How To Choose a Sunscreen That Packs the Best Protection

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woman on the beach applying sunscreen to arm

One of the best ways to protect your skin from harmful rays of the sun – short of avoiding sun altogether -- is to choose a good sunscreen.

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a risk factor for skin cancer, says the National Cancer Institute, especially if you have skin that sunburns easily, a large number of moles or family history of skin cancer. UV radiation is the name for the invisible rays that are part of the energy that comes from the sun.

Sunscreens are essential to lower your risk of skin cancer, and they also prevent premature aging of the skin, But with so many options, how do you pick?

What To Look for In a Sunscreen

Sunscreen can significantly reduce the risk of melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreens that meets these conditions:

  • SPF (sun protection factor) 30 or higher
  • Broad spectrum that protects against ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B rays.
  • Water resistant, meaning it should last 40 to 80 minutes on wet or sweaty skin.

Sunscreen comes in many forms. Nicole Bort, DNP, AGPCNP, DCNP, a UH dermatology certified nurse practitioner who specializes in dermatology, says creams are best for dry skin, lotions are good for covering large areas and gels are best for hairy areas of the skin such as the scalp. 

Some people like the convenience of sprays, but applying sprays evenly can be a challenge (so can the wind). Sunscreen sticks are useful for applying around the eyes and backs of the hands.

How Much Sunscreen To Use

“The most important thing is to use sunscreen regularly, and don’t be stingy with it,” Ms. Bort says. “Most people do not apply a thick enough layer and often forget the importance of reapplication.  It should be applied every two hours, and more often if you’re swimming or sweating.”

The American Academy of Dermatology says most adults need at least one ounce of sunscreen, enough to fill a shot glass, to cover their entire bodies. Rub it thoroughly into your skin and apply it before you go outside, as it takes about 15 minutes for your skin to absorb it.  It is important not to forget areas like the ears, the back of the neck, and tops of your feet.

What Type of Sunscreen To Use 

There are two main types of sunscreens, chemical and mineral. Each of them is FDA-approved to help fight against damaging UV rays, but they differ in the way they protect.

Chemical compounds such as oxybenzone get absorbed by the skin and soak up UV radiation like a sponge.  They tend to be a little thinner, allowing for easy, lightweight application.

Mineral compounds such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sit directly on the skin, creating a physical barrier that blocks UV radiation.

Both have benefits. Chemical sunscreens leave a less-chalky finish, making them more ideal for individuals with darker skin tones.

Mineral sunscreens tend to be less likely to cause skin irritation, especially for those who with acne-prone skin or who have a lot of sensitivities. Many sunscreens contain chemical and mineral compounds, giving the benefit of both mechanisms.

Not Just for the Beach

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sunscreen year-round, as direct exposure to the sun is not the only way UV rays can harm the skin. 

“Sunscreen should be applied every day, even when it is cold or cloudy,” Ms. Bort says.  “UV rays can pass through clouds, fog, and even your car windows.”

UV radiation is also capable of reflecting off surfaces such as concrete, water, sand and snow, she says. Indeed, snow can reflect up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV light

“Regardless of what type of sunscreen you prefer, regular application is key to long-term protection against premature aging and skin cancer,” she says.

Related Links

UH dermatologists see patients at 11 sites across Northeast Ohio. With more than 50,000 visits annually, and excellent patient satisfaction scores, we emphasize team-based care so that our patients have many options for care and communication. Learn more about dermatology services at University Hospitals.

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