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How To Choose The Best Sunscreen For You

How To Select A Sunscreen Infographic
Image Credit: American Academy of Dermatology

What sunscreen should I use?

When searching for what sunscreen you should use follow the guidelines that The American Academy of Dermatology or AAD has recommended everyone use sunscreen that offers the following:

  • Broad-spectrum protection (protects against UVA and UVB rays)
  • Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 30 or higher
  • Water resistance

Any sunscreen that you use that includes any of the items above will help to protect your skin from not only a sunburn which we all know hurts terribly. It will also protect it from early skin aging, and skin cancer. Fighting skin cancer early is not just putting on sunscreen, dermatologists suggest that you take the following steps to protect your skin:

  • Seek shade whenever appropriate, don’t forget that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If your shadow is shorter than you are, seek shade. (don’t forget the sun can also shine through clouds as well.)
  • Wear protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses, when possible.
  • Use extra caution near water, snow, and sand; these are reflective surfaces to the damaging rays of the sun and thereby can increase your chance of sunburn.
  • Get Your Vitamin D safely through a healthy diet that may include vitamin supplements. Don’t just seek the sun.
  • Avoid those tanning beds. Ultraviolet light from the sun and tanning beds can cause skin cancer and even cause it to wrinkle. If you want to get your best tan, you may wish to use a self-tanning product, but continue to use a sunscreen with it.
  • Check your birthday suit on your birthday. If you notice anything changing, itching or bleeding on your skin, see a board-certified dermatologist. Skin cancer is very treatable when caught early.

When should I use sunscreen?

Anytime you step outside use sunscreen. The sun works to emit harmful UV rays year-round. Even on cloudy days, up to 80 percent of the sun’s harmful UV rays can penetrate your skin. You can also get a sunburn on a cloudy day did you know that?

Snow, sand, and water increase the need for sunscreen because they reflect the sun’s rays.

How much sunscreen should I use, and how often should I apply it?

  • Generously coat all skin that will be not be covered by clothing. Ask yourself, “Will my face, ears, arms or hands be covered by clothing?” If not, apply sunscreen. Most people only use 25-50 percent of the recommended amount of sunscreen.
  • Follow the guideline of “1 ounce, enough to fill a shot glass,” which dermatologists consider the amount needed to cover the exposed areas of the body. Make sure to adjust the amount of sunscreen applied depending on your body size.
  • Apply sunscreen to dry skin 15 minutes BEFORE going outdoors.
  • Skin cancer also can form on the lips. To protect your lips, apply a lip balm or lipstick that contains sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
  • Reapply sunscreen approximately every two hours, or after swimming or sweating, according to the directions on the bottle.

What is the difference between UVA and UVB rays and the Broad-spectrum sunscreens that protect against both?

Sunlight consists of two different types of harmful rays that reach us here on earth — UVA rays and UVB rays. If you receive an overexposure to either of these, you run the risk of skin cancer. In addition to causing skin cancer, here’s what each of these rays does to your skin:

  • UVA rays (or aging rays) can prematurely age your skin, causing wrinkles and age spots, and can pass through window glass.
  • UVB rays (or burning rays) are the primary cause of sunburn and are blocked by window glass.

Tanning beds and Sun lamps have been declared as UV radiation from the sun and artificial sources by the United States Department of Health & Human Services and the World Health Organization’s International Agency of Research on Cancer, as a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance).

There is no safe way to tan. Every time you tan, you damage your skin. As this damage builds, you speed up the aging of your skin and increase your risk for all types of skin cancer.

Who regulates sunscreens?

Sunscreen products are regulated as over-the-counter drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has many safety and effective regulations in place that govern the manufacture and marketing of all sunscreen products, including safety data on its ingredients.

How do FDA sunscreen guidelines affect my sunscreen?

In a ruling in 2011, the FDA said that sunscreen labels must now provide you with more information about what type of UV protection a sunscreen offers and what a sunscreen can do.

On the label, you’ll see whether the sunscreen is:

  • Is Broad Spectrum, which means the sunscreen protects against UVB and UVA rays and helps prevent skin cancer and sunburn.
  • Has an SPF of 30 or higher. While SPF 15 is the FDA’s minimum recommendation for protection against skin cancer and sunburn, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends choosing a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.
  • Has a Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert in the Drug Facts section of the label, which means the sunscreen will only prevent sunburn and will NOT reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging
  • Is Water Resistant (effective for up to 40 minutes in water) or Very Water Resistant (effective for up to 80 minutes in water). This means the sunscreen protects while swimming or sweating up to the time listed on the label.
    • Sunscreen manufacturers now are banned from claiming that sunscreen is “waterproof” or “sweatproof,” as the FDA has determined that those terms are misleading.
    • Even when using a water-resistant sunscreen, you should reapply after getting out of the water or after sweating.

Are sunscreens safe?

It has been proven that using sunscreen minimizes short-term and long-term damage to the skin from the sun’s rays. Especially when combined with seeking shade and wearing protective clothing they will definitely reduce your risk to skin cancer. Preventing skin cancer and sunburn outweigh unproven hazards from using sunscreen.

What type of sunscreen should I use?

The best type of sunscreen is the one you will use over and over again, and that works right for you.  Just make sure it offers broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection, has an SPF of 30 or higher and is water resistant.

Choosing a Sunscreen is a matter of personal choice and may also vary depending on the area of the body to be protected. Sunscreens come in different options include lotions, creams, gels, ointments, wax sticks, and sprays.

