• Be aware of the “safest sunscreens.” This is where things get tricky. Most of the safest sunscreens listed in the EWG report are made of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which reflect sunlight. New technology allows these substances to be blasted into nanoparticles, about the same size as virus particles, DNA, and protein molecules. This makes the newer sunscreens made of these ingredients clearer. However, few studies have been done to test the toxicity of nanoparticles, and their unique chemical and physical properties are a cause for alarm, according to some doctors.
Still, EWG says this type of sunscreen is safer than the chemical versions, which contain an average of four times as many ingredients known or strongly suspected to cause cancer or birth defects, or to disrupt human reproduction or damage childhood development. Oxybenzone, a sun-blocking agent backed by the AAD, but one the EWG advises against, is also believe to cause bleaching of coral reefs and has been known to cause the feminization of male fish. As a rule of thumb, zinc- or titanium-based sunscreens that leave a whitish residue on the skin are less likely to contain nanoparticles.
• Avoid sprays and powders. Spray and powder forms of sunscreen (including loose mineral makeup) may provide some sun protection, but the aerosol and powder form of ingredients more readily invade your lungs, where, according to EWG and others, they can cause severe damage over time. And even if you’re careful to only spray sunscreen on your child’s belly and legs at the beach, the drift is likely to waft into the respiratory tracts of nearby fellow beachgoers.
• Stay away from sunscreens with bug repellent. For most recreational uses, you likely won’t need bug repellent at the time of peak sun exposure. So avoid putting unneeded chemicals onto your skin.
• Stay out of peak sun. The sun is strongest between 10:00 and 4:00, and in high-altitude or tropical areas, so take extra precautions and avoiding sitting out in broad daylight at all, or for more than a few minutes, during these times.
• Dress so you need less. If you dress yourself in the right kind of clothing and accessories, you won’t need to slather sunscreen all over your body, just your face, hands, and any other exposed skin. Companies such as Solumbra sell SPF-30 clothing that isn't coated with chemicals, but rather, woven in a way that keeps the sun out. Wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses that keep UV rays out can help keep the sun away, and umbrellas and shade from good old-fashioned trees can protect you. Wallaroo Hat Company and Solumbra are good places to find SPF 30+ clothing, protective bathing suits, and hats. Dr. Rigel highly recommends this type of protection, and says that for every inch of hat brim you regularly wear, you’re reducing your risk of cancer by 10 percent. So a hat with a four-inch brim, worn regularly, could slash your skin cancer risk by 40 percent.
• Remember the D factor. Most of this country is vitamin D deficient, a problem that researchers are linking to certain cancers, asthma, diabetes, and all sorts of other chronic health problems. While the vitamin is available in very few foods (examples include mackerel and egg yolks), humans have historically gotten their vitamin D through sun exposure. Since sun exposure also increases your risk of skin cancer, the AAD advises people who are concerned over vitamin D levels to take supplements instead of relying on the sun for their D. Adults should take 1,000 IU a day, and children should take 400 IU a day, if you decide to supplement. While there’s no designated “safe” level of sunlight as far as cancer prevention is concerned, casual sun exposure can boost your D levels during the warmer months if you’re not wearing sunscreen every single time you walk out the door. Depending on the time of year, Dr. Rigel says the average person gets enough sun just walking from the car to the supermarket, or to work and back.