5 steps to choosing a safe sunscreen and how to apply it

Something seemingly simple like choosing a sunscreen can get surprisingly complicated!  What SPF? Creams or sprays? What about those questionable synthetic chemicals? 

Well, here's a quick post with 5 simple criteria to help you choose the right SPF and sunscreen!

1.     It’s recommended by the Environmental Working Group (EWG)

  • If you want a short cut to choosing a safe sunscreen, visit the EWG’s guide to sunscreen and your work is done!  The EWG is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment.  Their mission is to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthy environment and use research and education to do so.  Click here to see a long list of safe sunscreens to choose from.  On their site can also look up the sunscreen you have at home to see if it’s right for your skin.
  • If you’re curious to learn more about how and why to choose the right sunscreen please read on!

2.     Look for Broad Spectrum sunscreen on the label

  • Ultraviolet wavelengths are classified as UVA and UVB.  SPF only measures protection against UVB rays likely because scientists originally thought UVA rays did not contribute to skin cancer.  Current research shows that both UVA and UVB rays contribute to the development of melanoma – the most harmful skin cancer. 
  • Check the label for “broad spectrum” to ensure protection against the UVB rays which play a key role in sunburns and also the UVA rays which damage the deeper layers of skin and play a major role in skin aging and wrinkles.


3.     Avoid harmful ingredients

  • The most important sunscreen ingredient to avoid is oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor that can also cause allergic reactions.  EWG rates it at 8/10 on their scale that reflects potential health hazards, 10 being the most hazardous.
  • Although the EWG questions the safety of ingredients such as oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, other sources suggest there is insufficient evidence to support these potential health hazards. 
  • The way I see it… These ingredients may be harmful but alternative mineral-based sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have proven to be very safe and very effective over a long history of use.  You can also opt for non-mineral European sunscreens containing tinosorb S and/or M, or ecamsule (trade name Mexoryl SX).  
  • Personally, I'll opt for ingredients that are proven safe and effective and avoid ingredients in question until there is further research.   
  • See below for a list and description of ingredients to avoid.
    • Oxybenzone
      • Oxybenzone is a synthetic estrogen that may penetrate the skin and disrupt hormone levels.
    • Retinyl palminate
      • A form of Vitamin A which has been linked to skin tumours and lesions on sun-exposed skin.  According to the EWG, Health Canada’s draft sunscreen rules would require products with this ingredient to display a warning. 
      • The Skin Cancer foundation states that there are no human trials supporting that retinyl palmitate causes cancer in humans.  However, the foundation does report studies suggesting that when retinyl palmitate is exposed to UV radiation it generates free radicals, chemically active substances that interact with DNA causing mutations that may lead to cancer.  In the body, antioxidants such as vitamin C and vitamin E neutralize these free radicals and prevent harm to DNA.  They conclude that retinyl palmitate is safe but you may be more comfortable opting for zinc oxide based sunscreens and saving your anti-oxidants for other less avoidable free radicals.
    •  The Dirty Dozen of cosmetics
      • These are 12 common cosmetics ingredients that are known carcinogens, reproductive toxins, hormone disruptors, and carcinogens.  These include parabens, phthalates, PEG’s, propylene glycol, phenoxyethanol and sodium sulphates.  Unfortunately many cosmetics products contain these so it is important to read the labels.

4.     Use cream, avoid sprays or powders

  • Although sprays can be convenient, especially for squirming kids, it’s easy to miss a spot and these sprays pose inhalation risks.  Research shows that small particles in sunscreen do not absorb into the skin and enter the blood stream but inhaled particles more easily enter the blood stream through the lungs.

5.     SPF 30 – No need for more!

  • The Skin Cancer foundation states that broad spectrum sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher are very effective against UVA and UVB rays when applied correctly and reapplied every 2 hours!  An SPF of 15 will filter our approximately 93% of incoming rays, while an SPF of 30 filters out about 97%.  An SPF of 50 will only filter out 98% so although this provides minor increases in protection, research shows that an SPF above 30 is mostly marketing and gives people a false sense of security resulting in increased sun exposure times and improper application.



Quick Summary

  • Opt for a broad spectrum mineral based sunscreens with zinc oxide and avoid added chemicals and perfumes.  Zinc oxide offers slightly better coverage than titanium dioxide but both are safe and effective. European sunscreens containing tinosorb S and/or M, or ecamsule (trade name Mexoryl SX) are also good options.  Visit the Environmental Working groups for a list of best beach and sport sunscreens by clicking here!
  • 15 to 30 SPF will do the job.  Opt for 30 SPF if you have more sensitive and fair skin.
  • Use enough sunscreen to coat all exposed skin.  The general guideline is to use one ounce (a shot glass) to cover the exposed areas of the body but adjust based on your size.  Don’t forget about your face, lips, ears, feet, and hands! 
  • Re-apply sunscreen every two hours of after swimming or heavy perspiration.  No sunscreen works to its full SPF potential as it wears/washes off.
  • The most effective sun protection is by covering up!  Wear a hat and tightly woven, loose-fitting clothes to protect your skin from harmful rays. 
  • Don’t forget your sunglasses! Your eyes need protection too.
  • Kids: Be extra sure to reapply and use sufficient amounts on children.  Their skin is thinner, more sensitive and also has less melanin making it easier to get a sunburn.