Skin damage from sun exposure is a serious health concern. During the summer, that risk rises dramatically with the number of hours spent outdoors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined over the past three decades. So it’s no surprise that protecting your largest organ is seen as critical self-care.
“The minute you step outside, you increase your risk of skin damage from the sun,” says Julia T. Hunter, M.D., founder of Wholistic Dermatology, in Beverly Hills, CA. “You need a non-toxic yet potent, science-based, daily skin health and environmental shield for protection to help restore, renew, and protect your skin.” Hunter recommends applying broad spectrum SPF 30 sun protection (with zinc oxide) 30 minutes before sun exposure, and reapplying every two hours, or sooner if you’re sweating or in the water. But here’s a scary truth: Some ingredients in your regular sunscreen may be doing you more harm than good.
Go natural—not au naturel
Some sunscreens are loaded with harsh chemicals that bring along sneaky (and serious) side effects. Since these harsh chemicals are molecularly small, they can seep into your body quickly. Red-flag ingredients to avoid: avobenzone, oxybenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene—especially if you’re pregnant, nursing, or trying to conceive. “These UV filters belong to a broader group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals like pesticides, BPA, and phthalates. The World Health Organization provides scientific data showing these chemicals’ links to adverse effects in humans,” says Denis K. Dudley M.D., F.R.C.S. Possible issues include skin irritation, infertility, certain cancers, ADHD, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s disease.
To form a cleaner shield against damaging sun rays, look for sunscreens with ingredients like zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and encapsulated octinoxate. These provide protection without the negative side effects, says Dudley. “The best approach: Find sunscreens that contain at least 20% concentration of zinc oxide,” he adds, or go with products that combine a lower percent of zinc oxide (15%) with another safe filter like titanium dioxide or encapsulated octinoxate (7.5%). Not only are these safer choices but they also help repair your skin faster than products with more harmful ingredients, according to Hunter. “Non-toxic skin-care products and peels are a foundation of skin health and beauty, plus they help revitalize and repair skin.”
What’s with the rays?
Make sure your sunscreen has UVA protection, because though all UV rays are damaging, UVA rays are longer than UVBs, which means they can penetrate deeper and contribute more to skin aging and wrinkling. “Most products prevent UVB effects like sunburn to some degree, but offer little or no protection against skin cancer or photoaging, where UVA rays play a major role,” says Dudley. “This incomplete protection contributes to rising annual skin cancer rates.”
To stay well-protected, keep in mind that ultraviolet radiation is reflected from water, sun, and buildings, says Hunter. “Consider wearing sun-protective clothing and hats on both sunny and cloudy days,” she adds.