Smarter Living: Family Health

Although sunscreens have gone from the tan enhancers of the 1970s to the cancer defense of the 2000s, we have not actually changed our desire to bake to a golden brown. Our vanity is even parodied by new sunscreen products from the nonprofit Cancer for College Foundation, with names like "Sexy Hot Tan," "Forbidden Fruit" and "Sun Stroke" and featuring the not-quite-beach-ready body of Will Ferrell in various states of undress. But satire aside, we could all use some protection from the sun.

Sunblocks and Sunscreens

Covering your body in sunscreens with high SPF levels, however, will not always prevent harm to your health. The SPF ratings consider only ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, which causes sunburn, and does not take into account ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, known to damage skin and cause skin cancer. So when you’re at the store, search for products that have "broad-spectrum protection"; these sunscreens will effectively shield against both types of rays. And when possible, choose sunscreens that physically block the sun (using minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) in preference to chemical absorbers, which can have effects on the environment and possibly on your body.

Standard lotions with mineral blockers are an opaque white when applied. Lotions with nanoparticles of these minerals are transparent upon application, but it may be best to avoid these. While Australian research in 2006 did not find that nanoparticles in sunscreens entered the body, there is other research indicating that if they did (such as through open cuts), they could reach the brain via the bloodstream.

Look for products such as UV Natural Sunscreen. This SPF 30 lotion uses standard zinc oxide instead of nanoparticles and is free of parabens, a class of chemicals used as preservatives (www.uvnatural.com). Vegans can opt for Devita Solar Body Block 30, which offers full-spectrum UVA/UVB protection while being more than 70 percent organic and PETA approved (www.devita.net). Devita products do use transparent, micronized ingredients, but since micronized particles are larger than nanoparticles, they are less likely to pose a health risk. If you want to steer clear of scented lotions, Alba Botanica Mineral Sunscreen is a fragrance-free product that uses micronized titanium dioxide as well as olive oil, green tea and lavender to soothe the skin (www.albabotanica.com).

Clothing

Although you may want to bask in the sun for hours sporting nothing but your favorite swimsuit, wearing a hat and protective clothing whenever possible will help prevent damaging rays from hitting your skin. Opt for sun-protective swimwear with an "ultraviolet protection factor" (UPF) of 40 or more (UPF ratings cover both UVA and UVB radation). Avoid nylon "swim shirts" that lack a UPF rating. Sun Precautions provides sun-protective clothing such as shirts, pants and hats (www.sunprecautions.com). Coolibar offers swimwear, activewear and hats with a 50+ UPF (www.coolibar.com).

When dressing your tots for the beach, it is vital to shield them from the sun because childhood burns can increase the risk of skin cancer. Hats, sun-protective clothing or swimsuits, and rash guards that cover shoulders and arms will help defend the kids from the sun.

Washing your clothes with detergents that contain UV-absorbing chemicals will also enhance sun protection. Adding products such as SunGuard Laundry Aid, which contains Tinosorb FD, will give your laundry a UPF of 30 that will last for up to 20 washings.

Learn More

Chemical Index: Nanomaterials

Updating the Toxic Substances Control Act: Q&A with Daniel Rosenberg

Testing the Waters—NRDC Report

Community Measures to Prevent Beach and Ocean Pollution

last revised 1/6/2012

Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter

See the latest issue >

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.


Donate now >

Share | |
Find NRDC on
YouTube