Sunscreen confusion solved: What to choose and why

August 14, 2011

Travel Health




Sunscreen ConfusionAfter more than three decades, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in summer 2011 approved guidelines for sunscreen brands on marketing, labeling and testing to help stop widespread sunscreen confusion. They will go into affect in mid-2012 for major players, while smaller ones will have another year to comply.

Consumers not only had no idea that there were finally regulations, let alone that there hadn’t been any before. Really. None. Not since the FDA started the process of determining rules in 1978. Indeed, there was nothing until this year that officially told brands that made all those creams, foams and sprays what was OK and what was not. The lack of FDA oversight left users at risk for a lot more than wrinkles. And, unfortunately, none of us will really know the dangers every single one of us has danced with until it’s too late.

Following a long investigation sorting through hundreds of pages of yawn-producing FDA documents, talking to manufacturers and advocates, organizations and researchers, and analyzing label upon label, one basic question kept surfacing: Which sunscreen is best?

The question is simple enough, but the answer is not. We’ll explain first why it gets complicated:

>> Labels don’t always reveal the whole truth about ingredients and how they could be altered, stabilized, combined, encapsulated, nano’d or otherwise modified, thus potentially affecting their application, wear and protection ability.

>> Personal sunscreen demands or needs are different, from use in water, with gear and the potential of friction that could rub off protection, to length of time needed, as well as to quantity of sweat, use at altitude, sensitivity or allergic reactions, or environmental, health or ethical concerns. We can’t guess what is best for each individual.

>> Sunscreen brands’ formulas change constantly because science is changing constantly. If we name a brand now, it may be different by the time you find it on a shelf. It may even be different even if the label and the ingredients look the same.

>> Chemical formulations and modifications in general in sunscreen products are changing so quickly, there is no telling how effective many of them will remain. What is good, considered safe and is recommended this year may be on the junk heap next year. Plus, there are ingredients in other countries that are not yet approved in the United States that some scientists consider excellent so who knows when another strange name will appear on a label, making the potion perhaps better.

With that in mind, HI Travel Tales will summarize what we use for active endeavors and why, based on countless hours and days of investigation and our own personal use and concerns stemming from that:

>> Demand broad spectrum. We demand one of the few ingredients recognized as fully broad-spectrum for protection from cancer-inducing UVA rays and not just burn-producing UVB rays. Our top choices are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — knowing what we know. A stabilized version of avobenzone, such as Parsol 1789, also works. Oxybenzone sits in a gray area since there are reports of possible health risks; they haven’t really been proved yet and may just be a spectacular warning that never materializes, but whether you use it or not is a personal choice. We sometimes have and still do, but it’s not our top pick for the best broad-spectrum protection for active use.

>> Vanity, schaminity. If we turn a little bit white from the application of sunscreen, so what? We don’t care what we look like when we’re trail running, biking, or hiking, so why should this matter if we are hedging our bets against cancer? Most brands have worked with the zinc and titanium or encapsulated it sufficiently making the whitening effect pretty minor. Likely only you will notice.

>> 30 minimum, 50 maximum. We choose 30 SPF for most endeavors. We don’t shy away from a 50, but we don’t insist on it. Honestly, the additional protection is minimal. Any more than that is a joke – something the FDA recognized in its 2011 approval of regulations that will prohibit labels from claiming any more than “50+.” We only use a 15 for some non-challenging activity, like going for a short walk around the neighborhood or hanging out on the patio or under shade (where you do still get UV radiation). A 15 SPF is also in our daily arsenal and in our daily moisturizers for face, neck, arms and hands.

>> Think thick and sticky. When pursuing active or sweaty endeavors, we like “stickier,” thicker sunscreens since they stay on your skin better. And now, with the new regulations, brands will have to be more upfront about water-resistance claims with “waterproof” and “sweatproof” becoming banned terms. So choose thicker: Sunscreens that feel like a light face cream may delight, but if you wipe the sweat from your face enough times or rub backpack straps across your arms, those thin delights will rub right back off. So why bother?

>> An arsenal is best. We have a cabinet stocked with tubes and bottles — and that’s not counting the ones we are sent to try since they don’t stick around for our use if they don’t pass muster. Most people should have a collection of sunscreens for various uses, activities and perhaps even where you are going to use it. We have — and use — some of the thinner-feeling ones for non-athletic challenges such as at the BBQ gathering with wine glass in hand – as long as we aren’t’ in the direct sun. We often use different ones on our hands and face as we use on our arms or legs.

>> Alternative carriers? Maybe…. Sprays are OK if they get you to use sunscreen at all or where you may not normally. But put on “enough” (rules are a little iffier when it comes to non-lotions so less is not more here), and rub it on for best coverage. We like sprays for our legs because we USE it. Plus they’re great to help friends or spouses get the tops of their head, back of shoulders, or back of the neck. Just avoid spraying the air like a room freshener. It’s meant to be on your skin. Sticks? Same rules as above. Make sure you’re covered and rub it on. They likely serve best for targeted application or re-application for tip of nose or top of ears. They usually have a higher wax content so for athletic endeavors beware the potential of clogged pores or inhibited sweating.

>> Separate bugs from sun. We won’t use sunscreen / insect repellent combos. Who wants chemical bug deterrents soaking into our skin and being reapplied perhaps more often than safe? That causes a shudder.

>> Out with the old. We have cleared our shelves of old tubes, bottles, sticks and sprays. The protection in sunscreens should last from two to three years — assuming you don’t keep it in the sun or heat – so clear out the old and in with the new.

>> Expect label details. If you don’t know the ingredients or the percent used of each because it is not on the label or website, forget about it. Even some websites don’t tell you this vital information. We think you should know, and the brands should educate. FDA max for zinc oxide and titanium dioxide is 25 percent but that would whiten you like a street mime; expect 3 percent to 10 percent. Avobenzone max allowed is 3 percent, so get close to that.

Click here to read an FDA FAQ on the 2011 regulations.

Click here to access additional FDA information, including video and links to other resources.

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