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We all know how essential sunscreen is. It’s supposed to protect us from sun burn and cancer, right? Well, not so fast says the Environmental Working Group, a consumer watchdog. They just came out with their 2010 Sunscreen Guide that rates the best and worst sunscreens.

The best sunscreen, they say, is simply a hat, shirt and shade, that’s it. No fancy or expensive sun creams necessary.

But what about that beach vacation, ski trip, hike, or boating trip where you can’t avoid the sun? There are times when we need sunscreen, so it’s important to know which sunscreens are safe and which are not.

And honestly, do you really know what’s in your sunscreen? Most of us don’t. A quick look at EWG’s 2010 Sunscreen Guide will make you think twice about what you put on your body.

So it’s time to sharpen your sunscreen savvy so you and your family can slather on healthy SPF with confidence!

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Why Most Sunscreen Product Claims are Misleading

Shockingly, EWG’s new guide recommends just 8 percent, or 39, of the 500 beach and sport sunscreens for summer 2010. Why? Their website states, “EWG’s researchers found that 92 percent of brand name sunscreens either don’t sufficiently protect skin from sun damage or contain hazardous chemicals — or both.”

Ok that’s a little scary. And they also found product manufacturers over exaggerate claims made on SPFs above 50.

You may be wondering, how can product manufacturers do this (I know I am)? Well the EWG places the fault of ineffective and unhealthy sunscreen squarely on the shoulders of the FDA. They never finalized sunscreens regulations they started in 1978.
EWG’s savvy sleuthing also reveals that there is no consensus that sunscreen prevents cancer. The FDA’s 2007 draft of sunscreen regulations say, “FDA is not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer.” (FDA 2007)
Furthermore, the EWG and countless other experts note how far behind the United States is compared to European sunscreen development.  U.S sunscreen makers are still waiting for FDA approval for a wider array of ingredients to use that offer better protection that are already being used in the European Union.

Until these sunscreen safety standards are set, it’s up to you to be your own advocate. So here’s our sunscreen savvy highlights:

The Best Sunscreens

•    Are creams (no sprays or powders).
•    Contain the minerals zinc or titanium. They offer the best UVA protection without any potentially hormone disrupting chemicals.
•    Water resistant for pool, beach and exercise.
•    Are broad spectrum – They block both UVA and UVB radiation
•    Remain stable in sunlight (a lack of stability means that UV radiation permeates the skin)
•    Contain few if any ingredients with significant known or suspected health hazards (think parabens, oxybenzone, vitamin A, bug repellent).

What to Avoid In Your SPF Lotion

•    Vitamin A or Retinyl Palmitate – Surprising new data from the government shows that slathering Vitamin A on your skin can promote the development of tumors and lesions quicker than skin not coated with Vitamin A. This vitamin is found in 41 percent of sunscreens, so read your labels, and it may be listed as retinyl palmitate.
•    Oxybenzone – It is linked to hormone problems, it is a synthetic estrogen, and is potentially a harmful endocrine disruptor and contaminates the human body.
•    Bug Repellent – Avoid sunscreen that contain insect repellent, it’s just more chemicals soaking into your skin. If you need bug repellant choose a healthy one and apply it first.
•    Sprays & Powders – Can pollute the air with tiny stuff and particles that aren’t healthy for you or your family to breathe! Creams are simply a healthier choice.

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Other Top Sun Cream Tips

•    Buy new sunscreen every year – And make it 30 SPF.
•    Know your numbers – Protect yourself from 93% of the sun’s rays with SPF 15. Protect yourself from 97% of the sun’s rays with SPF 30.
•    Avoid self-tanners – The major self-tanning chemical, dihydroxyacetone, is not approved by FDA for use in cosmetics around the eyes.
•    Avoid mid-day sun from 10am-4pm.
•    Wear sunscreen all year -  Skiers and winter sports enthusiasts are at high risks of UVA ray exposure, which is more damaging at higher elevations.
•    Apply before going out – Apply sunscreen 20-30 minutes before going in the sun.
•    Reapply sunscreen every 1-2 hours – Regardless of what the label says.
•    Consider UPF-labeled clothing – UPF is the ‘ultraviolet protection factor’ of certain clothes.  According to skincancer.org, a fabric with a rating of 50 will allow only one-fiftieth of the sun’s UV rays to pass through.
•    Get Your Daily Dose of Vitamin D – If you want to get your dose of Vitamin D, don’t put on sunscreen. According to Dr. Nalini Chilkov, sunscreen blocks the production of sunscreen in the skin. She recommends getting sun exposure on your skin in the morning or late afternoon without sunscreen for 20-30 minutes.
•    Avoid tanning parlors: the UV radiation can be as much as 15 times that of the sun!

Are you ready to replace last year’s sunscreen with a new healthy version? Review EWG’s top recommended sunscreens.

Image credits: Ed Yourdon 1, 2, 3.