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Why your sunscreen might be staining your clothes—and how to prevent it


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Photo: Stocksy/Andrey Pavlov

If you’re like me, you’d be hard-pressed to find a white piece of clothing that you haven’t stained with food or coffee. But, at least in these cases, you know the cause. Then there are the more mysterious stains that seem to come from some rogue culprit.

Turns out, that might be your sunscreen. And different ingredients not only interact differently with the sun, they also have different effects on light versus dark clothing. (BTW, if you had no idea that there were, in fact, different sunscreen ingredients, the EWG’s 2018 guide to sunscreens hit today to help you sort through everything there is to know.)

In a new study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, researchers tested a bunch of sunscreens for their ability to stain dark and light clothing. Though an SPF’s ability to stain doesn’t affect its ability to protect you from harmful rays, cosmetic chemist Stephen Alain Ko of the beauty blog Kind of Stephen noticed a trend—which can help you prevent these irksome stains from happening in the first place.

Certain sunscreen filters are more prone to causing stains on either dark or light clothes. “[Chemical] sunscreen filters like avobenzone and oxybenzone are oily substances which are white to gently yellow,” he explains. “One theory as to why they stain is that they can form complexes with alkaline materials or metal ions like iron. These complexes absorb strongly in the yellow and orange wavelengths.” Ko says to get rid of these on your light clothes, use an iron chelator like citric acid along with a source of acid, such as vinegar.

On dark clothes, the culprit’s usually physical-blockers like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, according to Ko. “They’re physical particles and absorb visible light strongly, so they appear white,” he says. “Unless [they] have been coated they often aren’t water-soluble, however dabbing with rubbing alcohol should help remove them from the clothing.”

Of course, now that you know how to remove the stains—should they happen—there’s no excuse not to slather on the SPF on the reg.

Here’s your 2018 dermatologist guide to sunscreens. Just be sure to watch out for vitamin A in your SPF

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