What sunscreen should I use?

A sunscreen with SPF 30 or greater should be used all year for all skin types. Sunscreens should be an important part of your skin health routine because they absorb or block UV rays. Sunscreens are rated by how much sun protection factor (SPF) they offer. SPF calculations are based on laboratory comparisons of how much sunlight will cause mild sunburn on the unprotected skin of a person with a fair complexion and on the same skin area protected by sunscreen.

The effectiveness of a sunscreen depends on the types of sun protective chemicals used, the thickness of the cream or lotions and the amount of product applied to the skin. Not all sunscreens provide protection against UVA radiation. Be sure that the sunscreen you purchase states it provides UVA/UVB protection or is a broad-spectrum sunscreen. While sunscreen use helps to minimize damaging sunburns, it doesn't completely prevent burning.

If you develop a rash or other type of allergic response to a sunscreen, try a different brand or form (lotion vs. gel, or protective clothing, for example) or switch to a sunscreen containing the active ingredients of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. These products don't require chemical interaction with the skin to be effective, provide a protective shield-like barrier and rarely cause rashes. All sunscreens need to be reapplied after water contact or sweating.

If you're prone to rashes, try different brands and types of sunscreen until you find one that doesn't cause a rash. Gels may be drying, but they may be preferable to lotion or cream sunscreens if you have oily skin and are prone to acne. Discuss your skin reactions with a dermatologist for other suggestions.

Note that SPF has nothing to do with how long you can stay in the sun. People think the higher the SPF rating, the longer they can stay out in the sun. That's simply not true. While higher numbered products do provide more protection, using sunscreen doesn't prevent all the possible harmful effects of the sun.

Stay posted for what dermatologists are calling the superpower of sunscreen protection -- a chemical called mexoryl, which has an SPF of 60 and provides much greater protection against UVA rays than anything else on the market. Available in Europe and Australia, it is under consideration for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Arthur W. Perry, MD
Plastic Surgery
If you are spending more than 20 minutes in the sun, lather up with zinc oxide containing sunscreen. It will block both types of UV light that are harmful and zinc oxide will not get absorbed into your body like the chemical (clear) sunscreens. Use a lot of that sunscreen -- it takes a full ounce to cover your body. And reapply it after swimming.
There are seventeen FDA-approved sunscreen ingredients. Most are chemicals that absorb UV radiation; they take about thirty minutes to take effect, and some can irritate sensitive skin. However, two -- zinc oxide and titanium dioxide -- are physical blockers that block UVA and UVB. They go to work instantly, and won’t irritate skin (this makes them ideal for kids). Any sunscreen with zinc or titanium will do, but at the right percentage. I look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen that contains at least 9 percent zinc or titanium. Micronized zinc oxide appears to be a better UVA filter than micronized titanium dioxide so, given a choice, opt for zinc.

For the best protection, you need a broad-spectrum sunscreen that works for both UVA and UVB rays. The problem is, a recent study found that 18 percent of US sunscreens fell short in providing UVA protection, even though they were labeled broad spectrum. For UVB coverage, just choose a product with SPF 30 or higher, which filters out 97 percent of UVB. Getting UVA coverage is trickier, because the FDA just recently set standards for informing consumers on UVA protection. Manufacturers won’t be forced to upgrade their labeling until around May 2009. By then, they will have to indicate on the label the strength of their products’ UVA protection level by using a four-star rating system. The SPF number on the label will relate to the UVB and the four-star rating will relate to the UVA. The new regulations also change the highest SPF values from 30+ to 50+. So go for a four-star formula (and at least 30+).

From The Mind-Beauty Connection: 9 Days to Less Stress, Gorgeous Skin, and a Whole New You by Amy Wechsler.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Here are our recommendations:

Nanoparticled zinc oxide (and titanium dioxide if you do not sweat--titanium dioxide turns gray when mixed with sweat) sunscreens protect immediately, and newer versions of these sunscreens form a thin film rather than making you look as if you’d smeared crayon or cream cheese all over your face, like the older versions did. All the rest of the sunscreens -- called chemical or organic sunscreens -- take twenty minutes to absorb into your skin before protecting. You need to slather all sunscreens on thickly (1 millimeter is how they are tested for SPF effects) and apply them evenly, making sure not to miss any spots such as the back of the neck, the top of the ears, and any exposed scalp. Most of us don’t put on enough sunscreen, and if that’s the case with you, then you’re getting only a fraction of the effectiveness (if you’re putting on SPF 30, it’s could be more like SPF 15 or SPF 10).
Catherine Balestra, MD
When you read the label on a sunscreen bottle, there are four things to focus on so that you can make the right sunscreen choice for you and your family:
  • SPF (“Sun Protection Factor”)
  • UVA coverage
  • Water resistance
  • Ingredients
SPF and UVA coverage tell you how much protection the sunscreen provides from the sun’s harmful UV (ultraviolet) rays.  You want coverage for both UVB and UVA since UVB rays are predominantly responsible for sunburn and UVA rays contribute more to aging.  This is easy to remember:  UVB for Burning and UVA for Aging.  Specifically, SPF indicates UVB protection, and you want to use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to protect from sunburn.  For UVA coverage, the bottle should clearly say if there is UVA coverage or, additionally, you can check the active ingredients for UVA blockers like zinc oxide, avobenzone, titanium dioxide, ecamsule, octocrylene, dioxybenzone, meradimate, and sulisobenzone.  

As for water resistance, there are 2 FDA-approved phrases to address the ability of a sunscreen to protect your skin even in water: “water resistant” and “very water resistant.”  “Water resistant” means that the sunscreen retains its SPF after 40 minutes of activity in water.  “Very water resistant” means it retains its SPF after 80 minutes.  Unfortunately, commonly used phrases like “waterproof” are not clearly defined by the FDA, but likely you can assume at least 40 minutes of protection with sweating or swimming before reapplication is necessary.

Finally, if you have a child younger than 6 months or if you have sensitive skin, you should use sunscreens with the “physical blockers” listed as the only active ingredients on the sunscreen bottle.  There are only 2 physical blockers – titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
There are many types of sunscreens on the market, however, when shopping for sunscreen, it’s important to choose sunscreen that is labeled “broad spectrum” and has an SPF of at least 15. It must also be applied correctly to all exposed body parts and repeated on a regular basis. A good rule of thumb is to apply about an ounce for full-body coverage, then reapply after swimming, getting wet or sweating.
You should use a sunblock that blocks a broad spectrum (range) of UVA and UVB rays. There are different types of ingredients, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, that provide a "physical" block over a broad range of types of UVA and UVB rays, as well as a lot of other chemicals that have to be used together to provide a full spectrum of protection. An SPF of 30 will most likely provide better protection than SPF 15, but the American Association of Dermatology recommends a minimum of 15. Since the SPF says how many times longer your skin will be protected before burning, the length of time you can go before needing to reapply sunblock will depend on how long it takes your skin to burn without sunblock. If you sweat or go swimming, you should reapply more frequently. The same probably goes for spray-on type sunblocks or gels. Be sure to apply sunblock at least 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure to allow it time to form a protective layer.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.