Sunlight that reaches your skin is made up of two types of rays, UVB and UVA. It used to be thought that only UVB rays, which help your body produce vitamin D but can also lead to sunburn in excess, were a problem, so sunscreens used to only protect against UVB.
Now we know, however, that UVA rays, which penetrate your skin more deeply, may not only increase your risk of skin cancer but also contribute to premature skin aging. So when choosing a sunscreen, you want a product that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Many sunscreen products in the United States are labeled ‘broad spectrum,’ which implies that they offer good UVA and UVB protection.
However, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), this can be misleading:
“FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] sunscreen rules that went into effect in December 2012 allow nearly every product to be marketed as “broad spectrum,” a term that implies good UVA protection. EWG estimates that about half of the 462 beach and sport sunscreens we assessed this year are too weak for the European market, where manufacturers voluntarily comply with a European Union recommendation that all sunscreens provide meaningful UVA protection.
In Europe, sunscreens must offer UVA protection that is at least a third as potent as the SPF (sunburn protection factor), the measure of the product’s ability to shield against UVB rays that burn the skin. In other words, if a product advertises SPF 30, its UVA protection must be at least 10.”
In the United States, this isn’t the case, and even sunscreen labeled as broad spectrum may not provide meaningful UVA protection. Only three sunscreen chemicals approved by the FDA screen UVA rays, the most common of which is avobenzone. The problem with avobenzone is that sunlight causes it to break down and lose its effectiveness for skin protection. Stabilizing chemicals can be added to help delay avobenzone’s photodegradation, however there is no simple way for consumers to tell if the sunscreen they choose offers low, medium or high UVA protection.
Additionally, many sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a sunscreen chemicals that’s a synthetic estrogen, which may disrupt your hormone system. To avoid potentially toxic chemicals while ensuring your skin stays protected, EWG recommends avoiding oxybenzone and instead:
“Look for products with zinc oxide, 3% avobenzone or Mexoryl SX. They protect skin from harmful UVA radiation.”
Finally, for your protection, and to protect your fun in the sun, be sure you’re aware of these top sun safety myths.