How Do You Choose the Best Sunblock?

Choosing the best sunblock to use these days can be totally overwhelming — there's so many different brands on the shelf. Are there any real differences? How can you tell which ones are the safest and most effective?

Most people will go with a familiar brand name, but are they any better than the bargain brands? The strange-sounding chemical names in the list of ingredients doesn't make it any easier, either.

Actually, choosing a safe and effective sunscreen isn't really hard at all — there's just a few simple things to look for. Are you ready? I'm going to reveal what they are, and give you some specific recommendations.

General Sunblock Buying Tips

There are two basic types of sunblocks: physical barrier and chemical barrier.

Physical barrier sunblocks are, in general, the safest and most effective. They create a reflective surface on the skin that repels UV light or scatters it off of the skin's surface. The active ingredients in these sunscreens are zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide. These types of sunscreens are very effective in blocking both UVB and UVA sun rays, and are considered to be the safest sunscreens to use. The best sunscreens of this type will contain all-natural ingredients; mostly names that are recognizable to the average user.

Chemical barrier sunblocks, on the other hand, contain chemical ingredients that absorb UV light before it can cause any skin damage. To get "broad spectrum" protection against both UVA and UVB radiation with chemical barrier sunscreens, you need to purchase a product with more than one active chemical ingredient. However, the more chemicals present in the sunblock, the more potentially hazardous they become.

Things to Avoid
When Choosing the Best Sunblock

Chemical barrier sunblocks, which make up the lion's share of the market, including most of the well-known brands. Cost is no indication of superior safety or effectiveness.

Spray-on sunscreens create the risk of inhaling some of the mist — not a good idea!

Fragrances that can cause allergies and other problems

Sunscreens with added bug repellent that add toxic pesticides to the other harmful chemicals in the sunscreen

Doesn't the FDA Test
Sunblock Ingredients for Safety?

They certainly should, but the FDA last reviewed the safety of sunscreen ingredients back in 1978! In the meantime, independent labs such as those at the Environmental Working Group have found that chemicals used in most commercial sunscreens have significant toxic properties.

Right now, sunscreen manufacturers in the U.S. are free to market products containing any ingredients they desire, even those that have never been proven safe.

See my page on Sunscreen Ingredients for more details.

Is a Higher SPF Number Better?

Sunscreens with very high SPFs (50 or higher) are becoming more popular these days. They offer the promise of longer protection but they actually don't work much better than a lower-SPF sunscreen. A product with an SPF of 15 blocks typically about 93 percent of the sun's UVB rays; an SPF 50 protects against about 98 percent. High-SPF products also may tempt you to stay out in the sun longer, which increases your risk of skin damage.

High-SPF products also contain greater amounts of sun-blocking chemicals than low-SPF sunscreens. These ingredients may pose health risks when they penetrate through the skin, where they have been linked to potential hormone disruption.

It's best to use a more moderate SPF of 30 and reapply often. Typical users apply only one-half to one-fifth the amount of sunscreen used in the laboratory SPF tests.

See Sunscreen Facts for more useful sunscreen information.

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