Ask Eartha: Avoid sun damage with plenty of sunscreen |

Ask Eartha: Avoid sun damage with plenty of sunscreen

Eartha Steward
Special to the Daily
Once you have found a broad spectrum 50 SPF (or lower) sunscreen that is mineral based, you then need to determine what type is best for you. Options include lotions, creams, gels, ointments, wax sticks and sprays.
Courtesy Getty Images | iStockphoto

Dear Eartha,

My daughter and I were shopping for sunscreen and were overwhelmed with all the different options. How do you choose a good sunscreen?

— Julie, Frisco

There are a lot of different sunscreens in the market, and each offers something different (moisturizers, mineral-based, SPF values, sprays, etc). This can often be confusing, and the best place to start is to understand what sunscreen can and cannot do.

It is important to understand that no sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun’s rays, and, currently, there is not any scientific evidence that indicates using a sunscreen with an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) higher than 50 can protect you better than a sunscreen with an SPF of 50. The best way to avoid damage from the sun is to use sunscreen in combination with seeking shade and wearing protective clothing especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun’s rays are the strongest.

SPF is a measure of how much time it would take for a person to start getting red if they are not wearing sunscreen. In general, it takes about 1-20 minutes without sunscreen for a person’s skin to start burning. An SPF 15 product would prevent skin from burning for 15 times longer — so about 150 to 300 minutes, or about two to five hours. However, that doesn’t mean you’re fully protected for that five hours. Dermatologists highly recommend reapplying sunscreen every two to four hours, as sunscreen can rub off or get washed off.

Our beautiful, warm sunshine is made up of two types of harmful rays — UVA and UVB. Overexposure to both can damage our skin. Specifically, UVA rays (or aging rays) can prematurely age skin, causing wrinkles and age spots and are able to pass through window glass. UVB rays (or burning rays) are the primary cause of sunburn and are blocked by window glass. Many sunscreens only block UVB rays. In order to block both UVA and UVB rays, you should look for “Broad Spectrum” sunscreen.

Read the ingredients on bottles — filters will either be chemical or mineral based. There is evidence which suggests it is best to avoid any sunscreen with retinal palmitate (a form of Vitamin A) or oxybenzone. In a 2012 study by U.S. government scientists, it was discovered that retinal palmitate may speed up the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight. The study is not definitive, but it is worth considering. Additionally, oxybenzone has been proven to be a hormone disruptor and allergen.

Alternately, mineral-based sunscreens (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) are better because they remain stable in sunlight over time, block both UVA and UVB rays and typically don’t contain harmful additives.

Once you have found a broad spectrum 50 SPF (or lower) sunscreen that is mineral-based, you then need to determine what type is best for you. Options include lotions, creams, gels, ointments, wax sticks and sprays.

• Creams are best for dry skin and the face.

• Gels are good for hairy areas, (like the scalp).

• Sticks are good to use around the eyes.

• Sprays are controversial. Current FDA regulations do not pertain to spray sunscreens. The agency continues to evaluate these products on safety and effectiveness. In the meantime, do not inhale sprays as there is some indication that they can harm your respiratory organs, and do not spray near heat, open flames or while smoking.

Now that summer is in full swing, you may be tempted to buy a sunscreen and insect repellent combination, which, as nice as it sounds, is not your best protection from either sun or bugs. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you purchase separate products because sunscreen needs to be applied frequently, and insect repellent should be used less often.

Sunscreens are required to last three years, but, if you are using them correctly, you will go through a bottle fairly quickly. To get the most benefit from sunscreen you should apply it to all skin not covered with clothing 15 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours or after sweating or swimming, and remember to apply lip balm or lipstick with sunscreen to your lips, too.

Lastly, before you buy, check the expiration date to know how long it will be effective. If there isn’t an expiration date on the bottle, write your own on it so you know when it should be replaced. If you are interested in learning more about types of sunscreens and what is safe for your family, visit Using this information and doing a little research will help you choose the best sunscreen so you can protect your skin and have fun in the sun!

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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