What You Need to Know Before You Apply
Whether your summer days are spent by the pool, in the mountains, on the lake, or at the beach, it’s likely you are enjoying these places while slathered in sunscreen. It’s second nature for most of us to apply sunscreen before long days spent in the sun, or even on a daily basis, to protect our skin from sunburn, premature aging, and skin cancer, but have you ever really stopped to look at what’s in the stuff? Ingredients like oxybenzone, homosalate, and octinoxate are ubiquitous. These chemicals work by absorbing UV light, but they also penetrate the skin, enter the bloodstream (and in some cases, breastmilk), and act as endocrine disrupters, interfering with normal hormone function. They can also create damaging free radicals in the skin—the very thing they are supposed to protect us from. There is a better choice. Mineral-based sunblock utilizes titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, two FDA-approved sunscreen ingredients that block both UVB and UVA rays, do not enter the bloodstream, do not have hormone-disrupting properties, and do not create free radicals. They work by reflecting UV rays away from the skin, preventing them from penetrating the skin in the first place.
Did you know that sunscreen manufacturers can make advertising claims unsupported by mandatory testing? Claims like “all day protection,” “waterproof,” and “sweatproof” mean nothing.
Sun Protection Factor, What Does it Mean?
Sun protection factor (SPF) ratings only refer to UVB protection, not UVA, which penetrates deeper into the skin and contributes to photo-aging and cancer. In addition, the FDA has published draft regulations that would prohibit companies from labeling sunscreens with an SPF higher than 50, although these regulations have yet to be enacted. The agency wrote that higher values were “inherently misleading,” and gave consumers a false sense of security. More important than seeking out ultra-high SPF products is that you apply your sunscreen generously—the average adult requires approximately 2 tablespoons (about a shot glass worth) to adequately cover the body. Reapply every two hours or after sweating, swimming, or towel drying.
While an SPF of 100 sounds like a lot more than an SPF of 15, SPF 15 screens about 93% of UVB rays while an SPF 30 screens 97%. SPF 50 screens 98%.
Protection from the Inside Out
In addition to using a physical sunblock, it is important to protect your body from UV- induced damage with an antioxidant-rich diet, including lots of fruits and vegetables, and supplementation with key antioxidants. It is important to note that it takes at least 8 to 10 weeks of supplementing to sufficiently protect your skin.
Astaxanthin seems to be particularly effective at protecting skin against UV-induced damage. A recent study found that astaxanthin “exhibited a pronounced photoprotective effect” on human skin cells exposed to moderate UVA radiation. The astaxanthin prevented cell death, reduced levels of damaging free radicals, and protected cell membranes. The cells were treated with astaxanthin 24 hours before exposure to the UVA radiation.
Lutein has also shown promise in protecting skin from photodamage. An animal study found that a diet rich in lutein (fed for two weeks before exposure) efficiently reduced UVB-induced cell proliferation and cell death. A human clinical trial showed that a daily dose of 10 mg of lutein (along with its partner zeaxanthin) increased skin hydration, elasticity, and skin lipid content, while reducing oxidation of those beneficial lipids by 55 percent.
Lycopene is known for promoting prostate health, but this carotenoid has also been shown to exert photoprotective properties, reducing inflammatory responses, maintaining normal cell proliferation, and possibly preventing DNA damage following UVB exposure.
Chemicals in Sunscreen are Killing the World’s Coral Reefs
The most commonly used chemical sunscreen, oxybenzone, isn’t just bad for people—it is also contributing to the death of coral reefs around the world. Between 6,000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen, containing up to 10 percent oxybenzone, are estimated to be released into coral reefs each year. While much of the run-off comes from beachgoers, a large amount also comes from wastewater (i.e., sunscreen washed down the shower drain) that eventually makes its way to the ocean. A study published earlier this year found several ways in which oxybenzone harms coral, including damaging DNA and increasing the rate of bleaching—the researchers also found that only a very small amount (62 parts per trillion) is needed to inflict damage. Coral reefs are more than eye candy for snorkelers—they are also important spawning grounds for many of the fish we eat and protect coastal areas from storms.
 Camera E, Matrofrancesco A, Fabbri C, Daubrawa F, Picardo M, Sies H, Stahl W. Astaxanthin, Canthaxanthin and Beta-carotene Differently Affect UVA-induced Oxidative Damage and Expression of Oxidative Stress-responsive Enzymes. Exp Dermatol 2008 (Sep 18).
 Gonzalez S, Wu A, Pathak MA, Sifakis M, and Goukassian DA. Oral administration of lutein modulates cell proliferation induced by acute UV-B radiation in the SHK-1 hairless mouse animal model (Abstract). The Society of Investigative Dermatology, 63rd Annual Meeting, Los Angeles, CA., 2002.
 Fazekas Z, Gao D, Saladi RN, Lu Y, Lebwohl M, Wei H. Protective effects of lycopene against ultraviolet B-induced photodamage. Nutr Cancer. 2003;47(2):181-7
 Downs CA, Kramarsky-Winter E, et al. “Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands.” Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 2016;70:265-288