Choosing the Right Suncreen: The Complete Guide

Have you noticed that the sunscreen aisle at your local drugstore gets bigger and more crowded every year? With the threat of skin cancer increasing due to climate change, companies are stepping up their efforts to produce formulas that offer the maximum possible protection for all kinds of skin. But next time you stock up, no need to get overwhelmed; here’s what to look for, and what to avoid.

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, who should know. After that, the increase in protection is incremental; 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.

Protection Against All Rays

Don’t buy any sunscreen that doesn’t contain some version of the phrase “broad spectrum,” which means it blocks both UVA and UVB light. Unfortunately, the SPF applies only to UVB rays, so you need to do some extra work to be sure you’re getting good UVA protection. Your best clue is the ingredient list; for UVA protection, a sunscreen needs to contain a one or a combination of these blocking agents:

  • oxybenzone
  • avobenzonezinc oxide
  • titanium dioxide
  • sulisobenzone
  • ecamsule

Sometimes zinc oxide is formulated with octinoxate which is a good choice as it boosts its protection.

Water Resistant

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.

“Natural” or Organic?

While the sun-blocking ingredients listed above sound like worrisome chemicals, sun exposure is even more worrisome. If you’re really concerned about avoiding chemicals, go for sunscreens containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which are mineral-based, rather than those containing avobenzone and oxybenzone. Some people also wish to beware of “nanoparticles,” in which case look for this claim on the label. The Environmental Working Group’s list of the best natural sunscreens can offer guidance. But beware, any sunscreen that does not contain one of the above-listed blockers isn’t going to be very effective.

Use It Right

According to the AAD, very few people actually apply sunscreen correctly, leaving them at risk. The AAD considers this such a problem they even have a video you can watch. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Fill your palm full of sunscreen – this is the approximate amount needed to cover an average size adult.
  2. 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.)
  3. Use spray sunscreen for any areas you can’t reach, such as your back.
  4. Reapply at least every two hours, and right away after swimming or sweating.

Protect Your Lips, Too

Whether or not your lips feel dry, use a lip balm or chapstick that contains an SPF of 15 or higher whenever you go out in the sun.

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.