty Green Apple SPF 15 Moisturizer
  • Kabana Green Screen SPF 15


  • Enjoy your summer fun!