6-Step Sunscreen Buying Guide
A fun beach day means protecting yourself from the sun's harmful rays.

6-Step Sunscreen Buying Guide

Sunscreen seems like a simple choice to make when you’re concerned about protecting your skin from the sun’s cancer-causing rays. But sunscreen can suddenly seem complicated when you’re faced with so many choices at the drugstore. Follow these steps to choose a sunscreen to fit your needs.

1. Focus on SPF Factor

When it comes to SPF (sun protection factor), it can seem like you’re looking at, well, every number under the sun. Actually, the only number you need to remember is 30, which is the minimum SPF recommended by the American Academy of Dermatologists (AAD). After that, the increase in protection is incremental, according to AAD research; an SPF of 30 protects against 97 percent of the sun’s rays, an SPF of 50 98 percent and after that it tapers off, so when you see SPFs of 75 or even 90, those are mainly for marketing purposes.

2. Research Your Rays

Check sunscreen packaging carefully to make sure it says “broad spectrum,” which means it blocks both types of harmful rays, UVA and UVB. The SPF factor, however, applies only to UVB; the only way to guarantee UVA protection is to choose a sunscreen with UVA-blocking ingredients.

3. Know Your Ingredients

For UVA protection, a sunscreen needs to contain a one or a combination of these blocking agents:
• zinc oxide
• titanium dioxide
• oxybenzone
• octinoxate
• avobenzone
• sulisobenzone

4. Go for Mineral-Based and Reef Safe

Unfortunately, while sunscreen protects you, some of the active ingredients harm marine life. In 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a study linking oxybenzone and octinoxate with coral bleaching, the condition that’s led to the death of many of the world’s coral reefs.

In July 2018, Hawaii banned the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, and Key West Florida followed suit, with both laws going into effect in 2021. Retailers like REI have also announced their intention to stop the sale of sunscreens continuing oxybenzone.

How do you make sure your sunscreen isn’t harmful to sea life? Choose one labeled “reef safe,” or read labels and buy one that uses the minerals zinc oxide and titanium oxide rather than oxybenzone. The Environmental Working Group maintains a useful list of the best natural sunscreens.

5. Watch for Water Resistance

Unless you’re absolutely sure you’re not going to be in the water, you want to look for this promise. And don’t forget about sweat, which can wash off sunscreen as well. If you’re going to be kayaking, riding a bike, or something similar in which you’re both sweating and exposed to a great deal of sun, use a waxy sunscreen that’s more likely to stay put. Better yet, wear a lightweight overshirt.

6. Learn Correct Use

There are so many misconceptions about how to use sunscreen that the AAD made a video demonstrating how to apply sunscreen correctly. Their tips:

  • Fill your palm full of sunscreen – this is the approximate amount needed to cover an average size adult.
  • Apply to all bare skin – this includes your neck, ears, the tops of your feet, and any exposed areas of your scalp (including your part.)
  • Use spray sunscreen for any areas you can’t reach, such as your back.
  • Reapply at least every two hours, and right away after swimming or sweating.
  • Protect your lips with a lip balm or chapstick that contains an SPF of 15 or higher.

Melanie Haiken, Health and Fitness Expert

Melanie Haiken writes about health, wellness and fitness for national magazines and websites. She specializes in discovering and reporting the latest research on diet, nutrition, fitness, weight loss and other health-related topics. Her award-winning stories have appeared in Fitness, Shape, Health, Forbes, and other respected magazines. She also contributes health stories to numerous Kaiser Permanente newsletters and other publications.