First Day of Summer = Sunscreen 101

Chad Riddersen

Posted on June 20 2012

Lollacup basking in the summer sun!  [ photo courtesy of Caroline Tran ]

First, Happy First Day of Summer!  What better way to kick off the summer season than with a brief discussion on sunscreen.  I was born with eczema and have the most sensitive skin.  My mother used cloth diapers with me, because everything seemed to irritate my skin as a child, including diapers.  Many a dermatologist has said that I may outgrow my eczema, but 2-kids later, my eczema is still going strong.  My older daughter now has it, so it is plaguing our household even more these days.  Although the itchy skin and rashes are very frustrating, I am grateful for good health, otherwise.

I was perusing the internet last night, and found that the FDA had put out a press release last week regarding sunscreens.  When it comes to sunscreens, as with most products, there are far too many choices.  I am, by no means, a dermatologist or expert on the matter, BUT I have frequented many a dermatologist's office, and here's what I've learned over the years (as someone who's battled sensitive skin all her life).

If you look at the active ingredients in any sunscreen you are really looking to see if it contains a chemical or physical sunblock.  Chemical sunblocks absorb the energy of UV radiation before it affects your skin, and physical sunblocks reflect or scatter UV radiation before it reaches your skin.  Some sunblocks combine both chemical and physical sunblocks.  Whether you opt for a chemical or physical sunblock, just make sure you look for a sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays.  These should be labeled as, "Broad Spectrum."

From a more practical perspective, I've found that chemical sunblocks are easily "absorbed" into the skin and seem to "disappear" upon application.  Physical sunblocks, on the other hand, appear chalky white on the skin and are difficult to apply without looking like a ghost.  Why would anyone choose to use a physical sunblock then?  Well, I only use physical sunblocks, because they are great for people with sensitive skin and provide protection against both UVA and UVB rays.

If you're shopping for a physical sunblock, look for zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as an active ingredient.  If you opt for chemical sunblocks, avobenzone, mexoryl sx, octinoxate were recommended by my dermatologists.  Because my children and I have very sensitive skin, we use physical sunscreens, because they rarely cause irritation.  However, they do not look great on the skin and are rather difficult to wash off.

As for all the different formulations: oils, creams, sprays, etc., I always opt for the good, old-fashioned, sunscreen creams.  I've been reading some mixed messages about the safety of sunscreen sprays.  The FDA says, "The ANPR will allow the public a period of time to submit requested data addressing the effectiveness and the safety of sunscreen sprays and to comment on possible directions and warnings for sprays that the FDA may pursue in the future, among other issues regarding dosage forms for sunscreens."  Sprays are really convenient, but apparently they may not provide adequate coverage, may wash off more easily, and there have been questions about the safety of inhaling the fumes released from the sprays.  I guess we'll have to wait and see what comes of the research.

I hope this helps.  Have fun in the sun this summer, but stay safe and apply and re-apply your sunscreen!

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  • lollacup: July 02, 2015

    I’m also torn. We live in Southern California and driving even subjects us to quite a bit of sun exposure. We’ve been told all our lives to wear sunscreen everyday, so the idea of not using sunscreen worries me, but so do all the new chemicals. What are we to do?

  • jami: July 02, 2015

    As I inch closer to my 40’s, I am now starting to pay better attention to my skin and am constantly in search of a good tinted moisturizer with sunblock. I’ve gone through a slew of them, with most of them getting discarded after only a couple of weeks because they usually make me break out. I’ve been hearing not-so-great things about Oxybenzone so I’ve tried to stay away from sunblocks that list it on its list of ingredients. But upon further research, this is what I found and so I thought I’d share with you. Thanks for your posts! Keep them coming!

    Octinoxate or octyl methoxycinnamate (Maximum recommended by FDA: 7.5%)

    Octinoxate is the most widely used UVB blocking agent in the skin care industry. It does not filter UVA rays. Studies have also shown that Octinoxate can protect the skin against not only sunburn but also UV light-induced DNA alterations (Source).

    However, it isn’t very stable. When octinoxate is exposed to sunlight, it is converted into a less UV absorbent form (from E-octyl-p-methoxycinnamate into a Z-octyl-p-methoxycinnamate). Given that its job is to be exposed to sunlight, this seems to me to be a somewhat fundamental limitation. It is why you will usually find octinoxate combined with another sunscreen. Beware, though, that octinoxate combined with avobenzone degrades even faster (source).

    Safety Measures/Side Effects:

    According to the EWG, Octinoxate is a moderate hazard, primarily because it can lead to developmental and reproductive toxicity through enhanced skin absorption. It’s a penetration enhancer and is easily absorbed into the skin. It can produce estrogen-like effects and should not be used by pregnant women and children. However, the research is contradictory as to what concentrations are toxic. One Norwegian study in 2000 declared toxicity on mice at levels much lower that that used in sunscreen. Studies of percutaneous absorption indicate that 1 to 2% of the applied material may be absorbed through the skin. Most of the octyl methoxycinnamate appears to be trapped in the stratus corneum in adults. However, concerns have been expressed about the use of this sunscreen ingredient in children where the stratus corneum is less likely to be protective.

  • Chris Odell: July 02, 2015

    I personally am not a fan of sunscreen unless I’m sure I’ll get burned. I recently found this confirming that sunscreen might not be so good after all…

    seems to be well sourced info too.

  • Makito80Yt90: July 02, 2015

    Very, very nice page! :)

  • Chris Odell: July 02, 2015

    I use Badger Balm’s version… but only if I know i’m going to burn and only in the sensitive areas. like my neck shoulders and face.

  • lollacup: July 02, 2015

    Thanks for sharing. I’m not sure what to make of all these conflicting views, but for now, I’ll stick with my physical sunblocks that don’t have too much bad press???

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