There’s so much confusion when it comes to selecting a sunscreen these days. Between chemical and physical blocks, which SPF to choose and knowing whether or not you need to take extra sun-protection steps, it can be overwhelming. The fact is, we know the sun causes skin cancer and visible signs of aging—but shielding your skin is easier than you think once you’re armed with information.
The vitamin D debate rages on, but if you’re concerned about a deficiency, you can get your daily dose naturally through sun exposure without damaging your skin. Simply expose your arms and legs to the sun for 10-15 minutes a day—never your face!—and then slather on the sunscreen. But if you don’t want to go this route, you can add mushrooms, fortified milk and calcium supplements to your diet to boost vitamin D levels. If you really want to know where your vitamin D level falls, you can also ask your doctor to check your blood level so you know for sure.
There are two types of sunscreens: Chemical and physical. In my opinion, chemical sunscreen ingredients offer the best protection, especially against cancer- and age-causing UVA rays. These ingredients are absorbed by the body and then excreted in the urine, but we haven’t seen any long-term negative side effects. When exposed to UV rays, chemical sunscreens can cause free radicals, so always layer an antioxidant underneath or look for a product with antioxidants like Neutrogena Healthy Defense Daily Moisturizer SPF 50.
If you have sensitive skin, common chemical ingredients such as oxyl methoxycinnamate and benzophenone can cause allergies, either when applied or when exposed to the sun. Avobenzone (also known as Helioplex or Parsol) can cause stinging. That’s why I’m a fan of the ingredient Mexoryl found in some of La Roche-Posay’s sunscreens since it has less chance of irritation. Benzophenones sometimes get a bad rap in terms of side effects, but as a doctor I can tell you that the benefits of using these sunscreens far outweigh the risks.
Physical sunscreen ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are another option. These are a great option for those who have frequent allergies, children under 5, or anyone who wants to avoid chemicals. Most experts agree that zinc oxide is safe, but there is some controversy about titanium dioxide and nanotechnology used to miniaturize the particles so they are less white on the skin. The studies I’ve seen focus on inhalation and lab animals, so I haven’t seen any results that lead me to believe this ingredient is dangerous. In fact, it’s important to look for a formula with micronized zinc and titanium so the sunscreen isn’t too thick and so it won’t leave white residue. Unfortunately, those with darker skins may have an issue with physical blocks since they can lend a purple hue to the skin.