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S.O.S. – Save Our Skin – Your Ultimate Guide to Sunscreen

To SPF 30 or to SPF 100? That is the question.

Ultraviolet Rays and Sunscreen

Sunlight consists of many different rays, but ultraviolet rays are the most harmful to us. Two main types of ultraviolet rays that reach the earth’s surface are UVA and UVB. Sunlight has roughly 500 times more UVA rays than UVB. However, the effects of UVB are just as, if not more, detrimental, causing sunburns to malignant melanoma. UVA rays are the culprit of premature skin aging, leaving your skin with discolorations and wrinkles, as well as other types of skin cancer.

The National Weather Service in the U.S. has created an UV Index to rate the strength of ultraviolet rays by region. The rating is on a scale from 0 to 11+, 0 having the least risk. View the map or click on the button below, titled Ultraviolet Index, to find your area’s rating and take the necessary precautions listed in the subsequent table.

Sunscreen US map of UV indices
RatingRiskMinutes To BurnPrecautions
0-2Low60 minutesBroad spectrum sunscreen, UV Sunglasses
3-5Moderate30-45 minutesBroad spectrum sunscreen, UV sunglasses, hat, and umbrella/shade
6-7High15-30 minutesAvoid the sun from the late morning to mid-afternoon, broad spectrum sunscreen, UV sunglasses, hat, and umbrella/shade
8-10Very High15 minutesAvoid the sun from the late morning to mid-afternoon, broad spectrum sunscreen, UV sunglasses, hat, protective clothing , and umbrella/shade
11+Extreme10 minutesAvoid the sun from the late morning to mid-afternoon, broad spectrum sunscreen, UV sunglasses, hat, protective clothing , and umbrella/shade

Although seemingly benevolent, the sunscreen business can be a tricky marketing ploy that targets consumer’s misconceptions and fears. The general misconception is that the higher SPFs yield more protection against the sun’s rays. The obvious fear, besides a bad sunburn, is skin cancer. In 2019 the U.S. FDA proposed to cap SPF limits at 60+, but was interrupted by Covid-19. (To point out, the original limit was SPF 50, but the final drafts of the proposal increased to 60.) The FDA has long believed that SPFs greater than 50 are “inherently misleading.” Australian regulators have long already set an SPF limit at 30, while European and Japanese authorities set the SPF limit at 50.

The truth is, the higher SPFs do not prove to be much more significantly effective than SPF 30. Often times it is assumed that SPF 100 would offer twice as much protection as opposed to SPF 50. However, in actuality, SPF 100 only offers 1% more protection than SPF 50 if applied the same. The application is key here. The slightest variance of application yields dramatically different outcomes when these sunscreens are put to the test in labs.

Chemicals In Sunscreen

Chemicals disguised as skin protectors, but actually causing harm to your body and the environment, have saturated much of the sunscreen product market. From infertility to cancer, these chemicals are secret killers to our bodies and earth’s biomes.

Click on each of the noteworthy, harmful chemicals in your sunscreen below to learn more:

Nanoparticles

Mainly due to its size, which is up to 1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, nanoparticles are insoluble and may be more chemically reactive . The body and environment reacts differently to nanomaterials than the same material that is non-nano. Although manufacturers claim that nanoparticles are safe, scientists show concerning proof indicating otherwise. Sunscreen commonly contains nanoparticle titanium dioxide or nanoparticle zinc oxide. In the water, nano sunscreens wash off people’s bodies and affect our aquatic biome. Even in very low concentrations, studies show that zinc oxide nanoparticles, cause significant disruption in sea life (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.5b00345).

If you are using a mineral sunscreen, zinc or titanium, make sure it is non-nano grade.

Oxybenzone, aka Benzophenone

This most commonly-used ingredient in FDA approved sunscreens, oxybenzone (aka benzophenone-3) is linked to endocrine disordersorgan system toxicity, contact allergies, and photoallergies. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 97 percent of Americans have this chemical circulating in their bodies. To be noted, oxybenzone or benzophenone-3 is not to be confused with benzophenone, which is yet another common sunscreen chemical ingredient. Needless to say, oxybenzone is equally harmful to aquatic life and in 2018, Hawaii banned it to protect coral reefs.

