(Photo: A new study by the Environmental Working Group looks at the efficacy of organic and other sunscreens.)     

By Teresa McUsic     

Especially if you find yourself in DFW and North Texas, it’s time for fun in the sun. Two new sunscreen studies are out to guide consumers on how to protect their skin safely.

Consumers should be wary of what product they purchase. A study of more than 800 beach and sports sunscreens analyzed by the Environmental Working Group found only one in four met EWG’s standards for effectiveness and safety.

And that number represents progress. Last year, EWG could only recommend one in five sun protection products it evaluated, and in 2010, just one in 12.

Among the products to avoid—EWG said one quarter of this year's products still contain vitamin A, an ingredient that has been linked to accelerate the growth of skin tumors and lesions on sun-exposed skin, according to a study by the Food and Drug Administration. Look for “retinyl palmitate” or “retinol” on the label to avoid Vitamin A products, EWG advises.

Consumers should know that the SPF number on sunscreen labels only apples to UVB radiation, which is the main cause of sunburn and skin cancer. According to the FDA, products with an SPF of greater than 50 haven’t been shown to provide greater protection. So the maximum SPF value on sunscreens is now just labeled “50+.” For the best protection against the sun’s bad rays, the magazine advises to look for a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to 50+.

There is no protection factor on labels for UVA radiation, however, which also can cause skin cancer and aging. Instead, Consumer Reports advises to look for the term “broad-spectrum protection” on the label. The FDA proposed a one-to-four-star labeling system for UVA protection in 2007, but it still has not gone in effect. Fifty-six of the products reviewed by EWG had no active ingredients that protect against the sun's damaging UVA rays

No one is exempt from the risk of skin cancer, including those with darker skin. Factors that increase risk include fair skin, moles, light eyes or a family history of cancer. Your chances of skin cancer also increase if you’ve had a lot of sunburns or exposure to sun throughout your life, or if you live in a sunny area like Texas.

Before you go outside, check the UV Index provided by the Environmental Protection Agency at http://www.epa.gov/sunwise/uvindex.html. If the UV is high that day, minimize sun exposure time, especially from noon to 4 p.m. A shirt, hat and sunscreen are a must when the UV index is at its maximum range of 11 or higher, and be sure you seek shade.

Most summer days in North Texas the UV index is 11 or higher.

To access Consumer Reports sunscreen buying guide, go to www.consumerreports.com. You must be a subscriber to get into the guide, however.

EWG’s sunscreen guide can be found for no cost at www.ewg.org. The guide includes its top-rated sunscreens; its Hall of Shame, which highlights the gimmicks used to market children’s sunscreens; and a database to show how your sunscreen ranks. EWG also has rated other SPF products, included lip balm, makeup and moisturizers. A free iPhone app of the guide can be downloaded from iTunes.

Leading brands like Hawaiian Tropic and Banana Boat don’t make the cut for EWG.  But Coppertone’s Sensitive Skin and Kids Pure and Simple brands were among the top-rated products by EWG, along with many sunscreens from Burt’s Bees, Seventh Generation and other mineral based or organic makers.

Teresa McUsic is an Arlington-based writer focused on consumer, environmental and health issues for a number of local and national publications. Her column, The Savvy Consumer, appears in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She can be reached atTMcUsic@aol.com