With more sunny days upon us, sunscreen is in, but two of the top sunscreen ingredients are out.
In July, Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens with the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, because of the reported damage they cause to coral reefs as they wash off swimmers' bodies in the ocean.
"Just three drops of oxybenzone in an Olympic-sized swimming pool is enough to damage coral larvae," says Nathan Donley, senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).
The CDB recently petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban the same ingredients on a national level.
Some dermatologists and consumers have preferred sunscreen without those ingredients anyway, using protection with physical blockers such as zinc and titanium oxide for sensitive skin or other reasons.
There is some question as to whether certain chemical sunscreens disrupt the endocrine system, notes Kimberly Morel, pediatric dermatologist at the Columbia University Medical Center. But, she said: "There is no controversy that ultraviolet light is a carcinogen, and so sunscreen is still important to use on areas of skin that cannot be protected by other means."
No matter what you choose, be sure it's labeled as broad spectrum, meaning it filters both UVA and UVB rays, said Morel.
Look for products that are water resistant for 80 minutes, and for at least SPF 15, but preferably in the SPF 30 to SPF 50 range (and no higher). When shopping for these physical blocks, check ingredients, even if a sunscreen purports to be "natural," as some physical sunscreens still incorporate chemical ingredients.
"Sunscreen brands can also change their ingredients, so it's better to become a label reader than to look for a specific brand," Morel said.
"Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are also the safest options for kids," said Donley. "It's important to ensure that children are always adequately protected from UV rays . . . [as] skin cancers are the most preventable types of cancer."
When trying to decide between zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, the beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine in New York, Brian Underwood, says to go for a product that has a mix of the two.
"The best sunscreen is one you'll actually use, so you want to look for a formula that feels good on your skin, doesn't leave any sticky or whitish residue, and is generally pleasant to use," he said. Meaning, you should want to use your sunscreen of choice.
Sometimes reapplication can be tricky. Morel, who is also an associate professor of dermatology and pediatrics at the Columbia University Medical Center, says the rule of thumb is to reapply every two hours, but even that guideline can vary.
"For example, swimming or actively participating in sports on hot days with an 80-minute water-resistant sunscreen means you should reapply every 80 minutes, and even sooner if you towel dry and rub off the sunscreen," she explains.