The science of sunscreen: 3 experts tackle common myths about its safety
In time for summer, we went to the pros—a dermatologist, a marine biologist and a skincare scientist—to get the latest study-backed news you need to know.
For most of us, the start of summer calls for a trip to the drugstore to stock up on sunscreen.
But which one?
There are more options to choose from than ever before—from sprays to sticks—and with recent news reports calling into question some common ingredients, it’s easy to be confused about what’s safe and what’s not.
So we asked three experts—a dermatologist, a marine biologist and a skincare scientist—to cut through the noise and debunk some common myths about sunscreen.
Myth: Chemical sunscreen is harmful to your health.
Truth: There are two main types of sunscreen—mineral and chemical. Chemical sunscreens contain such ingredients as avobenzone and oxybenzone, which work to absorb damage-causing UV rays. Mineral sunscreens are made of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which sit on the skin’s surface, where they absorb, deflect and scatter UV rays.
Both types are considered safe and effective, and have been used by consumers for decades.
“Despite anecdotal reports questioning the safety of the ingredients in sunscreen, there is no data that shows there is any harm to your health by using it,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
In fact, a 2011 review of existing studies on sunscreen ingredients—including oxybenzone—found that none were shown to have toxicity in humans.
Just one severe sunburn over the course of your lifetime can double your risk of developing potentially deadly melanoma skin cancer, which is why dermatologists like Dr. Zeichner say the benefits of using sunscreen clearly outweigh any possible risks—and why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that everyone older than 6 months wear sunscreen.
The good news is that having many types of sunscreen on the market means you can choose the one that works best for you. When it comes to children, “mineral sunscreens are often ideal because kids can have sensitive skin that can be easily irritated,” says Menas G. Kizoulis, Scientific Engagement Director, Global and North America Beauty, Johnson & Johnson Consumer. They’re a good choice for adults with sensitive skin, too, Dr. Zeichner adds.
Myth: High SPF sunscreen is no better at protecting skin than low SPF sunscreen.
Truth: In 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared there wasn’t enough evidence to claim any extra benefits for sunscreens higher than SPF 50. But many dermatologists heartily disagreed—and recent research backs them up.
“While in theory there is only a little added protection from the sun when using a sunscreen with greater than SPF 30, people typically apply less than half the amount of sunscreen as they should, and they don’t reapply,” Dr. Zeichner says. “This essentially means the sunscreen protection level gets diluted, and your skin is at risk for sunburn. Studies have shown that, in the real world, higher SPF sunscreens do perform better.”
In one such study—conducted by scientists at Neutrogena® and Darrell S. Rigel, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center, and published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology—about 200 skiers and snowboarders were asked to use SPF 50 on one side of their face and SPF 100 on the other. After a full day of sunny fun on the slopes, 55% of subjects were more sunburned on the SPF 50 side of their faces—and only 5% were more sunburned on the SPF 100 side.
In terms of the minimum SPF you should look for in your sunscreen, both the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) and Skin Cancer Foundation recommend going 30 or higher for extended outdoor exposure, like when you’re on a beach vacation.
Bottom line: “The higher the level of sunscreen, the better,” Dr. Zeichner says.
Myth: Sunscreen is hurting our planet’s coral reefs.
Truth: As you may have read in the news, the state of Hawaii and the city of Key West, Florida, have banned the purchase of sunscreen containing oxybenzone and another ingredient, octinoxate, based on research suggesting that both may contribute to coral reef decline.
Most of the research on sunscreen’s impact on reefs has been done in a lab, though, rather than in the actual ocean, so the experiments may not reflect what is really happening in the real world, notes Elizabeth Wood, a marine biologist and independent consultant in coral reef conservation. In fact, she adds that very little is currently known about the extent to which sunscreen pollutants may build up within the tissues of corals and other marine organisms.“The reef ecosystem is complex, so further research is needed to try to understand what impact those pollutants may have—not only at the cellular/organism level, but in the wider reef community,” she says. “In order to really understand the situation with regard to sunscreens, there needs to be long-term monitoring.”
In the meantime, some researchers, doctors and healthcare organizations have expressed concern that sunscreen bans could lead people to skip sun protection altogether, putting them at a greater risk for skin cancer.
To help ensure you’re properly protecting your skin this summer, the CDC recommends using multiple forms of sun protection—wearing sunscreen, seeking shade and covering up with clothing.