Sunscreen is one of the best ways to protect against sunburn, prevent early signs of aging and reduce the risk of developing skin cancer. Some medications can also increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so picking the right sunscreen is key.
But with so many options available, shopping for sunscreen can be an overwhelming experience that may leave you with unanswered questions. How much SPF is enough? What does broad-spectrum mean? How long are sunscreens water-resistant? In the end, picking the right sunscreen is about more than just that number on the bottle — although that’s important. When shopping, there are a few things to keep in mind:
Consider Sun Protection Factor (SPF) First
Sun protection factor (SPF) is a measure of how effectively the product filters out harmful UV rays. The higher the SPF number, the more effective it is.
Most dermatologists recommend SPF 30 or higher. Those filter out approximately 97 percent of UVB rays, while SPF 100 protects against 99 percent.
Look for Broad-Spectrum Protection
“Broad-spectrum” refers to the sunscreen’s ability to protect against both UVA and UVB rays, offering the best protection for your skin.
UVB rays can cause those familiar red sunburns and may be responsible for cellular damage that leads to skin cancer.
UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and can lead to premature aging. These rays also have been found to cause cellular damage that may lead to skin cancer.
The best protection option would be a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
Water-Resistant Sunscreens Are Key for Sports and Swimming
If you’re spending time at the beach or the pool, look for a sunscreen labeled “water-resistant.” This means it will stay on sweaty or wet skin from 40 to 80 minutes. After that, or if you’ve dried off with a towel, you’ll need to reapply your sunscreen.
Types of Sunscreen
Sunscreens are available in a few different forms, including:
Spray. Spray sunscreens are convenient and easier to apply — especially on children — but are not as reliable. With sprays, it’s easier to accidentally miss a spot or forget to rub it in after application. If you do choose a spray, use a generous amount and rub it in thoroughly to apply an even coating on all exposed skin.
Stick. Stick sunscreens are excellent for applying to the face and ears. These areas tend to be most vulnerable to sunburn. Apply four passes back and forth for proper coverage.
Cream/Lotion. Cream sunscreens are the best way to ensure you apply enough for effective protection. Lotions and creams can be applied to all parts of the body and are more hydrating for the skin. Apply a generous layer and smooth it over rather than rub it in completely.
No matter which type of sunscreen you choose, be sure to apply it 15 to 20 minutes before going outdoors. This gives your skin time to absorb it and gain proper protection. Then reapply every two hours, regardless of the type.
If you have sensitive or acne-prone skin, you may want to consider a water-based option that won’t irritate your skin. Versions that contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide are recommended for people with sensitive skin. These are noncomedogenic, which means they won’t block pores.
Hypoallergenic and mineral sunscreens typically don’t contain common skin allergens and irritants, making them another good option for sensitive skin. Ask your doctor or dermatologist for recommendations if you’re not sure what to choose.
Check the Ingredients
There are two types of protective ingredients in sunscreens — physical blockers and chemical blockers.
Physical blockers sit on the surface of the skin and reflect UV rays from the sun. Minerals like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the primary ingredients in physical sunscreens.
Chemical blockers are absorbed into the skin, where they convert the sun’s UV rays into heat and release it from the body. Active ingredients in chemical sunscreens include avobenzone, oxybenzone and octinoxate.
To get the most out of your sunscreen, read the ingredient list on the label and make sure your sunscreen contains at least one of the following:
When applying whatever option you choose, be sure it covers every area of your skin that’s exposed to the sun. While the face, neck, arms and legs are most commonly sunburned, it’s important to cover your lips, ears, feet and hands, too.
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