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Choosing a Sunscreen

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Sunscreen protects skin from sun damage and helps prevent wrinkles. Sunrise in Nice, France.

While summer usually means long days outside, sun protection should be part of daily life regardless of season, weather, or activities. Choosing a sunscreen can appear daunting with all the different kinds, terms, and brands commercially available.

Sunscreens not only help reduce the incidence of skin cancer, but also help prevent wrinkles better than Botox®. The smoothest skin has been protected from sun damage. Understanding your sunscreen and the terms on the bottle, can help you choose a better product to protect your skin.

Sun Protection Factor, SPF

SPF is a number that measures the ability to block out the sun. A higher SPF generally means more sun protection, but only to a certain degree. No sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun.

SPF is only a relative guide in terms of protection from the sun’s rays, as many other variables of a sunscreen go into actual sun protection. Factors such as thickness of application, uniform spread of application, frequency of application, and water/sweat exposure all affect the sunscreen’s ability for sun protection.

Plastic surgeons and dermatologists agree that SPF 30 or above is what to look for on the bottle. SPF 30 or above can block more than 97% of the sun’s burning rays.

Broad Spectrum, UVA and UVB protection

This term on sunscreen bottles means that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Broad spectrum is a very important feature on a sunscreen, otherwise you won’t be sufficiently protected.

UVA and UVB are components of the sun’s ultraviolet rays. These rays are not visible to the human eye, but damage the skin. Both types of UV radiation produce genetic mutations in the skin’s DNA that can lead to skin cancer. Both UVA and UVB protection are important in a sunscreen.

UVA contributes to wrinkles and skin cancer. It penetrates deep into the skin, but not the major factor for sun burns. UVA accelerates photoaging (ie. wrinkles) and skin cancer by damaging collagen and elastic tissue of the deeper dermis.

UVB is more intense than UVA, but only penetrates the top layers of skin (ie. epidermis). UVB is more responsible for sun burns, in addition to causing skin cancers.

Active ingredient

The active ingredients listed on the bottle provide the actual sun protection. The sunscreen’s method of protection from UV rays is physical, chemical, or combined.

Mineral sunscreens are made of minerals such as zinc and/or titanium that provide a literal barrier to physically block light. Think of these minerals as a physical shield that don’t let light pass. These sunscreens reflect light and thus tend to be white in appearance. The FDA has plenty of safety information on these two active ingredients.

Chemical sunscreens protect differently than physical ones by absorbing light like a sponge, rather than blocking light. The light radiation is converted to heat and released to your skin. Some of this protection stops working over time as the chemical become less effective over time. Examples of chemical sunscreen active ingredients include oxybenzone and avobenzone. The FDA does not have sufficient safety information on chemical ingredients.

Chemical sunscreens are more likely to irritate the skin or cause allergies, as compared to physical sunscreens. Evidence also shows that chemical sunscreens are also absorbed into the bloodstream and may affect hormone levels. Lastly, some chemical sunscreens also have a negative effect on the environment, especially marine life and coral reefs.

Water or Sweat resistance

No sunscreen is waterproof. Rather, a sunscreen can vary on its water resistance. FDA labeling notes how long a sunscreen can last in the water (or sweating) before reapplication. Even if you haven’t been in the water, one should reapply sun screens routinely every 2 hours.

Sport, Swim, Splash, Sensitive

Various other terms are marketing terms rather than a regulated or medical terms. As many users are active outdoors, companies label sunscreens with various terms to make them more appealing to enthusiasts.

Bonus Sun Protection

One really can’t put on too much sunscreen for protection, and most don’t apply enough. Apply in layers and rub in different direction to ensure adequate coverage. Skin should be glistening after every application.

Sunscreen is a foundation to skin care everyday all throughout the year, not just on hot, summer days at the beach. Sunscreen alone, however, is not sufficient for adequate protection. Learn how plastic surgeons and dermatologists enjoy the sun and protect their skin.

Read more about the FDA’s guidance on sunscreens, in addition to the Environmental Working Group’s guide to sunscreens.

When choosing a sunscreen, we’ve generally advised our plastic surgery patients the following to be protected:

  • SPF 30 or above
  • broad spectrum, block UVA and UVB
  • mineral based only
  • apply daily and frequently

Finally, you don’t need only one sunscreen. Some patients have a routine, daily sunscreen and another for trips to the beach. One for the face and a separate for the lips, etc.

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    Houtan Chaboki, M.D.