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The Truth About High SPF Sunscreens: Are They Really Better?

Summertime is right around the corner! And while this time of year is all about spending quality time outdoors with your family, enjoying sunny days by the pool and playing in the backyard, one thing remains important: suncare protection. Protect your family from the sun with your best ally this summer: a natural and effective sunscreen.

But with so many different types of sunscreens available on the market, how do you choose the best and most effective one for you and your family?

You probably have many friends and relatives who swear by sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF)–which refers to how much sun protection a sunscreen provides to an average consumer–claiming it’s the safest way to protect their family from the sun’s harmful rays. In fact, people typically buy a sunscreen based solely on its SPF. But the truth is that both the type of sunscreen and the SPF you choose can have a tremendous impact on your skin and your health.

While in theory a high SPF sunscreen (containing SPF index of 50+) should provide ultimate protection against sun damage, reality states otherwise. Contrary to popular belief, the safety claims behind high SPF sunscreens are often disappointing.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the rate of new melanoma cases among American adults has tripled since the 1970s, despite the increase in sunscreen usage. In addition, the recent cases of toddlers who have experienced serious second-degree burns due to the chemicals in some sunscreens show just how important it is to choose a natural and effective sunscreen for your family.

So are higher SPF sunscreens really the best option for you and your family? The answer is no. There’s more to sunscreen than just its SPF value. Below are three reasons why a high SPF isn’t quite what it’s hyped up to be.

1. A higher SPF doesn’t necessarily mean better protection

In recent years, many sunscreen manufacturers have been marketing products with SPFs of 70 or even 100, deceiving consumers into thinking they are getting higher sun protection.

Unfortunately, high SPFs can be highly misleading. Because people assume they’re better protected with high SPFs, they tend to spend more time in the sun and reapply sunscreen less often–increasing the risk of sunburns, melanoma and other types of skin damage. This is why some countries in Europe have capped SPFs at 50, and even 30.

[bctt tweet="The truth is that sunscreens with an SPF of over 50 contain a higher dose of chemical filters." username=""] In addition, an SPF 60 sunscreen is not twice as effective as an SPF 30 sunblock, and that protection rate doesn’t increase proportionally with the SPF. According to EWG's Annual Sunscreen Report, when used correctly, an SPF 30 sunscreen will block 96.7% of UVB rays, while an SPF 70 will block 98.5% of rays, representing an additional 1.8% increase in protection for over double the SPF value.

2. A high SPF protects against UVBs. But what about UVAs?

There are two kinds of UV radiation that affect your skin when you’re exposed to the sun: UVA and UVB. While they affect your skin in different ways, UVB rays are the main cause of sunburns, while UVA rays reach deeper layers of the skin and cause premature aging and other types of sun-induced damage. Both of them increase your risk of skin cancer. UVAs vs UVBs A sunscreen’s SPF (sun protection factor) measures protection from UVB rays, but has little to do with its ability to shield the skin from deep-penetrating UVA rays, primarily responsible for premature skin aging and melanoma. In fact, most U.S. sunscreens do not offer enough protection against UVA rays, and even less with high SPF products. To achieve high SPF values, sunscreen manufacturers must add UVB filters, which increase SPF but result in a poor balance between UVA and UVB protection. Currently, the US has no labeling system that tells consumers how much UVA protection they're getting in a sunscreen. European sunscreen guidelines, on the other hand, require that a product’s UVA protection be at least one-third as strong as its UVB protection.

So what is the best and most effective way to protect your skin from UVA rays?

Protection against UVAs and UVBs

3. The impact of high SPF ingredients on your health

Active ingredients in sunscreens come under two types: chemical and physical (or mineral). Both use a different mechanism for protecting the skin. Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays by causing a chemical reaction unto the skin to protect it from harmful rays. Physical (or mineral) sunscreens, on the other hand, form a topical physical barrier to block and deflect the sun's rays.

