Choosing a sunscreen isn’t as simple as it used to be. Given all of the options available, how do you know which is the best sunscreen for you?
While choosing the best sunscreen is important, perhaps even more crucial is using it correctly- something a lot of us don’t do. So before you plop down on the lawn chair- or take the kids to the beach- here are the sunscreen facts.
Finding the Best Sunscreen
Sunscreens help shield you from the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays in two ways. Some work by scattering the light, reflecting it away from your body. Others absorb the UV rays before they reach your skin.
A few years ago, choosing a good sunscreen meant you just looked for a high sun protection factor (SPF)- which rates how well the sunscreen protects against one type of cancer-causing UV ray, ultraviolet B (UVB.) SPF refers to blockage of UVB rays only.
Research soon showed that ultraviolet A rays (UVA) also increase skin cancer risk. While UVA rays don’t cause sunburn, they penetrate deeply into skin and cause wrinkles. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 90% of skin changes associated with aging are really caused by a lifetime’s exposure to UVA rays.
The New Broad-Spectrum Sunscreens
So which is the best sunscreen for you? Clearly, you’ll want a sunscreen with broad-spectrum or multi-spectrum protection for both UVB and UVA. Ingredients with broad-spectrum protection include benzophenones (oxybenzone), cinnamates (octylmethyl cinnamate and cinoxate), sulisbenzone, salicylate, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and avobenzone (Parsol 1789).
- Avobenzone– Helioplex isn’t really a new ingredient; it’s a “stabilized” version of a common UVA-blocker called avobenzone (or Parsol 1789). Unless it’s stabilized, avobenzone breaks down when exposed to sunlight- exactly what you don’t want in a sunscreen. You’ll find stabilized avobenzone in other sunscreens, too.
Some of the excitement about these new products is advertising hype. For instance, any brand-name sunscreen that has avobenzone is stabilized. You can get equally good protection for a lot less than some of the brand-name sunscreens.
- Titanium Dioxide or Zinc Oxide– We consider these two ingredients to be the most important to look for in a sunscreen. Old sunscreens with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide used to make people look pale and ghostly, but newer manufacturing techniques have resolved the problem.
- Water and sweat resistance– If you’re going to be exercising or in the water, it’s worth getting a sunscreen resistant to water and sweat.
But understand what this really means. The FDA defines water resistant sunscreen as meaning that the SPF feel stays effective after 40 minutes in the water. Very water resistant means it holds after 80 minutes of swimming. These sunscreens are in no way water-proof, so you’ll need to reapply them regularly if you’re taking a dip.
- A brand you like– Even if a brand is recommended by all the experts, if you don’t like it, you’re not going to use it. Personal preference is really important.
- Kid-friendly sunscreen– The sensitive skin of babies and children is easily irritated by chemicals in adult sunscreens,so avoid sunscreens with para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and benzephones like dioxybenzone, oxybenzone, or sulisobenzone. Children’s sunscreens use ingredients less likely to irritate the skin, like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Unlike chemical ingredients, these protect babies’ skin without being absorbed.
For kids 6 months or older, look for a sunscreen designed for children with an SPF of 15 or higher. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies under 6 months be kept out of the sun altogether.
- Sunscreen for skin problems or allergies– People who have sensitive skin or skin conditions like rosacea may also benefit from using sunscreens designed for children. Go for titanium dioxide or zinc oxide instead of chemicals like para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), dioxybenzone, oxybenzone, or sulisobenzone. If you have skin irritation or allergies, avoid sunscreens with alcohol, fragrances, or preservatives.
Other sunscreens include moisturizers or other ingredients for people with dry or oily skin. As long as they meet the UVA and UVB requirements above, you can give them a try and see what works best.
How to Wear Sunscreen
While choosing the right sunscreen is important, it won’t help much if you don’t use it daily and correctly. Use these tips from the experts.
- Apply the sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go out in the sun. For women, sunscreen can be applied under makeup. Use about 1 ounce (or 2 tablespoons, to cover your whole body. Don’t skimp. A number of studies show that people simply don’t use enough- and only get 10% to 25% of the benefit.
- Don’t forget the easy-to-miss spots, like the tips of your ears, your feet, the back of your legs, and, if you have one, your bald spot. Since your lips can also get sunburned, use a UV-protective lip balm and reapply it regularly.
- No matter how long-lasting it’s supposed to be, reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours, and more often if you’re sweating or getting wet.
- Pay attention to the expiration date on the bottle. Sunscreen loses it’s effectiveness over time.
- Wear sunscreen whenever you’re out during the day- and not only when it’s hot and sunny. On a grey, overcast day, up to 80% of the dangerous UV rays still make it through the clouds. And during the winter, exposure to the sun’s rays still have damaging effects on your skin.
Sunscreen Isn’t Enough
Some people have the impression that wearing sunscreen makes them fully protected against the sun’s rays, but that’s not the case. No sunscreen can do that.
No matter how high the SPF, no matter how thickly you slather it on, sunscreen will never fully protect you. This misunderstanding can be dangerous: people who think they’re safe wind up spending too much time in the sun and raise their risk of skin cancer and other problems.
Even your clothes may not protect you. The average cotton T-shirt has a pitiful SPF of 4.
So in addition to wearing good sunscree, you still need to take other precautions:
- Stay in the shade when possible.
- Wear sunglasses.
- Stay inside when UV radiation levels are highest, usually from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the U.S.
- Wear a broad-brimmed hat.
- Wear sun-protective clothing, preferable with a UVP (ultraviolet protection rating) on the label. At least wear clothes that are dark and tightly woven, which offer a bit more protection.
Sunscreen works, but protecting yourself against ultraviolet rays requires a lot more than sunscreen alone. Remember that with sunscreen, you need to defend yourself against the sun’s rays with both UVA and UVB protection.