How to Choose the Perfect Sunscreen? [ Dermatologist Approved ]

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This article is medically reviewed on June 1, 2020 by:

Picture of Rina Allawh, MD, FAAD

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What is SPF?

 Who should use SPF?

When should you use SPF?

how to choose sunscreen?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Intermittent sun exposure in childhood and during adolescence may increase risk of skin cancer. Even one blistering sunburn during childhood can nearly double a person’s chance of developing a melanoma later in life.

In fact, in the past few years, the percentage of people suffering from skin cancer due to overexposure to UV light (sunlight) has been increasing tremendously [1] . That’s why, no matter what your sex, age, race, or nationality is, it’s important to know how to take care of your skin and eventually prevent skin damage caused by the sun’s UV rays.  Such damage may lead not only to increased risk of skin cancer but also hyper- or hypo-pigmentation and premature skin aging.

UV light can pass through clouds and even windows (only UVA rays). Even on a cloudy or overcast day, it is just as important to be diligent about sun protective measures. For that reason, it’s crucial to know how to choose the right SPF product and protect your skin properly from sun radiation and damage.

Let’s get started!

What is SPF?

SPF, also known as sun protective factor, is important to pay close attention to. This basically measures how much UV light a sunscreen can filter out.

An SPF of at least 30 is to date the recommendation of dermatologists. An SPF of 30 blocks 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays. Having a high-number SPF does not protect you for a longer period of time, but instead has slightly more coverage (98%+ coverage from the sun’s UVB rays). With that being said, no sunscreen in reality can block 100 % of the sun’s UVB rays.

An interesting fact is that human skin can naturally protect itself from the sun (even though not effectively) by producing melanin. Fair-skinned individuals have a “natural SPF” of up to 5, and naturally dark-skinned people (who have more accumulated melanin in their skin cells) may have protection of 10-15. [2]

However, such a degree of protection is definitely not enough!  That’s why sunscreen should be used regularly in order to help our skin be more resistant to sun damage.

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 Who should use SPF?

Everybody should use SPF in order to keep their skin healthy and beautiful! No matter the age, sex, nationality, race, etc.

When should you use SPF?

Every day. As already explained, you are exposed to UV radiation every day. Therefore, you need to apply and reapply sunscreen daily to protect your skin from damage. In fact, it’s never too late to start using SPF. Reapplication is essential, especially when after being in the water or after a vigorous work-out (sweating).

How to choose sunscreen?

Sunscreens are available in two broad categories: Physical/Mineral vs Chemical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens contain organic compounds such as oxybenzone and avobenzone which absorb UV rays as they attempt to enter the skin. Whereas, physical sunscreens contain active mineral ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which scatter and reflect UV rays.

Physical SPF

Sunscreens containing ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are essential for protection from both UVA and UVB. These mineral ingredients sit on the top layer of the skin and rather than absorb they deflect UV rays from entering the skin.

The advantage of physical sunscreens containing zinc oxide is that they work as soon as you apply them to the skin, whereas sunscreens containing organic ingredients often take at least 20 minutes to work, which means that your skin is not protected for 20 minutes.

Another advantage of zinc oxide-containing sunscreens is that they are less likely to be pore-clogging and irritating and as a result, are ideal for those with acne-prone or sensitive skin.

Sunscreens containing zinc oxide, in general, last longer when in direct UV light compared to chemical sunscreens. However, because physical sunscreens sit directly on the skin, they can rub, sweat or rinse off more easily compared to chemical sunscreens.

A disadvantage of these sunscreens is that because they sit directly on the skin, they may rub, sweat or rinse off more easily compared to chemical sunscreens. They can often leave behind a white paste or residue on the skin, which is not cosmetically ideal. However, there are number of formulations of zinc oxide-containing sunscreens that are easily able to be rubbed in, which is especially ideal for those with darker skin types.

Chemical SPF

Chemical sunscreens which contain organic compounds such as oxybenzone and avobenzone absorb UV rays as they attempt to enter the skin.

Chemical SPF sunscreens usually have a liquid texture, they are quickly absorbed and do not leave any residue on the skin when applied.

Because chemical sunscreens are absorbing the UV rays from within the skin, they usually require about 20 min after application before they start to work.  So if you put these on as soon as you arrive at the beach, your skin is not protected for 20 minutes! This is unlike physical sunscreen products which physically block the UV rays, therefore they work as soon as you apply them to the skin.

A disadvantage: skin irritation. Chemical sunscreens are more likely to irritate the skin, cause stinging or burning, or clog the pores vs physical sunscreens are less likely to be pore-clogging and so often a go-to for those with acne-prone or sensitive skin.

The advice from Dr. Allawh (Board-Certified Dermatologist):

Can the sunscreen be absorbed into my skin and get into my blood? This is a common question I come across as a dermatologist almost on a daily basis, especially with increasing reports in the media regarding sunscreen absorption and risk of cancer. What we do know is that there are some reports revealing that certain chemical sunscreens may be potentially absorbed into the blood at higher levels than previously thought; however, there are no studies to date showing that sunscreen has been linked to cancer.

Sun protection and SPF is serious business. Take a proactive role in your skin health and prevent sun damage and skin cancer.

Is a higher number SPF better than a low-number one?

Keep in mind that the number of SPF does not define how tanned you will become, but how the degree of sun protection.

Many individuals purchase a higher SPF in hopes that they don’t have to reapply. In reality, a high-number SPF does not mean that you can spend additional time outdoors unprotected. Reapplication is essential, especially when after being in the water or after a vigorous work-out (sweating).

However, there are multiple factors that influence the time of protection, such as contact with water and clothes, wind, temperature, sweat, activity, etc. Therefore, it’s important to reapply the product often and choose an appropriate SPF.

What sunscreen is the best?

With so many sunscreen brands out there, what should I look for? Where do you even start?

Well, the first step is to look at the label…and make sure your sunscreen says “broad spectrum” meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays.

Another helpful tip is to check the expiration date. Many people keep their sunscreens for multiple seasons and don’t realize that it’s actually expired, and an expired sunscreen is not going to protect your skin as effectively.

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