Understand your Sunscreen to Protect your Skin

Blog post - sunscreen skin care sun protection
Blog post - sunscreen skin care sun protection

Understanding your sunscreen can help protect your skin from sun damage.

Summertime means long days and outdoor activities. It’s time to enjoy the beach and pool, even for dermatologists and plastic surgeons. It’s common knowledge that using sunscreen is the most basic of skin care routines. Sunscreens help prevent wrinkles better than Botox®. More important than appearance, sunscreens reduce the incidence of skin cancer. Understanding your sunscreen, especially all the terms on the bottle, can help you choose a better product to protect your skin.

Sun Protection Factor, SPF

The SPF number is a measure of a sunscreens ability to block out the sun’s rays. The higher the number means more protection to a certain degree, but no sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun. SPF is only a guide in terms of protection from the sun’s rays, as many other variables go into actual sun protection (ie. thickness of application, frequency of application, water/sweat, etc). Many skin care experts agree that SPF 30 or above is what to look for on the bottle.

Ultraviolet A, UVA

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

Ultraviolet B, UVB

UVB is another component of sun light that is not visible to the human eye. This ray 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. Both types of UV radiation produce genetic mutations in the skin’s DNA that can lead to skin cancer.

Broad Spectrum

This term on sunscreen bottles means that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. It’s an important feature that your sunscreen should have, otherwise you won’t be sufficiently protected.

Physical or Mineral

Sunscreens can provide physical protection, chemical protection, or combination protection from UV rays. The active ingredients listed on the bottle provide the sun protection. Physical sunscreens, which are made of minerals such as zinc and titanium, provide a literal barrier from light. Think of these minerals as a shield that don’t let light pass. These sunscreens reflect light, hence tend to be white in appearance.


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. Over time, a percentage of this protection stops working as the chemical absorption become less effective over time. Chemical sunscreens are more likely to irritate the skin, as compared to physical sunscreens. Lastly, some chemical sunscreens have a negative effect on marine life and coral reefs.

Water or Sweat resistance

No sunscreen is waterproof. Rather, sunscreens 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

Terms such as sport, swim, or splash 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

You really can’t put on too much sunscreen for protection. Most don’t apply enough. Apply in layers and rub in different direction to ensure adequate coverage. Your skin should be glistening after application!

Your 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.

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