Chemical filters

Many sunscreens contain questionable ingredients that can have potential adverse effects on your health and well-being*. High SPF products use a higher concentration of sun-filtering chemicals than low SPF sunscreens. When activated by the sun, these chemical filters cause chemical reactions on the skin’s surface to absorb UV rays. Identifying potentially harmful ingredients* 1) Oxybenzone: Found in nearly 65% of the non-mineral sunscreens according to EWG's sunscreen database, oxybenzone penetrates the skin easily, mimicking and disrupting hormonal function. Research indicates that it can even disrupt the hormonal system of newborns. It seems counterintuitive to use oxybenzone to protect from skin damage while it can have long-term adverse effects on health. Hazard score: 8 (high) 2) Octinoxate: Known to have a high skin absorption rate, this common sunscreen ingredient has hormone-mimicking effects on the body. It can interfere with cellular signaling and cause biochemical changes. Studies on octinoxate have shown a direct influence on reproductive hormones when tested on animals. Hazard score: 6 (moderate) 3) Homosalate: Found in nearly 45% of US sunscreens, this common chemical UV filter is a fragrance ingredient and a sunscreen agent which contains contaminants that can cause allergic reactions. It is also known to disrupt estrogen, androgen and progesterone levels. In addition, sunlight breaks down this chemical into harmful byproducts which can penetrate the skin. Hazard score: 4 (moderate) 4) Octisalate: A chemical with moderate to low toxicity, octisalate can penetrate the skin and cause skin allergies. Hazard score: 4 (moderate) 5) Benzophenone-2 (BP-2): A fragrance ingredient and chemical UV absorber, Benzophenone-2 can cause skin reactions, including acne, burning, blisters, dryness, itching, rash, redness, stinging, swelling, and tightening of the skin. Hazard score: 4 (moderate) 6) Octocrylene: Octocrylene can interfere with cellular signaling and cause biochemical changes. It also has relatively high skin allergy rates. Hazard score: 3 (moderate) 7) Avobenzone: Avobenzone, another ingredient found in sun care products, is a potential skin allergen. Because this ingredient breaks down under the sun, it can have a relatively high skin allergy rate. Hazard score: 2 (low)

Physical (mineral) filters

Physical or mineral sunscreens use two main mineral-based ingredients: zinc oxide (naturally found in cells throughout our body) and/or titanium dioxide, which form a physical barrier on the skin to reflect, scatter, and absorb both UVA and UVB rays. Physical (mineral) filters can be of two types: nano or non-nano. Nano means that the particles are extremely small and can penetrate the skin. However, there is still very little scientific data about the impact of nanoparticles on our health when these are applied topically, as is the case with sunscreens. Titanium dioxide is always comprised of nanoparticles that could enter the bloodstream. Titanium dioxide is considered safe when used in a lotion or cream, but can pose a health threat when used in a spray. In fact, The IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) has found that titanium dioxide can pose a health threat in aerosol format (spray), as it can be inhaled and enter the bloodstream through the lungs. [bctt tweet="According to EWG’s experts, the safest option is to use a non-nano zinc oxide mineral sunscreen." username=""]  

Other ingredients of concern found in chemical filters*

1) Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate): Although vitamin A is an antioxidant known to slow skin aging, a study by U.S. government scientists suggests that retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied topically on skin exposed to sunlight. The EWG cautions consumers against excessive vitamin A intake, and states that the sunscreen industry adds vitamin A to nearly 12 percent of beach and sport sunscreens, 15 percent of moisturizers with SPF, and 5 percent of all SPF-rated lip products in EWG’s 2018 sunscreen database. Hazard score: 9 (high) 2) Parabens and/or Methylisothiazolinone (MIT): Parabens,often replaced by an equally disturbing ingredient such as Methylisothiazolinone (MIT), are well-known sunscreen preservatives that can cause skin reactions or allergic reactions, and have shown evidence of neurotoxicity. MIT is used alone or in mixtures with a related chemical preservative called Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI), also a skin sensitizer and allergen. Hazard score: 7 (high) 3) Polyethylene glycol (PEG): Usually seen on labels as PEG and followed by a number (e.g. PEG-6), this chemical compound is contaminated with possible human carcinogens such as 1.4-dioxane and ethylene oxide. Hazard score: 3 (moderate) *According to EWG

Get Sunwise! Get to know everything there is to know about sunscreen with our guide to safer sunscreens!

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Sources of this article:
https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/skin-cancer-on-the-rise/#.WsJLVHrwYdU
https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/whats-wrong-with-high-spf/#.Ww9QUy8ZNPU
https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/imperfect-protection/#.Wsvqhnrwbcs
https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/#.WwbiyUgvzIU
https://ipfs.io/ipfs/QmXoypizjW3WknFiJnKLwHCnL72vedxjQkDDP1mXWo6uco/wiki/Homosalate.html
https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-problem-with-vitamin-a/#.WsFhMXrwbcs
https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/#.WsACaHrwbcs
https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/726229/ETHYLENE_OXIDE/#.WwbHyFMvxTZ

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