A Safe Place in the Sun

Luckily, you don’t have to sacrifice your fun outside to protect your skin. Here, answers to your sun care questions, and the most foolproof ways to safeguard yourself.

A Safe Place in the Sun
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First, the basics: What’s the difference between chemical and physical sunscreens? Aren’t all sunscreens made of chemicals?
Yes and no. Chemical sunscreens are made from complex ingredients created in a lab to absorb and neutralize damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays (oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, mexoryl, homosalate, octycrylene and octinoxate are the most common). Physical sunscreens (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) are tiny naturally occurring metal particles found in sand and rocks that block UV radiation by creating a reflective shield. Technically, though, both types of sunscreen are chemicals, because the FDA calls all active ingredients in a drug—yes, the FDA considers sunscreen a drug—chemicals, says Jeannette Graf, M.D., a dermatologist in Great Neck, N.Y.

So is it true that chemical sunscreens can penetrate my skin and enter my bloodstream?
Studies have shown small traces of oxybenzone in urine after topical application, which means the chemical gets absorbed through the skin and processed by your body, says Heather Woolery-Lloyd, M.D., a dermatologist in Miami. And though those studies didn’t yield totally conclusive results on whether or how damaging that intake may be, other preliminary research (done on animals and therefore not considered viable by some scientists and physicians) suggests that the absorption of oxybenzone can create free radicals on the skin that could cause cancer and mess with hormones, leading to infertility. Scary stuff. But there have also been studies conducted by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, the FDA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program and the European Union Cosmetics Directive showing that oxybenzone has no effects on human hormones. Bottom line: The jury is still out, but if you want to play it safe while more research is done, stick to titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

Yikes! That sounds pretty bad. So what’s worse… chemical sunscreen or no sunscreen?
No sunscreen, hands down, said every single dermatologist we spoke to. Sunscreen is proven to protect skin from cancercausing and aging UV rays, so if the choice is between a chemical sunscreen or wearing no protection at all, go for the chemical, Woolery-Lloyd says. When used correctly, sunscreen offers 100% protection against skin cancer, per a study in the journal Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research.

What about vitamin D? Should I head out for a stint each day without sunscreen to get my quota?
The skin-damaging effects of UV rays most likely outweigh the benefits of getting your vitamin D from the sun, experts say, especially since vitamin D from food and supplements offers similar bone- and immunity-strengthening results without the added danger of sun exposure, says Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a dermatologist in Cambridge, Mass. Eggs, fortified milk and fatty fish like salmon, tuna and trout are all good sources. If you’re concerned about deficiency (from eating vegan, for example), talk to your doctor about a blood test before you start taking supplements.

OK, always wear sunscreen. Got it! But can I DIY one to guarantee it doesn’t contain chemicals?
Please do not make sunscreen at home, begs Ni’Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist with Catalyst Cosmetic Development in Union, N.J. Formulating sunscreen is extremely complicated, with strict regulations from the FDA and extensive testing to make sure the SPF listing on the bottle is accurate. Manufacturers work hard to keep the ingredients stable and properly distributed, Wilson says. Remember, sunscreen is a drug. You wouldn’t try to make ibuprofen in your kitchen, would you?

So my only option is sunscreen from a drugstore?
Not necessarily. You can opt for clothing with Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF), Hirsch says. Mott 50, Athleta, Coolibar, Parasol and Patagonia all make cute dresses, shirts, pants and hats with UPF 50 (about an SPF 30), which means the fabric blocks up to 97 percent of UV rays. Just remember, if you choose a sleeveless top or a short dress, your arms and legs will still be exposed, so you won’t be able to completely skip the SPF.