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Illustration of a tube of sunscreen.

While recent research shows that a little sun exposure each day may benefit your health, most experts suggest that you protect yourself if you plan to spend long stretches in the sun.

The problem is many sunscreen products contain harmful chemicals, and some are not as effective as they seem, according to the Washington, D.C.–based Environmental Working Group (EWG). About three-fourths of the products the group looked at for its 2020 Sunscreen Guide contain harmful ingredients and offer weak sun protection.

How to Pick a Safe Sunscreen

To help you find an effective and safe sunscreen, here’s advice from EWG’s 2020 Sunscreen Guide:

  • Beware a “50+” SPF. According to the FDA, no reliable research has shown that sunscreens with sun protection factors (SPF) above 60 offer significantly better protection than those with a 60 SPF. However, notes the EWG, the FDA has in the past called SPF values over 50 “inherently misleading” because they lull consumers into a false sense of security. What’s more, SPF values refer only to protection from sunburn. They don’t indicate protection against UVA rays, which can damage skin cells and play a role in accelerated skin aging and skin cancer. EWG recommends that consumers avoid products that tout an SPF higher than 50+.
  • Look for UVA protection on the label. Almost all sunscreens are great at blocking UVB rays. But for protection against the far more damaging UVA rays, which can cause malignant melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer), choose mineral-based sunscreens rather than their chemical counterparts. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are active ingredients in mineral-based sunscreens that block UVA rays.
  • Opt for lotion over spray and powder sunscreens. Because spray and powder sunscreens are more easily inhaled (and hence more directly accessible to the bloodstream), opt for lotions, which are considered safer, when choosing a mineral-based option.
  • Beware oxybenzoneStay away from sunscreens that contain this active ingredient, which has been linked to allergic reactions and potential hormone disruption. It is particularly harmful for children and has been linked to low infant birth weight.
  • Avoid vitamin A in your sunscreen. Studies suggest that lesions are quicker to form on skin slathered with creams containing retinyl palmitate, which also appears on labels as “retinol” or “vitamin A.” You still want vitamin A in your food; just avoid it in your sunscreen.
  • Avoid sunscreens with insect repellent. A two-in-one product sounds great, especially if you’re trying to wrangle little kids, but avoid the temptation. The two products may need to be applied on different schedules.
  • Don’t rely solely on sunscreen when UV radiation is at its peak. At midday, when UV radiation is at its highest, you’ll get the best sun protection when you use sunscreen as part of a broader sun-protection strategy. Hats, sunglasses, shirts, shorts, and rashguards can help keep you covered. Try to take breaks as well and find shady spots to picnic or read.
  • Reapply, reapply, reapply. Cream sunscreens can wash off in the water, rub off on towels, and wear off in the sun. Make regular reapplication part of your routine.
  • Men, take note! More than twice as many men as women will die from melanoma in 2020, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

If you want to see how the prod­ucts you already have in your cabinet stack up, visit the EWG Sunscreen Guide here.

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