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Summer is in full swing and the sun has gone full-frontal. And this short spell of long days means more time outdoors. If you’re sun savvy, you’re seeking shade from 10am-4pm, wearing protective clothing, donning a constant hat, and wearing sunscreen.

Wait, wearing sunscreen? Is that even safe anymore?

Therein lies the crux of the sunscreen conundrum, the solar catch-22. You wear sunscreen to protect yourself from skin cancer, but increasing research shows that conventional sunscreens contain chemicals that can actually cause cancer – as well as disrupt hormones and trigger allergies.

The eco-minded could develop whiplash following the ongoing sunscreen debate. But don’t throw in the beach towel yet. You just need to know what to avoid, what to seek out, and why.

Following are a few nuggets from the front line of the sunscreen debate…

Chemical vs Physical

Chemical sunscreens are absorbed directly into the skin and work by diverting the sun’s rays. These chemicals, such as avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, oxybenzone and octocrylene, are typically found in combination since some soak up only UVA rays, some just UVB.

Most sunscreen chemicals on the market do technically “work” – they do the job of absorbing radiation. They are appealing because they’re invisible, versatile, and a snap to apply – particularly on squirmy kids eager to hop in the pool.

But they can have significant impact on people and the environment. Because they penetrate the skin and cannot be washed away, they can actually get into the bloodstream, causing allergic reactions and disrupting hormones, including the reproductive hormones testosterone and estrogen. Oxybenzone is also toxic to coral reefs, which provide sustenance as well as critical shoreline buffer from floods and storms.

Many chemical sunscreens break down in sunlight, so they can actually damage the very skin they’re applied to protect. When these chemicals break down, they create DNA-damaging free radicals as well as leaving skin vulnerable to UV radiation.

Physical sunscreens, like zinc and titanium, sit on top of the skin and reflect both UVA and UVB rays. They are not absorbed into the skin. They do not break down in sunlight, so they are longer-lasting than chemical sunscreens. Some formulas are thicker, harder to apply, and leave a telltale “Casper” residue.

“Inactive” Ingredients

As great as they may sound (Anti-aging! Sexy-smelling! Vitamin-packed!), in most cases these added chemicals aren’t recognized as safe. Paraben preservatives are allergenic and have been found in breast cancer tumors. Synthetic fragrances can contain phthalates. Vitamin A (retinol/retinyl palmitate) can work wonders in a night cream, but when exposed to sunlight can actually speed tumor growth.

A good rule of thumb is: the shorter the ingredient list, the better.

True SPF

In theory, SPF70 should let you stay out in the sun 70 times longer than without sunscreen. In reality, your skin is not the only thing getting burned by unregulated product labeling. Manufacturers can – and often do – fudge their SPF ratings.

The truth is, the higher the SPF, the higher the FSS (False Sense of Security). People wearing high SPF tend to stay out longer than they should and reapply less often, racking up more UV radiation than those who use a lower SPF.

Nano or Not

The “Casper” effect of zinc or titanium is probably the number one reason sunbathers reach for chemical blocks instead. Many companies have recently developed “clear” zinc formulas, some with nano particles. But not enough research has been done to greenlight these minute molecules, which are so small they might penetrate into the bloodstream and cause cellular damage. For now, it’s wise to avoid nano formulas. Brands of non-nano sunscreens vary widely, so experiment to find a texture you like.

Skip the Spray

What could be more convenient than a quick spritz of sunscreen? As tempting as sprays and powders may be, lotions and creams are a better bet. Spray formulas contain chemical filters and powders typically contain physical screens, but both are easily inhaled and can cause lung damage.

The (bikini) Bottom Line

Safer chemical sunscreens have already been developed and are used widely in Europe, and hopefully the FDA will follow suit.

Until then, here’s the nutshell to choosing a sunscreen:

  • Go with physical, non-nano zinc oxide or titanium oxide lotions or creams
  • Avoid chemical blocks, preservatives and fragrances
  • When swimming or sporting, use a water-resistant formula
  • Choose a “broad-spectrum” formula with SPF 15-50
  • Use at least 1-2 oz for the whole body and reapply every two hours

For more scoop and to see if your favorite brand makes the cut, check the EWG’s Sunscreen Guide.

My personal fave is BurnOut – easy to apply, very water-resistant.

Which are your favorites?