  • Creams are best for dry skin and the face.
  • Gels are suitable for hairy areas, such as the scalp or male chest.
  • Sticks are good to use around the eyes.
  • Parents sometimes prefer sprays since they are easy to apply to children. Make sure to use enough of these products to cover all exposed skin thoroughly. Do not inhale these products or apply near heat, open flame or while smoking. It is important to note that current FDA regulations on testing and standardization do not pertain to spray sunscreens. The agency continues to evaluate these products to ensure safety and effectiveness.
  • There also are sunscreens made for specific purposes, such as for sensitive skin and babies.

Some sunscreen products are also available as combination products in moisturizers and even some in cosmetics. While these products are convenient, they also need to be reapplied on a regular basis in order to achieve the best sun protection.

There are some Sunscreens may also appear in combination with an insect repellant. The Academy recommends that these products are purchased and used separately. Sunscreen needs to be applied generously and often, and differently to different areas of the body whereas insect repellant should be used sparingly and much less frequently.

Regardless of which sunscreen you choose, be sure to apply it generously to achieve the UV protection indicated on the product label.

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

Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, which blocks 97 percent of the sun’s rays. Sunscreens with a Higher-number SPF will block slightly more of the sun’s rays, but there is no sunscreen that can block 100 percent of the sun’s rays. Currently, there is not any scientific evidence that indicates using a sunscreen with an SPF higher than 50 can protect you better than one lower than 50.

It is also important to remember that high-number SPF’s last the same amount of time as low-number SPF’s. You don’t get to stay out longer in the sun if you have a high number SPF on you just get to apply it more often. Every two hours or according to time on the label, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating.

Are spray sunscreens safe?

The FDA is currently investigating the risks of accidental inhalation of spray sunscreens. The problem with using a spray sunscreen is that it is hard to figure out if you have covered all the sun-exposed areas of the body, which may result in inadequate coverage, which could result in a painful sunburn.

You should never spray sunscreen around or near the face or mouth. It is best to spray adequate amounts of the sunscreen into your hands and then apply the sunscreen this helps you to steer clear of the fumes while also ensuring adequate coverage. Be careful when applying spray sunscreens on children, always be aware of the direction of the wind to avoid inhalation.

How can I protect my baby or toddler from the sun?

It is really best to keep a child that is younger than 6 months old out of the sun as much as possible.

Protect infants from the sun by keeping them in the shade as much as possible. Also, make sure to dress them in long sleeves, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses. Prevent them from getting overheated by giving them plenty of fluids. Children that are fussy, are crying excessively or have redness on any exposed skin, take him or her indoors.

Sunscreen use should be avoided if possible in babies younger than 6 months.

If you have a child that is 6 months or older a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of  30 or higher may be applied to the exposed skin that is not covered by protective clothing, according to the instructions on the product label. Sunscreen should be reapplied approximately every two hours, or as often as the label says. If the Sunscreen has the ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide or is special sunscreen made for infants or toddlers it may cause less irritation to their sensitive skin.

Can I use the sunscreen I bought last summer, or do I need to purchase a new bottle each year? Does it lose its strength?

Why use it just during the summer? Dermatologists recommend using sunscreen every day when you are outside, not just during the summer. Doing so, and in the correct amount, means that a bottle should not last you long. If you find a bottle of sunscreen that you’ve not used for some time, here are some guidelines you can follow:

  • The FDA requires that all sunscreens retain their original strength for at least three years.
  • Some sunscreens include an expiration date. If the expiration date has passed, throw out the sunscreen.
  • If you buy a sunscreen that does not have an expiration date, write the date you bought the sunscreen on the bottle. That way, you’ll know when to throw it out.
  • You also can look for visible signs that the sunscreen may no longer be good.  Any obvious changes in the color or consistency of the product mean it’s time to purchase a new bottle.

Will using sunscreen limit the amount of vitamin D I get?

It is possible yes, that using sunscreen may decrease your skin’s production of vitamin D.

  •  If you are concerned that you are not getting enough vitamin D, you should discuss your options for getting vitamin D with your doctor.
  •  Many people can get the vitamin D they need from foods and/or vitamin supplements. This approach gives you the vitamin D you need without increasing your risk for skin cancer.

For more information on vitamin D and UV exposure, check out the vitamin D fact sheet.

How do I treat a sunburn?

It’s important to treat sunburn as soon as possible. In addition to getting out of the sun to stop further UV exposure, dermatologists recommend treating sunburn with:

  • Nice Cool baths to reduce the heat.
  • Moisturizer to help ease the discomfort caused by dryness. As soon as you get out of the bathtub, gently pat yourself dry, but leave a little water on your skin. Then apply a moisturizer to trap the water in your skin.
  • Hydrocortisone cream that you can buy without a prescription to help ease discomfort.
  • Aspirin or ibuprofen. This can help reduce swelling, redness, and discomfort.
  • Drinking extra water. A sunburn draws fluid to the skin surface and away from the rest of the body. Drinking extra water prevents dehydration.

Do not treat sunburns with “-Caine” products (such as benzocaine or lidocaine).

If your skin blisters, you have a second-degree sunburn. Dermatologists recommend that you:

  • Keep your hands off! Allow the blisters to heal untouched. Blisters form to help your skin heal and protect you from infection.
  • If the blisters cover a large area, such as the entire back, or you have chills, a headache or a fever, seek immediate medical care.

With any sunburn, you should avoid the sun while your skin heals if at all possible. Be sure to cover the sunburn every time you head outdoors. Because we all know how bad it hurts to have the Sun hit our sunburn.

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Written by Maria

My passion is helping other people overcome the pain and embarrassment of acne. I have dealt with acne since my teenage years and know first-hand how hard it is to suffer from this condition.

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