Although experts disagree on which products are safe, they all agree that we should be slathering on some type of product when you can't avoid the sun.
But it gets tricky when it comes to figuring out which to pick. With ever more products available, and with contradictory reports on safety, navigating the sunscreen aisle can be tricky.
Updated label regulations from the FDA changed the way manufacturers showcase their products, with SPF limited to "50+" and skin cancer alerts on products that aren't broad spectrum. Water resistance claims are more targeted, and claims of products that are "waterproof" or "sweatproof" have been eliminated.
Sunbathing May Be Addictive
The Environmental Working Group, a public health nonprofit, started evaluating sunscreens eight years ago in an effort to raise awareness of potentially dangerous ingredients in products. It bases its ratings for safety and sun protection on ingredients, UVA (ultraviolet A, long-wave rays) and UVB (ultraviolet B, short-wave rays) protection and the ratio between the two, and how long the product remains effective.
The reports have been called alarmist in the past, and the American Academy of Dermatology continues to stand by its position that all sunscreens in the United States are safe. EWG says it's simply working from the precautionary principle. And despite its cautious approach, more and more products are getting the green light since the EWG has been analyzing sunscreens (although few of them are mass marketed brands).
Hidden Sunscreen Additives Advocates are concerned about a form of vitamin A, retinyl palmitate, that's often added to sunscreen, referring to a study that suggested that it can speed the development of skin tumors and lesions in the presence of sunlight.
"Clearly, the FDA's regulations on sunscreens are doing little to stem the tide of poorly-made products, and that could have serious effects on Americans' health," Sonya Lunder, senior research analyst at EWG, said in a press release. "Since we started this project eight years ago, we've seen few improvements in the safety or efficacy of sunscreens sold by mass-marketed brands."
Extreme Heat Waves Becoming The Norm
Others worry about vitamin D deficiency if you're always wearing sunscreen.
"This is a scenario where you can have your cake and eat it, too," said dermatological surgeon Jerry Brewer of the Mayo Clinic. "You can get vitamin D from the sun and your diet, and you can take a supplement if you're not getting enough from the sun." About 10-15 minutes of sun exposure is good for your daily vitamin D dose, depending on your skin tone.
Mineral vs. Non-Mineral The debate between mineral (or physical) vs. non-mineral (or chemical) sunscreens seems to provoke the most passion between the "play-it-safe" camp and those who believe concerns have been overly hyped, and that the benefits of using any sunscreen far outweigh the risk.
Mineral sunscreens, which the EWG favors, use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to help shield your skin from the sun -- and this year, you're likely to see more products of these type lining the shelves of your local co-op. The nano- and micro-sized particles are not believed to penetrate the skin.
More traditional products rely on octisalate (found in 59 percent of products, according to the EWG), oxybenzone (found in 52 percent) and avobenzone (found in 49 percent). Oxybenzone presents the most concerns; it can trigger allergic reactions, is a potential hormone disrupter, and penetrates the skin in relatively large amounts, according to the EWG.
"There has been a lot of hype about possibly causing endometriosis or increasing skin cancer," Brewer said. "The bottom line is, sunscreen continues to be one of the most effective methods of sun protection available."
Oxybenzone has been approved by the FDA since 1978.
"Available peer-reviewed scientific literature and regulatory assessments from national and international bodies do not support a link between oxybenzone in sunscreen and hormonal alterations, or other significant health issues in humans," said Dr. Daniel M. Siegel, president of the AAD, in a 2012 statement.
"The FDA has approved oxybenzone in sunscreen for use on children older than six months, and dermatologists continue to encourage protecting children by playing in the shade, wearing protective clothing and applying broad-spectrum sunscreen."
Lotion or Spay?
Despite the convenience of spray sunscreens, most groups are recommending avoiding or limiting use of them out of concern that nano-particles find their way into lungs. The FDA has requested data from manufacturers before making a recommendation, and the AAD and Consumer Reports say to use with caution, especially on children. EWG recommends avoiding them entirely.
Bacteria Boost Sunscreen
Should You Tan At All?
Brewer often gets asked, What's the right amount of tan I can get?
"The strict medical answer is that the sun is a proven carcinogen," he said. "It's probably the most common carcinogen known to man...so there really is no tan that is a healthy tan. Any amount of tan means your skin has been exposed to a carcinogen which increases the chances of cancer years later...and if you're wearing sunscreen and still getting tan, then you're not putting it on often enough or thick enough."
The EWG recommends avoiding the sun during peak hours and wearing naturally sun-resistant clothing (hold it up to the sun to see how much light gets through), hats, and sunglasses, in combination with a safe sunscreen.
"If I were giving recommendations, I'd say to find something you'll use," Brewer said. "I get asked all the time, what's the right sunscreen for me? I can explain what SPF means, but the bottom line is, if you're going to use the SPF 15 every day because it's easy to put on," that's probably the best choice. It's the habit that's protective. Even an SPF of 15 put on daily can decrease the chances of skin cancer by 50 percent over a person's lifetime.