Safely Slathered Up
The newest sunscreens create a better shield against UVA rays
For years, sun-loving travelers to Europe have been stashing Anthelios SX in their bags when they return. Bootlegging the French sunscreen was practically the only way to get some, since the Food and Drug Administration hadn't approved the highly effective blocker of ultraviolet A rays. Now, you can pick up a tube at your local CVS drugstore. Not to be outdone, a number of U.S. manufacturers have introduced new sunscreens that boost UVA protection, too. Being sun smart has never been easier.
Most sunscreens do a fine job of knocking out ultraviolet B rays, the ones that cause sunburn. The "sun protection factor," or SPF, is a measure of just how well: A sunscreen with an SPF of 15, for example, blocks about 93 percent of UVB radiation; an SPF of 50, about 98 percent. But almost all of the ultraviolet radiation that reaches Earth's surface is actually part of the UVA spectrum, the rays that cause wrinkles and age spots and possibly the cell damage that leads to melanoma. Unlike UVB rays, UVA rays penetrate window glass and water, and they don't vary much in intensity by time of day or season. There's no standard way of calculating UVA protection comparable to the SPF system, so the only way to tell if you're buying a full-spectrum shield is to squint at the tube for the list of ingredients. Two popular options, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, block UVA rays by creating a physical barrier that deflects harmful rays-but can turn that golden glow an ashy color.
Staying power. The new formulations appearing on store shelves have proved to be particularly good at blocking UVA rays. Mexoryl SX, the secret behind Anthelios SX, can also be found in the new Lancôme UV Expert SPF 20. Avobenzone is another UVA blocker to look for, though the chemical begins to lose its effectiveness soon after it's exposed to light. Last year, Neutrogena brought out a line of sunscreens that have gained attention for their ability to "photostabilize" avobenzone, combining it with other substances so it keeps on working for several hours. Fresh Cooling Gel Sunblock in SPF 30 and 45 and Ultra Sheer Dry Touch Sunblock SPF 70 both photostabilize avobenzone. "Clearly, these are head and shoulders above the other UVA sunscreens to date," says Richard Glogau, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California-San Francisco.
Aveeno, by Neutrogena manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, this spring introduced a lotion and a spray using the same technology. And in April, CVS came out with its own photostable Sun Effects sunscreens. Coppertone, which says it's been making photostable sunscreens with avobenzone for the past five years, has a new line of QuickCover lotion sprays.
Even the best blockers can't do the job if you skimp. Dermatologists prescribe the equivalent of a shot-glassful every single time you slather up-and a reslathering every two hours. Hardly anybody even comes close. "Most people only put on 75 percent as much as was used in the SPF testing, so they're getting 25 percent less value," says Heidi Waldorf, director of laser and cosmetic dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Using a higher SPF will make up at least in part for being too stingy. But when it comes to sunscreen, more is indeed more.
This story appears in the May 21, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.