Summer and Sunscreen

August 10, 2012 | by Samuel LaBarge

Samuel LaBargeI am prone to sunburn. The start of the summer is usually a time when significant action is taken, on my part, to acquire enough sunscreen to last me through the season. I find myself gravitating towards the cosmetics aisles at the local modern-day general stores. The considerable choices play with my psyche.

Safety and efficacy are two things I want out of a sunscreen. I always thought by just identifying and using a sunscreen with a high SPF (sun protection factor) I would be getting the best protection. This may not be entirely true.

The ultraviolet radiation in the electromagnetic spectrum can be portioned into three regions:  UVA, UVB and UVC. The latter, UVC rays, from the sun are absorbed by our atmosphere and do not affect us. UVB is partially absorbed by our atmosphere and is blocked by the active ingredients in sunscreens. UVA, which penetrates the deepest into our skin, constitutes the highest doses of UV radiation that we receive from the sun and also happens to be the least shielded by sunscreens.

The SPF is a rating system that gauges a sunscreen’s ability to block UVB rays, which are the main cause of sunburns; however, high-SPF sunscreens do not necessarily block the harmful effects of UVA. Knowing that I need protection against UVA and UVB, do I spend the money on name-brand sunscreens or should I just stick with the store’s generic brand?

Well, the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Sunscreen Guide allows a user to identify their sunscreen of choice and examine a set of factors regarding the protection against UVA and UVB, the balance of UVA and UVB protection, the stability of the sunscreen and health concerns regarding the chemical constituents of the sunscreen.

All of these factors and methodologies are used to place more than 1,000 sunscreens into a ranking system. The thoroughness of the website aids in calming my weary psyche. The judicious use of references is backed by an easily identifiable reference list and, albeit long form, EWG also attempts to provide a readable methodology section.

The method of application of sunscreen is something I never quite took the time to think about. My personal preference revolves around the spray due to the quick application time. But the spray produces a cloud of fine mist that I am certainly inhaling.

What is the lifetime inhalation risk of active ingredients in that mist? Are there any harmful side-effects from the inactive ingredients? If I spend a summer outside constantly applying sunscreen via the spray route, am I increasing my lifetime risk of some disease? If I try to stay away from cigarette smoke I will probably also try and stay away from an active ingredient meant to block ultraviolet radiation.

I guess this is not something I would say often, but I will probably transition to an all natural, mineral-containing sunscreen. Check out the EWG website and come to your own conclusions.


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