So Many Choices! Which Sunscreen Should I Use?
Nicola Quatrano, MD
May 12, 2019
A dermatologist cuts to the chase about the ever-growing number of sunscreen products on the shelves – and explains the right way to use them.
One of the most common questions I get from my dermatology patients, especially this time of year, is how to navigate the often overwhelming sunscreen aisle and choose the best sun protection possible.
Quite simply, here’s what I tell them: Make sure the label says Broad Spectrum to protect against both UVA (photoaging) and UVB (burning) rays of the sun. The higher the SPF the better (but not for the reason you may think – more on that later).
Aim for an SPF 30 for daily application to your face, and higher numbers for outdoor activities. Make sure it’s Water Resistant because, you know, sweat! Select a noncomedogenic product for your face to avoid breakouts.
Here’s how I answer some of the other most common questions about sunscreen:
Do the ingredients matter?
There are two basic types of sunscreen, and both of them work equally well. Mineral-based (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) work by physically deflecting the sun's rays, and may be less irritating to sensitive skin. Chemical sunscreens are much more cosmetically pleasing (they rub in easier and don't appear white). Most of the sunscreens we have here in the office use combination sunscreens to achieve the "Broad Spectrum" coverage you need.
Are there any unsafe ingredients to avoid?
As of right now, the jury is still out. A recent study did report that small amounts of sunscreen may be absorbed into the bloodstream. Whether this leads to any harmful effects is unknown. What we do know for sure is the UV rays from the sun are cancer-causing and, therefore, sun protection is paramount to prevent the development of skin cancer.
Does a higher SPF mean it is better?
Not necessarily – but unfortunately most people are not so great at applying sunscreen: we tend to apply about 25-50 percent of the recommended amount. So, although there may not be a huge difference in the amount of UVB blocked by a 30 versus an 85, the way we apply an SPF 85 sunscreen may result in a real-life protection more similar to that intended by an SPF 30. For this reason, higher IS better.
So how do we apply it the right way?
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends 1 ounce (enough to fill a shot glass) of sunscreen to fully cover most adult bodies. All exposed areas should be covered and the key is to REAPPLY every two hours. A few places not to miss are the ears (especially in men or women with shorter hair), lips (use a lip balm with SPF 30 or higher) and the hairline or part. And remember that SPF sunscreens do not last longer. No matter the number, all sunscreens should be reapplied after two hours or after getting wet.
One of the most important pieces of advice I give to patients is that sunscreen is not enough to protect you from the sun. Avoid being out during peak hours (10 a.m.-2 p.m.) when the sun's UV rays are the strongest. Also, sun protective clothing has come a long way in recent years and it's something I love to see more and more at the pool and beach every year. Long-sleeved swim shirts keep you surprisingly cool and protected all day without needing to worry about reapplying sunscreen. It's a great option for kids, especially babies under six months when sunscreen use is not recommended. And don't forget your wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses!
For more guidelines and commonly asked questions about sunscreen visit the American Academy of Dermatology website.
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Quatrano in the Mt. Kisco office, call (914) 242-2020.