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How to Buy Sunscreen – A Dermatologist’s Guide

woman buying sunscreen chooses

With so many choices, how do you know you’re buying the right sunscreen? Follow these tips from a board certified Dermatologist to help you decide.

A good sunscreen is a healthy skin essential year-round, but there’s a lot to consider when making the choice. Sunscreen is not a one-size-fits-all since everyone has different needs and preferences. We asked Dr. Erin Hodges, a dermatologist at Tryon Medical Partners Uptown, to share her tips for choosing the right sunscreen. Here’s how to ensure you buy the best protection to enjoy safer fun in the sun.

Choose the right product

Most people aren’t perfect at applying sunscreen. It’s best to choose a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher, but most dermatologists recommend an SPF of at least 50. In addition to SPF, make sure you choose a sunscreen with broad-spectrum on the label. This means it offers protection against ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) light emitted by the sun. UVA rays are linked to premature aging and wrinkles, while UVB rays cause sunburns. Both ultraviolet light rays can lead to skin cancer.

“With perfect use, SPF 30 would theoretically block 97 percent of UVB rays versus 98 percent with an SPF of 50,” says Dr. Hodges. “We know people don’t use sunscreens the way they are tested in the lab, so they may be getting less protection than expected. This is why I tell my patients to assume they are applying enough sunscreen to get half of the SPF number on the label, and go for the higher SPF (50+) when outdoors for long periods of time.”

Pick sunscreen or sunblock

You can buy sunscreen or sunblock. They each work differently to protect your skin from the sun’s rays. A chemical sunscreen limits sun damage by using chemical compounds like avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene and octinoxate to absorb UV rays. A mineral sunblock, like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, sits on the skin’s surface and reflects UV rays. Some mineral sunblocks can leave the skin with a white sheen or ghost-face appearance and often cost more than chemical sunscreens. But if you have sensitive skin, they might be the best option since they are less likely to cause skin reactions compared to chemical sunscreens.

Avoid Benzene when possible

This May, Valisure independently tested several brands of sunscreens and found the presence of the contaminant Benzene, which has been known to cause cancer.

“The chemical Benzene has been linked to an increased risk of leukemia. This chemical is used in manufacturing and many people are exposed to it through cigarette smoke and air pollution, says Dr. Hodges. “Of course we want to avoid any carcinogen we can, but at this point, we don’t know how much Benzene could be absorbed from these sunscreens. Until we know more, I am encouraging patients to choose a sunscreen from the Benzene-free list. More importantly, this is not a reason to avoid sunscreens as a whole, as Benzene is a contaminant, not an active sunscreen ingredient, and the sun is also a known carcinogen.”

You can review Valisure’s list of Benzene-free sunscreens here.   

Choose a comfortable formula

Sunscreens have different formulations, from creams and gels to lotions and sprays. When you rub in a cream sunscreen, it is easy to tell if you have covered your body, but spray sunscreens can leave you missing spots or with uneven coverage. When using spray sunscreens, most people skip the rub-in step, and they also run the risk of inhaling chemicals. If you choose to use a spray sunscreen, it is best to avoid spraying near the face or mouth.

“Some sunscreens feel sticky or create a film on your skin and won’t be very comfortable,” says Dr. Hodges. “I recommend to patients that they choose the sunscreen they like the most and are willing to wear regularly.”

Consider water resistance

Even if you don’t plan to splash around in the water, reach for a water-resistant sunscreen — if you get sweaty, the water-resistance will keep you covered longer.

“Water-resistant sunscreen is ideal,” says Dr. Hodges. “But don’t get lazy about reapplying. You should still reapply every one to two hours, or after heavy sweating, swimming or wiping down with a towel.”

Don’t forget the lips

You can use the same sunscreen on your face, ears and nose, but you want to buy a sunscreen stick designed to protect the lips. This area is easy to forget but needs just as much protection from the harmful sun rays.

Consider timing and don’t forget to reapply

The sun can impact your skin even if you haven’t been outside for long. It’s important to apply sunscreen before you leave the house, and reapply frequently to prevent sun damage. Plan your time outdoors and seek shade during peak hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is strongest.

“I generally recommend that people apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before they head outdoors,” says Dr. Hodges. “They should reapply frequently, every one to two hours, especially if they’re going in and out of water and toweling off.”  

Choose protective wearables

No need to leave sun protection to your sunscreen alone. Choose bathing suits that have a long-sleeve rash guard, and wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your head, face and neck. In addition, grab a pair of polarized sunglasses that protect against UVA and UVB rays.

Look at expiration dates

It is important to note that sunscreens expire after two or three years, so when buying, try to plan out how much you need. Using expired sunscreen could leave you burned.

Remember, that the sun may feel great on your skin when you first go out, but carries risks beyond the occasional sunburn. We need to be vigilant about protecting ourselves from sunburns and monitoring skin changes. You should regularly check for moles or skin spots that have irregular borders, darker colors or recently changed shape. Make it a habit to get your skin checked annually by your trusted dermatologist. Schedule an  appointment to stay protected, and you’ll thank yourself later!