With chemical sunscreens in the news due to the FDA’s call for more safety data on their primary ingredients, many of us are left wondering how best to protect ourselves and our families from the sun’s ultraviolet rays that can cause sunburn, long-term skin damage and skin cancer. Oxybenzone, a primary ingredient in chemical sunscreens, is a suspected endocrine disruptor that has been found in the blood, urine and breast milk of people who use sunscreens regularly. Though chemical sunscreens haven’t been proven unsafe, we wanted to explore some proven safe alternatives that will protect you from the sun’s rays without potentially causing other health hazards.

The Two Types of Sunscreen

First, it’s important to understand that there are two basic types of sunscreen: Chemical and Physical.

  1. Chemical sunscreens are those which you rub into the skin and are easily absorbed. Their active ingredients act like a sponge to absorb the sun’s ultraviolet rays, preventing your skin from absorbing them and thus preventing sunburn.
  2. Physical (also called mineral) sunscreens are those which you rub onto the skin but aren’t easily absorbed. Sometimes these sunscreens leave a trademark white residue on your skin. That’s because the minerals they contain—usually zinc oxide or titanium dioxide—sit on top of the skin, acting as a physical barrier to block the sun’s rays from being absorbed by your skin.

Mineral sunscreens have been proven to be safe. Their active ingredients are not absorbed into the human body through the skin, and can be washed off at the end of the day.

What’s the Safest Sunscreen for You and Your Family?

The Environmental Working Group’s 2019 Guide to Sunscreens lists the safest and most effective sunscreens on the market today. You can find a detailed summary of the best specific brands of sunscreens on the market for you and your family here.

One interesting note: many sunscreens available in the United States wouldn’t pass Europe’s more stringent standards for blocking the sun’s damaging UVA rays. While UVB rays cause sunburns, the more prevalent UVA rays are linked with the development of basal cell carcinoma, melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma skin cancers. For this reason, it’s critical to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 15 that protects skin from both UVA and UVB rays.

Consider Sunscreen As Your Last Line of Defense

While sunscreen is a great way to protect yourself when you have to be out in the sun, with a little planning and some wardrobe changes, you can reduce your overall exposure to the sun’s damaging UV rays.

Here are some tips for minimizing UV exposure:

  1. Avoid the sun during peak hours: 10am –4pm. Plan early morning or early evening outings to avoid sun exposure during its most intense times.
  2. Invade the shade: Find a shady spot to enjoy the outside—trees, buildings and overhangs provide great shade for you to enjoy. No natural shade? Bring your own portable shade in the form of an umbrella!
  3. Hat’s on! A wide-brimmed hat is a smart way to avoid excess UV rays on your head, face, neck and even shoulders.
  4. UPF clothing: With an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of up to 50+, clothing with built-in protection blocks up to 98% of broad-spectrum UV rays.
  5. Long sleeves: Yes, even in summer. While a typical white cotton shirt only has an SPF of 7 (when dry) and SPF of 3 when wet, darker colors and tighter weaves offer additional protection.

If you want to protect yourself and your family from the sun’s damaging rays without exposing yourself to potentially toxic chemical ingredients, strategize a smart combination of scheduling outside activities early or late in the day, sticking to shaded areas mid-day, wearing UPF clothing with a wide-brimmed hat, and using mineral sunscreen on exposed portions of your skin.

Small adjustments like these, performed daily, can have a significant impact on your overall health and the health of your family for years to come!