Advise Me

How to Choose the Best Sunscreen to Protect Your Skin

You know how crucial it is to protect your skin from the sun. But the options for sunscreens can feel overwhelming. Some are physical barriers, while others use chemicals to protect your skin. SPFs can range from below 15 up to 100. And they can come in lotions, sprays, gels and sticks. How can you sort out what’s best for you and your family?

Mark Gimbel, MD, an oncologist specializing in melanoma at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, outlined a few things to consider when you’re choosing the best sunscreen.

1. Compare chemical and physical sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens are the most popular type of sunscreen—they probably come to mind when you think about sunscreen. You rub or spray them onto your skin, your skin absorbs them, and they protect you from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation. “These chemicals act like a sponge, absorbing the radiation from the sun,” Dr. Gimbel said. In chemical sunscreens, you’ll see active ingredients such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate and octisalate.

They are popular because they are lightweight and invisible once you rub them in. You need to apply them at least 15 minutes before you’re out in the sun to give them time to absorb into your skin.

It’s best not to use them near fragile coral reefs and sensitive sea life, since the chemicals can harm them. Several countries and areas, including Hawaii and the US Virgin Islands, have banned sunscreens that contain certain ingredients that are dangerous for marine life.

Physical sunscreens, or mineral sunscreens, are considered sunblock and act as a shield and repel UV rays. They sit on top of your skin—they aren’t absorbed into it. They typically contain titanium or zinc oxide.

“These sunscreens provide greater protection than chemical sunscreens,” Dr. Gimbel said. But they are commonly visible and thicker on the skin. They are less irritating and recommended for sensitive skin, but if you are acne-prone, they could clog the pores and worsen it. Mineral sunscreens are safe to use near coral reefs and other sea life.

2. Consider the SPF

The SPF, or sun protection factor, measures how effectively a sunscreen or sunblock protects against the sun’s rays. “No sunscreen can block 100% of the UV rays, so protective clothing is also recommended,” Dr. Gimbel said.

He suggests choosing a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks different types of UV radiation—UVA, UVB and UVC—with an SPF of at least 30. Your sunscreen blocks about 97% of the sun’s rays at that level.  Switching to sunscreen with SPF of 50 only increases the protection to 98%, so you’re not getting much more benefit. And higher-SPF sunscreens generally cost more.

3. Think about how you’ll apply the sunscreen

Whether it’s lotion or spray, the best sunscreen is one that you’ll use. That said, lotions and gels are probably your best bet for overall coverage and protection. You’ll need to use about the equivalent of two tablespoons to adequately cover your face and the exposed skin on your body.

Sprays can be effective if you rub them in after spraying—which many people don’t. And on a windy day, you could lose a lot of the sunscreen spray into the air. If you choose a spray, try not to breathe it in, and spray it on your hands and then apply it to your face to avoid getting it in your eyes, nose or mouth.

Sticks are a good option for your face and lips—like sprays, rub them in after applying.

Whatever you choose, you need to reapply your sunscreen every two hours, and more often if you sweat, swim or towel off. “That’s true even with waterproof sunscreens,” Dr. Gimbel said.

Here are a few more tips

  • Once you’ve chosen the sunscreen that’s right for you, make sure you’re doing everything you can to keep your skin safe:
  • Most sunscreens have an expiration date. If your bottle of sunscreen doesn’t, don’t use it if it’s more than three years old—it’s probably no longer effective. And sunscreen that’s exposed to extreme temperatures won’t last as long.
  • Use sunscreen even if it’s hazy or cloudy. “Approximately 40% of UV radiation can still make it through the clouds,” Gimbel said. “You still should wear sunscreen even on days when the sun isn’t out if you plan to be outside for any length of time.”
  • Try to steer clear of the sun when it’s strongest, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Stay indoors then, or seek shade under a tree or umbrella.
  • Wear sunscreen on exposed skin during activities like snow skiing. The reflections of the sun’s rays on the snow can increase their impact.
  • Protect your eyes with polarized sunglasses.
  • Cover your skin with brimmed hats, swim shirts, and long sleeves and pants made from tightly woven materials.
  • Don’t think you’re too old to benefit from sunscreen. “Even if you start using sunscreen regularly later in life, it still has positive effects,” Gimbel said.

The bottom line

When you’re choosing a sunscreen, the options can seem overwhelming. You can narrow them down by considering whether you want a chemical or physical sunscreen, seeking the SPF that meets your needs, and finding the best application method for you and your family. If you would like to learn more about protecting your skin and reducing your risk for skin cancer, reach out to Banner Health.

Other useful articles

Cancer Skin Cancer Safety Wellness