Q: What makes for a great sunscreen?
The simple answer? One that you’re willing to actually use!
Many of us have difficulty with sunscreens because of how they feel. Over the last few years, sunscreen makers have developed new, lighter, less-sticky formulas—and different ways to apply them. You can choose from lotions, creams, gels, sprays, bars, or sticks. If you haven’t found a sunscreen that’s easy for you to use consistently, it’s worth checking out the latest options or asking your dermatologist for a recommendation. That said, there are three key things to look for with any sunscreen:
- An SPF of 50-plus: Dermatologists like myself generally recommend a sun protection factor (SPF) of 50 or higher. When researchers test sunscreens, they assume that they will be applied with a consistent thickness. In the real world, we don’t apply sunscreen as often or as thick as we should, making an SPF 50 protect more like an SPF 30, an SPF 30 protect more like an SPF 15, and so on.
- Broad-spectrum protection: When choosing ingredients, look for the words “broad spectrum” or “UVA/UVB” protection on the front of the bottle. UVB rays cause sunburns and play a primary role in skin cancer development, while UVA rays cause skin aging and wrinkles and can also contribute to sunburns.
- Ingredients that work for you: Standard sunscreens are great for the vast majority of people, but if you have sensitive skin (or acne or rosacea), you may consider using mineral sunscreens. Mineral sunscreens work by sitting on top of the skin and reflecting rays away. The active ingredient list on the back of these products includes “zinc” and/or “titanium” only. Most baby or “natural” sunscreens are made of these ingredients.
Remember to try to avoid relying solely on sunscreen to protect your skin. Sun-protection efforts should also include staying out of the sun during the peak hours of the day (or seeking shade during those hours), as well as physical protections, such as wearing broad-brimmed hats and protective clothing. Together, these efforts will keep excess ultraviolet radiation from putting you at risk for skin cancer.
Finally, if you ever have a changing mole or a non-healing sore, seek medical advice from your primary provider or dermatologist. It’s better to check concerns out early. Let’s enjoy our sunny summers, but do so wisely. An ounce of prevention goes a long way!
—Jason Boyd, MD