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How to Know if Your Sunscreen is Safe

Now that we're all dutifully slathering on sunscreen to protect our skin, there are concerns that some of the ingredients might not be safe. Here's what you need to know.


  • TIP: Don't buy sunscreen sprays containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to prevent inhalation of the particles.
  • Step 1: Avoid sunscreens that also contain insect repellant. The former should be reapplied frequently while the latter should not, so a combination product will likely deliver too many anti-bug chemicals.
  • Step 2: Use a sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 15, which means you can stay in the sun 15 times longer than the amount of time your skin could be exposed, unprotected, without burning. Don't bother buying one with an SPF higher than 50; there's little evidence they offer better protection. And don't believe a sunscreen that advertises itself as "waterproof"; there's no such thing.
  • FACT: Some vitamin D researchers recommend 5 to 30 minutes of sun exposure without sunscreen between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. at least twice a week to get the recommend dose of vitamin D.
  • Step 3: Look for the words "broad spectrum" on the label, which indicates you're getting coverage for both UVB and UVA rays, both of which have been linked to skin cancer. The ingredients zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, and Mexoryl are all considered safe and effective.
  • Step 4: Play it safe by avoiding sunscreens with the disputed components. Also avoid PABA, a once-popular UV filter that has caused safety concerns.
  • TIP: Retinyl palmitate is added to sunscreens to help slow signs of aging; it has nothing to do with blocking the sun.
  • Step 5: Consider the nanoparticle issue: some sunscreen ingredients are broken down into tiny particles to make the lotion transparent, instead of a white paste. There's a possibility that nanoparticles can penetrate the skin and remain unmetabolized in the body, eventually causing health problems.
  • TIP: Sunscreen labels do not indicate if the product contains nanoparticles, so you'll have to go on appearance. If the lotion is transparent, it contains them, so choose a white, pasty sunscreen.
  • Step 6: Weigh the risks. Neither oxybenzone nor retinyl palmitate have been shown conclusively to be dangerous to human beings, and there is no proof that nanoparticles pose a danger either. Most dermatologists agree that to stop using sunscreen presents a far greater danger than the ingredients in question.
  • Step 7: Understand the concerns raised about 2 popular sunscreen ingredients – oxybenzone, also known as benzophenone-3, and retinyl palmitate. Tests with lab animals indicated that oxybenzone disrupted their bodies' hormones and that retinyl palmitate, when combined with sun exposure, accelerates the formation of

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