Avobenzone, aka benzophenone

Found in FDA approved chemical-based sunscreens, avobenzone is often used as an alternative to oxybenzone. This carcinogenic ingredient works the same as oxybenzone and has similar risks to endocrine disorders, organ system toxicity, contact allergies, and photoallergies.  

Formaldehyde, Diazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, DMDM Hydantoin and Hydroxymethylglycinate

Classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, formaldehyde is an ingredient not outright listed, but many of the preservatives that have been used as substitutes release formaldehyde! Diazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, DMDM Hydantoin and Hydroxymethylglycinate are all formaldehyde releasers. Besides being toxic to the human body, it is also an ecotoxin.

Homosalate

A common sunscreen ingredient that absorbs UVB rays, homosalate accumulates in the body faster than it is eliminated and is linked to hormone disruption. Besides sunscreen, this ingredient is also found in bug sprays and may increase the absorption of pesticides. Due to health concerns, FDA limits this ingredient to less than 10% in any formula. Since homosalate is not degradable, it is considered to be persistent in the environment.

Methylisothiazolinone

Widely used as a preservative, methylisothiazolinone is an irritant associated with allergic reactions. Besides being considered an ecotoxin, lab studies suggest that it may also be a neurotoxin.

Microbeads

Microbeads are most commonly used in cleansers, exfoliants, and toothpastes. Being so small, they go unfiltered through most wastewater treatment plants and end up in the environment. Microbeads have been found in fish and other aquatic species.

Octocrylene

Causing allergic reactions especially in those with sensitive skin, octocrylene is a synthetic UV absorber and SPF booster. It has been found to bio-accumulate in the body and may potentially induce adverse effects on the endocrine system as well as having allergic and/or photoallergic reactions.

Octinoxate, Octyl methoxycinnamate

Octinoxate is another FDA approved and common sunscreen ingredient as an UV filter. It is not only absorbed through the skin, but having been found in urine, blood, and breast milk, it has been proven to also be systematically absorbed. Besides being an endocrine disruptor that can mimic hormones, it is an environmental disruptor, as well. Octinoxate is known to be a direct cause for coral bleaching.

Parabens

Parabens may be listed as: propylparaben, benzylparaben, methylparaben and butylparaben. Parabens are inexpensive preservatives, preventing the growth of molds, bacteria, and yeast in personal care products like shampoos, lotions, and sunscreens. Parabens can mimic the body’s hormones like estrogen and have been known to contribute to breast cancer. If the label does not clearly state “paraben-free,” be sure to read the ingredients.

Phthalates

Mostly in synthetic fragrances, phthalates are endocrine disruptors that may also interfere with normal brain function. Mainly blocking male hormones, phthalates can disrupt normal genitalia development, as well as cause low sperm and testosterone levels in adult males.

Retinyl Palmitate

Retinyl palmitate is essentially palmitic acid and retinol (Vitamin A) and often found in many cosmetic and skin care products. With exposure to sunshine and UV light, the retinol compounds release toxins that can damage the skin. Extensive, daily skin application of vitamin A creams may also bio-accumulate to a toxic level, according to the FDA.

Cyclopentasiloxane or Cyclomethicone

Cyclopentasiloxane is a silicone-based ingredient commonly found in skin and hair care products that help polish, soften, and smooth. Environmental concerns in aquatic organisms, as well as health concerns (reproductive and endocrine) are being examined.

Blue-light

With the increase use of consumer electronics, blue light, also known as HEV light, penetrates deeper than ultraviolet rays and has been found to obstruct normal cellular functions and increase hyperpigmentation, both contributing to premature skin aging. Typically sunscreens contain only titanium and zinc oxide, which protect against UVA and UVB rays. But, this is not enough in today’s world. According to results of a study in The Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, iron oxides provide enhanced protection against HEV or blue light, especially when combined with zinc oxide.

Key Take-Aways

Look not only for broad-spectrum sunscreen which provides protection against UVA and UVB rays, but also for sunscreen with iron oxides which protect against blue light. Pay attention to the ingredients and stay away from the harmful chemicals listed above. Ultimately, with up to 2% difference in protection, SPF 30 is almost as effective as SPF 60 or higher when applied thickly every 2-3 hours, especially after coming out of the water. Protect your skin all 365 days of the year. Be aware of your skin type and visit your dermatologist annually to screen for skin cancer. Wear protective clothing, including sunglasses and hats during the summer, and try to avoid being in the sun during peak hours. As long as preventative measures are being taken, there’s no reason to still enjoy the sun and soak up that Vitamin D.

