A quick stop at the store to pick up some sunscreen before heading out for your day in the sun seems nearly impossible once you see all the possible choices. To begin, the sunscreen section of the store is no longer just a couple of shelves in the health and beauty aisle-it is now a series of strategically placed islands that you must steer around to get to your destination. On these islands, there are dozens of options to choose from. As you stand there, you realize the sunscreen needs to ask you a few questions before you make a decision.

Suntan_lotion(1)Sunscreen- “What are you looking for? I’ve got oils, creams, lotions, gels, sprays, sticks…Are you going to be sweating? I can get you sweat resistant stuff or just the regular stuff… How do you feel about the rays? Do you want protection against all of them or just some?…You don’t look that sporty, but maybe you want your friends to think you are, so I got some stuff here just for sports… What about that face? Are you going to want to protect it, too? I can’t give you one that does both, so you’re going to have to buy a face one and a body one… You have any issues with acne? I mean is oil okay or do you want oil free?…What are you looking to spend?… How long are you staying outside? I have 10 different SPFs here. Wait, you don’t know what SPF really means? Honey, you better go home and do your homework and then come back and see me.”

Below is a cheat sheet so you can prepare yourself before you shop.

1. How does sunscreen/ sunblock work?

Sunblock absorbs and/or reflects UVA and UVB rays therefore protecting your skin from damage. All sunblocks are given a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating which indicates how long a sunblock remains effective on the skin.

2. What is Broad Spectrum Protection?

Every day the sun emits UVA and UVB rays that can lead to sunburns, premature skin aging and eventual skin cancers. Even on cloudy days up to 80% of UV rays can pass through the clouds according to the AAD. Broad Spectrum coverage protects against both UVA and UVB rays.

In the summer of 2012, the FDA put into place a standard test for over-the-counter (sold without a prescription) sunscreen products that determine which products are allowed to be labeled as “Broad Spectrum.” According to the FDA, “Products that pass the broad spectrum test will provide protection against both ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) and ultraviolet A radiation (UVA).  Sunburn is primarily caused by UVB.  Both UVB and UVA can cause sunburn, skin cancer, and premature skin aging.  A certain percentage of a broad spectrum product’s total protection is against UVA. Under the new regulations, sunscreen products that protect against all types of sun-induced skin damage will be labeled “Broad Spectrum” and “SPF 15” (or higher) on the front. The new labeling will also tell consumers on the back of the product that sunscreens labeled as both “Broad Spectrum” and “SPF 15” (or higher) not only protect against sunburn, but, if used as directed with other sun protection measures, can reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. For these broad spectrum products, higher SPF (Sun Protection Factor) values also indicate higher levels of overall protection.”

Any sunscreen not labeled as “Broad Spectrum” or that has an SPF value between 2 and 14, has only been shown to help prevent sunburn. That means that your SPF 4 tanning oil is not going to protect you from skin cancer and premature aging.

3. What Is SPF?

SPF – or Sun Protection Factor – is a measure of a sunscreen’s ability to prevent UVB from damaging the skin. If it takes 20 minutes for your unprotected skin to start turning red, using an SPF 15 sunscreen theoretically prevents reddening 15 times longer – about five hours.

This number is often misinterpreted by the consumer. A higher SPF does not mean you can stay protected in the sun the entire day without re-applying.  The FDA has proposed a cap at SPF 50, with everything above that being 50+. Above SPF30, the percentage of UVB absorbed and overall protection of the skin increases only slightly, but people may misinterpret these higher SPF numbers as a higher level of protection or even a guarantee of all-day protection.

The American Association of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that a “broad spectrum” sunblock with an SPF of at least 30 that is applied daily to all sun exposed areas, then reapplied every two hours.

4. Is there such thing as water proof sunscreen?

There is no such thing as water proof sunscreen. The newly adopted terms “sweat resistant” and “water resistant” have replaced water proof. Water resistance claims on the product’s front label must tell how much time a user can expect to get the declared SPF level of protection while swimming or sweating, based on standard testing. Two times are permitted on labels: 40 minutes or 80 minutes.

5. Why is there such a range of prices in Sunscreens?

There are two categories of ingredients of sunscreen- chemical and physical agents. Chemical agents work by absorbing the energy of UV radiation before it affects your skin. Physical agents reflect UV radiation before it reaches your skin.

There are two physical sun-blocking ingredients that are proven to be extremely effective- zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Both provide broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection and are gentle enough for everyday use. Sunblocks containing these ingredients are more effective than chemical sunscreens, are generally more expensive, and are especially useful for individuals with sensitive skin as they rarely cause skin irritation.

Most chemical sunscreens are composed of several active ingredients which each block a narrow region of the UV spectrum, with no single chemical ingredient blocking the entire UV spectrum. These chemical sunscreens are often less effective than those containing physical sun-blocking ingredients, are more affordable, but can cause irritation to the skin.

Does form matter?

The form of sunscreen you choose is personal preference. As long as you are following the directions for use and applying your sunscreen generously, one form is not superior to another. If you have dry skin, you might prefer a cream — especially for your face. A gel or spray might work better for areas covered with hair, such as the scalp.

Quick References: reviewed by Denver Dermatologist, Dr. Richard Asarch, MD.

  • Choose a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30
  • Physical Sun blocking agents (Zinc Oxide &Titanium Dioxide) provide broad spectrum protection blocking both UVA and UVB rays and are gentle enough for daily use.
  • Chemical Sunscreens are combinations of many active ingredients with no single chemical ingredient blocking the entire UV spectrum 
  • Sunblocks are only effective if you use them appropriately.
  • Apply 15-20 minutes before sun exposure to allow a protective film to develop.
  • Re-apply every 2 hours or after excessive sweating or swimming
  • Use enough sunscreen to generously coat all exposed skin.
  • Try to avoid sun exposure between10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the strongest sun of the day.
  • Seek shade when your shadow is shorter than you are.
  • Protect your skin by wearing long sleeves, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses whenever possible.
  • Check your cities UV index to determine your risk.

photo credit Getty Images