Posted by: Miriclaire | June 20, 2010

Sunscreens 101 ~ What you need to know

The business of selecting a sunscreen is not as straightforward as sunscreen companies would like us to believe. Forget the attractive packaging and misleading  labeling claims; it’s time to learn  how  to protect yourself and your family against skin cancer, cell damage and premature aging.

The two classes of ultra-violet rays that we need most protection from are UVA and UVB rays. Think of it this way: A is for aging – B is for burning. Both cause damage and  are linked to skin cancer.

UVA rays penetrate past the surface of your skin, causing connective-tissue damage and premature aging, potentially causing skin cancer by suppressing your immune system. But, there are two types of UVA rays, to further complicate things. There is a long wave and a short wave. Not all sunscreens will have ingredients that will protect you against long-wave UVA.

UVB rays are the burning rays that are linked directly to deadly skin cancer. While Europe has systems for measuring UVA, the United States and Canada only have a system for measuring UVB – which we call the SPF system, or  Sun Factor Protection, which is rated in different strengths. However, before understanding the strengths, you first should know that SPF only refers to blocking the UVB rays of the sun – not the damaging UVA rays.

The whole SPF numbering is little-understood and people are easily misled about the protective capacity of SPFs. For instance some think an SPF of 30 means you can stay in the sun twice as long than if wearing an SPF 15 or that an SPF 50 will work better than a SPF 30. Experts say that this is false.

SPF 30 filters 97% of UVB. Any number higher adds little blocking benefit although some sunscreens on the market now are claiming an SPF 50 and more. This is misleading and consumers may be put at higher risk of skin damage believing they are 100% protected when no sun screen can block 100% of the harmful rays.

Sunscreens that contain both UVA and UBV protection will be labeled “Broad Spectrum”. Here is what they will contain.

Essential Ingredients in broad spectrum Sunscreens: avobenzone, or Parsol 1789; titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or Ecamsule or called by the trade name Mexoryl SX / mexoryl LX.

Avobenzone protects against long-wave UVA rays which is essential. Some other ingredients will only protect against short UVA rays which is insufficient. For instance, oxybenzone can only protect against short-wave UVA rays and should not be confused with Ayobenzone.

Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are antioxidant minerals which have many benefits beyond sun protection but are essential in sunscreens. They scatter, reflect, and absorb UV light. Some claim that zinc oxide provides more protection than titanium dioxide.  Find out more about these ingredients here.

Ecamsule is a chemical (sometimes referred to by the trade name Mexoryl SX and/or mexoryl lx) which is a potent ingredient for protection against UVA and UVB rays, as it absorbs ultraviolet rays and discharges them as thermal energy. Lotions with this ingredient may be referred to as “Anthelios” .This ingredient is still not found in many sunscreens whereas zinc oxide is.

Added Ingredients:

Anti-oxidants are nutrients and substances that fight free-radicals that lead to premature again, cell damage and cancer. Aloe is one ingredient that is added that has benefits as do vitamins C, E, green tea and grape-leaf extracts.

Of course there are many ingredients added to cosmetics which are harmful to many people such as  chemicals and fragrances which can range from irritating to cancer-causing.

  • Vitamin A ~ There is recent controversy about Vitamin A and a possible link to accelerated growth of tumors and lesions. According to the Environmental Work Group, a non-profit research organization, “new concerns are being raised about a vitamin A compound called retinyl palmitate, found in 41 percent of sunscreens. The FDA is investigating whether this chemical, when applied to skin that is then exposed to sunlight, may accelerate skin damage and elevate skin cancer risk.”
  • alcohol and Isopropyl can dry the skin, aggravate sensitive skin and even cause age spots.
  • Parabens are potentially dangerous preservatives found in many countless beauty products including sunscreen. They can result in severe rashes and pain and irritation to the eyes, throat and nose. One type, Methylparaben, applied on skin may result in increased skin aging and DNA damage. Parabens have been linked to breast cancer.
  • Fragfrances like synthetic musk can irritate skin disrupt hormone systems..

With the industry left so unregulated, you must be your own advocate when it comes to sun protection, so be suspicious of claims found on the packaging and labels of sun screens. The EWA recommended only 8% of 500 brands reviewed with most negative reports having to do with faulty labeling and claims.

Additional claims: Sun block, waterproof, 100% protection

Sun screens are not water-proof, although they may be water-resistant and the best one for you should contain some water-resisting element. But re-application is vital after sweating or swimming. Be wary of labeling that says “sun block” – sunscreens do not block sun rays. They reflect or absorb them.

In summary, seek a sunscreen:

* with at least 30 SPF, and is broad-spectrum- addressing both UVA and UVB rays,

* which is water-resistant.

* apply the full amount as recommended on the label

* re-apply at least every two hours or after getting wet.

* wear a hat and cover your exposed skin when possible.

* apply it 20 to 30 minutes before heading outdoors to all exposed areas.

Both the Canadian Dermatology Association and American Academy of Dermatology remind that we need sunscreen even on cloudy days for 80% of ultraviolet rays still penetrate the clouds. In the winter, sun is reflected off the snow and sun screen is also required in cold months.  For more information on sunscreens, and reports on particular brands, visit the


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