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The Scoop On Sunscreens

With the warm weather in full effect there is no question that the majority of us are spending more time outdoors. Family BBQs. Pool parties. Hikes. Picnics on the beach. This is what summer is all about, right?! While we are all for catching some rays to meet our daily needs of vitamin D, it is just as important to take measures to protect our largest organ – the skin – from the damaging effects of UV radiation. Fortunately, sunscreen can help. But if you’re anything like the average person, you probably agree that the process of choosing a sunscreen can be quite daunting. With the vast array of products that are available to us now it can be rather difficult to find one that is actually both effective and safe. We are here to finally set the record straight and remove all the guesswork that normally comes with picking a sunscreen. Use the following tips to help guide your decision the next time you venture into the sunscreen aisle.

1. Read Your Labels.

Just as you would scan through the ingredients on a food label, the same should be done with your sunscreen bottle. Sunscreens offer protection from UV radiation in different ways depending upon the ingredients found within them. ‘Physical’ sunscreens contain minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which act like a shield to deflect UV rays away from the skin. They are thought to have a better safety profile than the traditional ‘chemical’ types of sunscreens because they do not penetrate the skin as readily. ‘Chemical’ sunscreens are made from synthetic ingredients such as oxybenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate, which are designed to absorb UV rays rather than deflect them. While these compounds are used more commonly, they are considered less safe because they can be easily absorbed into circulation and are known to have carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting properties. What further complicates this is the fact that most chemical sunscreens fail to provide protection against both UVA and UVB radiation. Most manufacturers use chemicals that just target UVB, the type of rays that penetrate the top layers of the skin and cause it to burn. The problem with this is that UVA rays are just as damaging to the cells in the deeper layers of the skin and, like UVB rays, predispose us to aging and skin cancer. To ensure adequate coverage, look for “broad spectrum” on the label or search for ingredients such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, or ecamsule, which offer added UVA protection. Avoid products that contain insecticides, fragrances, or ingredients that you can’t pronounce. Retinyl palmitate (a form of Vitamin A) is present in about 15% of sunscreens on the market but should be withheld because it encourages the production of free radicals in the presence of sunlight, which are damaging to our cells.

2. Understand What SPF Means.

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, which is a measure of how well a sunscreen can filter out UVB rays. It would be reasonable to assume that as the SPF value increases so does the amount of protection. While this is theoretically true, the actual difference in benefit is very marginal when the SPF value exceeds 30. For example, a SPF of 30 is said to block 97% of UVB rays compared to a SPF of 15, which only blocks 93%. In this case most would agree that a SPF 30 is more efficacious than a SPF 15 because it blocks 4% more rays. But if you were to compare a SPF of 30 to a SPF of 50 the difference would only be 1% because a SPF of 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays. These numbers continue to slowly climb until 99% of UVB rays are blocked at a SPF of 100, which really isn’t that much more beneficial in the grand scheme of things. Also keep in mind that the SPF system looks only at UVB protection and not UVA, which many sunscreens fail to arm against. If your skin doesn’t burn, it doesn’t mean that it is free from damage because UVA rays penetrate into the deeper layers and cause harm on a more cellular level. So what is the bottom line? Don’t get too caught up on the SPF value on a product – a SPF between 30-50 is sufficient. What matters more is that you choose a sunscreen with protection against both UVA and UVB and that you apply it correctly at regular intervals throughout the day.

3. Outsmart The Marketing Claims.

“Waterproof/Sweatproof”. “All Day Protection”. “Spray On!”. These are just a few of the packaging claims you’ve likely seen throughout the years, but don’t be fooled! Many of these statements are false or misleading and cause people to use their sunscreen improperly. Products that are marketed as having a high SPF (50+) give the impression that less sunscreen is needed or that it can be applied just once throughout the day, which is not true. All sunscreens, regardless of the SPF, should be reapplied at least every 2 hours (more frequently if you are swimming or perspiring heavily). It is recommended that about 1 ounce (a palmful) should be used to cover the arms, legs, neck, and face of adults. Take extra precautions with children, as their skin is thinner, more sensitive, and tends to burn easier. When it comes to the form, stick with creams instead of sprays and powders. Sprays, while convenient, evaporate quickly and often aren’t applied in adequate amounts. They also become airborne which allows for inhalation of potentially harmful ingredients.

4. Don’t Rely Solely On Sunscreen For Protection.

By now you probably realize that not all sunscreens are created equal. But even the “best” sunscreens do not provide full protection when applied correctly, which is why it is so important to use them in conjunction with other sun protective measures. Seek shade where possible if you intend on being outdoors for long periods of time or cover up with lightweight fabrics that are tightly woven. UV rays are the strongest between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm, when your shadow is shorter than you. Remember that just because it is cloudy doesn’t mean that you are in the clear – UV rays are still present. Sport your protective gear, including sunglasses that block UVA and UBV (check for “ANSI” on the label) and hats that ideally have a 2-3 inch brim in all directions. Be sure to speak to your naturopathic doctor about any new or suspicious moles or lesions and have them assessed. Eat a nutritious diet high in antioxidants, which help to scavenge free radicals that are generated when the skin is targeted by UV radiation. Specific foods that offer sunburn protection include tomatoes, watermelon, papaya, spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, green tea, citrus fruits, strawberries, nuts/seeds, sweet potato, and most red/orange vegetables.

With these tips in mind you should now feel more confident about choosing a sunscreen that is both safe and effective. Want to save time so you can get outside and enjoy the weather? Visit to access the Environmental Working Group’s latest Sunscreen Guide, which provides ratings for hundreds of different sunscreens on the market based upon the current research. Your skin will thank you!

Dr. Jessica Geil, ND

Health Over All


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