Our Favorite Products to Protect You Against Harmful Rays

Click below and shop our favorite sunscreen product brands, Puraveda and Earth Mama, which contain non-nano zinc and iron oxides to protect your skin against blue light and ultraviolet rays.

Our Favorite Resources for this Article and Beyond:

To stay up-to-date, we subscribe to the following newsletters, blogs, and sites. To learn more click below.

Friends of the Earth

National Institute for Health/NIH

Environmental Working Group/EWG

Made Safe

Chemsec SIN List

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Skin Commandments

food healthy wood nature

Simple rules for healthy, beautiful skin:

  1. Hydrate inside and out. Besides water, try green and herbal teas; they’re packed with antioxidants. Minimize your intake of caffeine and alcohol as they dehydrate and inflame tissue. Moisturize two times a day.
  2. Sleep is restorative and your skin regenerates and absorbs serums best while you sleep.
  3. Eat a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts and fish. Multivitamins are great to supplement any nutrient gaps, but the goal is to intake most of your vitamins and minerals through fresh food. Minimize your intake of salt and processed foods/sugar.
  4. Exercise increases blood flow and gives your face a healthy glow. Don’t be afraid to sweat! Sweating rids the body of toxins and sheds dead skin cells so new ones can grow.
  5. Fresh air equals O2. Oxygen is essential to the health and maintenance of cells. It boosts blood flow, which has a domino effect on collagen and elastin tissue.
  6. Sun care 365 days, rain or shine.
  7. Hands off your face.
  8. Exfoliate weekly.
  9. If you smoke, quit. Never quit quitting smoking. Try and try again with patches, gum, hypnotherapy, or read Allen Carr’s The Easy Way to Stop Smoking.
  10. Smile! It immediately brightens your appearance and creates positive thinking.
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Fitzpatrick Skin Types

Created in 1972 by Thomas Fitzpatrick, this skin scale is still widely used in dermatology. The scale ranges from I to VI and helps determine the individual’s likelihood of tanning or burning, thus an individual’s susceptibility to skin cancer. Generally, a lower Fitzpatrick skin type indicates skin that burns more easily than it tans, while a higher Fitzpatrick skin type indicates the opposite.

Knowing your skin type determines which treatments and products are effective for you. For example, when having laser or light based procedures performed, those with skin types IV and above would not benefit as much and possibly even with pigmentation side effects. There is criticism that the Fitzpatrick scale is not broad enough, however, it remains adequate in establishing baseline data.

Burning and tanning descriptions of Fitzpatrick Skin Types I - VI

WHAT SKIN TYPE ARE YOU?

Answer the questions below and add the points

Score01234
Eye colorlight blue, grey, greenblue, grey, greenbluedark brownbrownish black
Natural hair color?sandy, redblondechestnut, dark blondedark brownblack
Color of non-exposed skin?reddishvery palepale with beige tintlight browndark brown
Freckles on unexposed areas?manyseveral fewincidentalnone
When you stay in the sun too long/Have you ever experienced…painful redness, blistering, peelingblistering followed by peelingburns sometimes followed by peelingrarely burnsnever burns
To what degree do you tan?hardly or not at alllight colored tanreasonable tantans easilyturns dark quickly
Do you tan after several hours after sun exposure?NeverSeldomSometimesOftenAlways
How does your face react to the sun?Very sensitiveSensitiveSome resistanceVery resistantNever had a problem
When did you last expose your skin to sun or a tanning booth/cream?More than 3 months ago2-3 months ago1 -2 months agoLess than 1 month agoLess than 2 weeks ago
Do you expose the area to be treated to the sun?NeverHardly everSometimesOftenAlways
1. Add down each column for subtotal.
2. Add subtotal across for grand total.
_____ +_____ +_____ + _____ +_____ =

What your score means:

Skin Type ScoreFitzpatrick Skin Type
0-7I
8-16II
17-25III
26-30IV
over 30V-VI