Catching some rays sure isn’t as easy as it used to be. The world of sun protection involves a dizzying array of products, ingredients and SPF ratings. Sunscreen now comes in sticks, lotions, sprays and powders. There are so many choices that it’s easy to get lost wandering through the sunscreen aisle on your way to the beach.
But you need to make the effort because skin cancer is the most common cancer in this country, according to the FDA, and most cases of melanoma are caused by ultraviolet exposure. In fact, if you get five blistering sunburns in your life, you have doubled your risk of melanoma.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t fully understand the key differences between one kind of sunscreen and another. And if you have kids in tow while you go shopping you had better act fast or the sunscreen won’t be the only thing melting down. To help you out, here’s a handy user’s guide to sun protection.
Sprays versus lotions
Sprays are often the go-to option for families because they’re so much easier than a full-on rub down with a moving target. But many experts recommend lotion because you can control where it goes.
“Creams and lotions are superior to spray,” says Dr. Ngoc Pham, Dermatology and Medical director at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara. “When you spray, not all of the protection gets on your skin.”
You should also be careful about using sprays on children because they are squirmy and more likely to inhale particles from the aerosol by mistake. The same goes for powder sunscreens, which are handy to use on top of makeup.
“You should never inhale it. Any foreign particles in your lungs over time are not good for you,” says Rebecca Shpall, a dermatologist at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, adding that if you do use a spray, remember that you have to rub it in well.
Some doctors recommend using sunscreen sticks, which are less messy, especially for children.
“Try to make it fun and let your kids get in on the process,” says Silvina Pugliese, a dermatologist at Stanford Health Care. Sticks make it easy for kids to apply their own sunscreen, or at least get the ball rolling.
The rules are even stricter for infants. Sunscreen isn’t an option, according to the FDA, because a baby’s exposure to the chemicals in sunscreen poses a risk. Pediatricians advise keeping babies out of the sun from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or covering them up.
Crunching the numbers on SPF
SPF stands for sun protective factor, which means how long a sunscreen increases the time before your skin burns. So if you have light skin and it usually takes 5 minutes before you turn pink, an SPF 15 sunscreen gives you 5×15 minutes or an extra 75 minutes before you burn.
The American Academy of Dermatology advises going with an SPF of at least 30, which should block out about 97% of the sun’s rays. However, if you have very fair skin, you should go even higher. In fact, some doctors believe a higher SPF is better because hardly anyone uses enough sunscreen. If you are using the same bottle all summer, you are doing it wrong.
“The fact is that very few people apply sunscreen properly and even those that do often forget to reapply,” says Shpall. “A lot of people are in denial about the sun.”
If you are not slathering on a shot glass worth of lotion on your body, you are not going to get the benefit of the SPF on the bottle. Most people only use 1/4 or 1/2 the recommended amount of sunscreen. If you stick with a high SPF you can work around some of that user error.
“I say you should go with a high SPF and put on two layers right away,” says Sphall, who suggests 100 SPF.
And remember that two hours go by faster than you think. When in doubt, reapply.
“You can’t just apply sunscreen once and then lay out by the pool all day,” notes Pugliese.
That’s a wrap
Apologies to the beach bunnies out there but no sunscreen is as good as covering up. And we don’t just mean a hat and some shades.
“The best sun-protective regimen is to wear sun-protective clothing, such as a rashguard, and also use sunscreen,” says Pham.
It is high time that swim shirts became the norm, some experts say. Shpall sees a lot of people who put their kids in rashguards but forget to protect themselves.
“With a piece of clothing, you can put it on and forget it,” says Shpall, who has developed a Waterhoody to try and meet that need. “You can’t miss a spot and you can’t forget to reapply.”
Read the label: The latest on chemicals vs. minerals
The first order of business is to look for a broad spectrum sunscreen, which protects against two types of ultraviolet sun rays, UVA (long wave ultraviolet A) and UVB (short wave ultraviolet B.)
The next thing is to pick your active ingredient, chemical or mineral. Some folks prefer chemical-based sunscreens, because they have a lighter, drier feel than traditional mineral options, which can leave you with a chalky, white sheen. However, chemical-based sunscreens require 15-30 minutes to start working, so you have to plan ahead.
Many doctors advise picking whatever sunscreen you like the feel of because that’s what is going to make you actually use it.
“If you pick something that is too greasy and thick, then you will not use it,” warns Sphall.
Also, if you have sensitive skin, many experts advise using a gentler mineral-based sunscreen, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
“Mineral sunscreens that use the ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide may cause less irritation compared to chemical sunscreens in young children,” says Pham.
Check the bottle to see if there’s at least 10 to 15 percent zinc oxide or more than 5 percent titanium dioxide. Both ingredients sit on the surface of the skin, forming a physical block against UVA and UVB rays.
While there is no conclusive data yet, chemical formulas may get absorbed into the skin and enter the bloodstream, a possibility the FDA is now evaluating.
“We are particularly interested in learning how these products affect vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and pregnant and breastfeeding women,” Theresa Michele, director of non-prescription drug products at the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, wrote on the agency’s website.
The good news is mineral-based sunscreens have been vastly improved since the ashy lifeguard faces of yore. However these new formulations, which use zinc nanoparticles, have also prompted concerns about absorption. But most doctors believe they are safe and effective.
“A lot of patients are concerned about the chemicals but there’s no clear evidence that they are actually unsafe,” says Pugliese, “On the other hand, we know that UV causes skin cancer.”
Check the expiration date
Sunscreens go bad by their listed expiration date unless they have been exposed to “extreme temperatures,” according to the CDC. If a sunscreen does not have an expiration date and has been stored at room temperature — which does not mean sitting in your car in the heat of the summer — it has a shelf life of about three years. Remember, if you have a bunch of leftover sunscreen, it probably means you didn’t use enough last summer.
A tough pill to swallow
While a sunscreen pill might sound like the ultimate convenience, the FDA has recently warned there is no magic bullet.
“Consumers should be watchful for unscrupulous companies making unproven claims,” says the agency. “When the FDA sees companies taking advantage of people’s desire to protect themselves from the harmful effects of the sun — we’ll step in. There’s no pill or capsule that can replace your sunscreen.”
A wrinkle in time
Dermatologists urge people to think about sunscreen as part of their anti-aging regimen. Even if you have olive or dark skin, and are less likely to burn, you may well be wearing away at the collagen levels in your skin, which will age you faster than necessary. Say hello to wrinkles and dark spots. The only way to keep time at bay is to slather on the protection.
Sunscreen: a user’s guide to everything you need to know about sun protection