While its important to wear sunscreen throughout the year, its even more critical during the summer months. Days are longer, people spend more time outside, and the sun is more intense. Choosing the right sunscreen for you, however, can be overwhelming. A recent visit to my local pharmacy revealed over 50 options for sunscreen products. So, where to begin?

The first part of this blog will go over the three most important considerations when choosing a sunscreen. Part two will delve deeper into more facts about sunscreen.

  1. Whatever sunscreen you choose, its best to find one that has an SPF of 30 or greater. SPF refers to “Sun Protection Factor” and reflects the level of protection against sunburns. This effect is largely the result of filtering UVB radiation. Higher number SPFs will provide more protection than lower number ones, but the effect decreases as the SPF number increases. SPF 15, for example, filters approximately 93% of UVB radiation. SPF 30 will filter about 97%, and SPF 50 will filter around 98%. In general, picking a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher is a safe-bet.
  2. Look for a sunscreen label specifying “broad spectrum” protection. While SPF largely refers to protection from UVB radiation, UVA exposure may contribute to premature aging and skin cancer. A broad spectrum sunscreen will filter both UVA and UVB radiation.
  3. This last consideration may seem self-evident, but its actually probably the most important consideration. Pick a sunscreen that you like how it looks, feels, and smells. You need to like it, or you won’t wear it. Often, your dermatologist can supply you with samples of different kinds of sunscreen to try. Alternatively, some pharmacies will sell travel sizes that will allow you to try a few and find the one that looks, feels, and smells best. Once you find one you like, apply it 30 minutes before going outside, and then re-apply every two hours.

If you follow the first three steps, you’ll be in good shape for sun protection. For those of you interested in more details, keep reading.

Chemical Sunscreens v. Physical Sunscreens:

There are two basic types of sunscreen ingredients: physical agents and chemical agents. A physical sunscreen usually includes particles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. The particles physically block the UV radiation. Chemical sunscreens may contain organic compounds like oxybenzone, octisalate, and avobensone. When UV radiation interacts with chemical agents, the energy is converted to heat which is dissipated from the skin. There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of sunscreen. Chemical agents tend to be smoother to apply and absorb nicely into the skin, and they may also provide a broader range of ultraviolet coverage. However, chemical sunscreens can break down with exposure to ultraviolet radiation and heat.

Sunscreen Expiration Dates:

Sunscreen is just a lotion or cream; does it really expire? The short answer is “yes.” The ingredients in sunscreens can degrade over time as well as with exposure to sunlight (ironically) and heat. An expired sunscreen is not, in itself, harmful. However, sunscreen that has passed its expiration date will not provide the level of sun protection reported on the package. Its best to buy new bottles of sunscreen each year.

Waterproof v. Water Resistant:

No sunscreens are truly waterproof or sweatproof. Its probably good they aren’t because how else would you be able to shower off the sunscreen at the end of the day? In fact, recent FDA regulations state that sunscreens may only claim to be water resistant for 40 or 80 minutes while swimming or sweating. Its also best to reapply even water resistant sunscreen after swimming; toweling dry after swimming or sweating will remove much of your sunscreen.

Spray v. Lotion Sunscreen:

Both lotion and spray sunscreens must satisfy the same FDA testing and labelling requirements. When applied as intended, either sunscreen vehicle can provide appropriate protection. Most often, however, people do not apply enough spray sunscreen to achieve the degree of UV protection noted on the product label. Even for sunscreen lotions, studies show people often apply only 25-50 percent of the recommended amount. You should apply the equivalent of 1 ounce (a shot glass full) to adequately cover normally exposed body surfaces.

T-Shirt v. Sunscreen:

In addition to sunscreen, appropriate clothing can help protect you from harmful UV radiation. Not all clothing, however, is created equal. A white cotton t-shirt may offer an SPF of only 6, and it drops to about 4 when it gets wet. When picking out clothing for a sunny day, tighter weaves and darker colors will provide more protection than loose and light fabrics. Even better, some clothing is specially treated and tested to report a UPF—ultraviolet protection factor.

Kids Sunscreen v. Adult Sunscreen:

Both children’s and adult’s sunscreen must meet the same FDA rules for measuring SPF, coverage spectrum, and water resistance. The most common difference is that children’s sunscreens may include fewer preservatives, fragrances, and other chemicals likely to irritate sensitive skin.