Overwhelmed by the number of sunscreen choices? Not sure if you should choose an expensive department store product, something in your doctor’s office or just order the fastest delivery on Amazon? Sunscreens come in all shapes and sizes with different formulas and ingredients, but today we’re here to drill down to the important information you need to know.

What’s the Magic SPF Number?

For years, doctors told you to get SPF 15.  Then the American Academy of Dermatology came out with the recommendation for SPF 30.  Now, everywhere you look there are different numbers.  What to choose?

The SPF number on your bottle represents the product’s SUN PROTECTION FACTOR, or rating.  All sunscreens go through stringent testing  to see how long it takes sunburn to occur when skin is exposed to ultraviolet light.  Scientists look to see how much of the sun’s rays reflect off the skin after it is applied in a concentration of 2mg/cm2. When the sun’s rays are reflected, it means that they are NOT absorbed into the skin.

It’s when sun is absorbed that bad things happen. Cellular collagen breaks down causing saggy, wrinkled looking skin. More importantly, the sun damages human DNA and that causes skin cancer.  So, the goal is to block as much radiation from the sunlight as possible.

Here’s what you should know about some of the more common SPF ratings:

  • SPF 15 prevents 93% of the sun’s radiation from penetrating the skin;
  • SPF 30 prevents 97% of the sun’s radiation from penetrating the skin;
  • SPF 50 prevents 98% penetration;
  • You can buy SPF 100, but it does not equal 100% protection – that is not available.

Before you make your decision, be aware that while the benefits of choosing a higher number seem minimal, actual studies have shown that in real life, outside sun protection is much greater when people choose a sunscreen with a higher SPF.   A recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology showed that SPF 100 sunscreen was significantly more effective in protecting against sunburn compared to SPF 50 sunscreen when used in real-life outdoor settings.

TAKE AWAY:  Higher is better, especially if you are spending significant time in the direct sun during its most potent exposure (10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.).  Also, if you have skin that burns easily, have had a previous diagnosis of skin cancer, or have a family history of melanoma, the big number is right for you.  For daily sunscreen worn on the face, a mid-range number should do.

Broad-Spectrum Means Double Duty

Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB radiation. This is an essential property of the sunscreen and one that you should always look for when choosing a product.

UVB rays are responsible for causing painful red sunburns and causing skin cancer, including dangerous malignant melanoma.  Severe sunburns are known to statistically increase your chance of contracting melanoma.

UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and are the leading cause of those pesky signs of aging, including wrinkles and brown spots.  UVA rays have also been found to cause DNA damage that leads to skin cancer.

TAKE AWAY:  Always look for a sunscreen that says Broad Spectrum right on the bottle.

Is Water-Resistant the Same as Waterproof?

Nope, and don’t run to the corner store looking for a water-proof product.  The FDA does not rate any sunscreen as 100% waterproof.  Instead, they are water-resistant to remind you that these formulas help sunscreens stay put in the water and when you sweat.  But they do wear off after 40-80 minutes in the water.   Be aware that sunscreen protection can be further reduced in salt water and after vigorous drying with a towel.

So, if you are active outdoors or in the water, by all means purchase sunscreen that’s water-resistant.  They contain waxes, oils and polymers that help them stick to the skin.  Just remember to reapply after you have been in the water AND at least every two hours, even if you aren’t in the water.

TAKE AWAY:  There is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen so look for water-resistant products and be sure to reapply every two hours and after being in the water.

Sunscreens That Meet Your Needs

As sunscreens have been reformulated over the years to adapt to your skin type, lifestyle and personal choices, there are a few “buzz” words that are more than just marketing.  Here’s the breakdown:

FOR SENSITIVE SKIN: These products are free of common skin allergens or skin sensitizers such as fragrances, parabens, and methylisothiazolinone. However, this is not a regulated term and there are no actual standards. If you have sensitive skin, be sure to read the label.

SPORT: The term “sport” is also a non-regulated marketing label and does not require the product to meet any certain standard. It’s typically a term used to persuade you to believe the product may stay on a little longer when you sweat or that it’s water-resistant to some degree. If you want a sunscreen to hold up in these conditions, look for the products that are “water-resistant” or “very water-resistant” rather than relying on the term “sport.”

FACIAL SUNSCREEN:  Sunscreen products for the face are often formulated differently than products for the body.  They are designed to be more easily absorbed and feel lighter than body formulas, which are typically thicker and come in higher SPF formulations. Many are oil free and non-comedogenic, meaning they are the best choice for acne-prone skin.  And ladies, these sunscreens are made to glide on after applying your skin care regimen and create the perfect base for make-up.

ORGANIC: Organic sunscreens are not the same as chemical-free sunscreens.  When looking at organic sunscreens, always read the label and make sure you aren’t loading up on those same chemicals that you are trying to avoid.

MINERAL: If you are looking for a 100% mineral sunscreen, select one with only zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide listed under the active ingredients. Elta MD UV Pure, UV Physical and UV Elements are great examples of mineral sunscreens.

FOR BABIES: Physical sunscreens containing only zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are generally considered safe for infants and babies. Elta MD UV Pure is a great example of sunscreen that can be used on your littlest outdoor enthusiast.

FINAL TAKE AWAY: Our physicians think the best sunscreen for you is one YOU WILL USE.  To make things a little easier, we sell a few select products in our office and on our website that meet our high standards.  There are also other great products on the market that are the perfect fit for you and your family.  We recommend that you apply them daily, using at least an ounce (think shot glass), and reapply every two hours.

Now that you have the facts, shopping for sunscreen is simple!  Click here to visit our on-line shop and take a closer look at sunscreens from Elta MD.


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