How to Choose the Best Sunscreen

July 06, 2011

Sunscreen_girl I remember when there were basically two types of sunscreen – lotion or oil. Nowadays, there’s over 10 different brands and types.  So, how do you choose your sunscreen?

 There are so many different labels, it is easy to become confused. They all have different SPF numbers. Some say they are “waterproof”; others say “water resistant”. What is the difference? Still others say “broad spectrum” while others are labeled “high UVA”. Many of my patients want to know which should they put on before they head out into the sun.

Hopefully, all these different labels will be less confusing. Starting next summer, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will require new labeling that cracks down on confusing claims and makes choosing a sunscreen easier. Meanwhile, we’ve still got a big chunk of summer left—prime time for being out in the sun. Here's a look at the new labels and some tips on how to choose the right sunscreen for you.

What Does the SPF Rating Mean?

I’m sure you already know that SPF 30 means more protection than SPF 15. But did you know that SPF, which stands for “sun protection factor”, only measures one element of sunlight?  SPF tells you about protection against ultraviolet B radiation (usually called UVB). UVB is the main cause of sunburn. However, it’s only part of the picture.

“Broad spectrum” sunscreens protect against both UVB and another type of radiation in sunlight, ultraviolet A (UVA). Both UVA and UVB rays can cause skin cancer as well as premature skin aging. Right now, it’s hard to tell how much UVA protection you’re getting in a “broad spectrum” sunscreen. Starting next year, when you see “broad spectrum”, it will mean the level of UVA protection meets a certain standard, proportional to the SPF number.  

How Much Protection Do I Really Need?

So far, it’s not certain that SPF levels above 50 really provide extra protection. The FDA is thinking about making “SPF 50+” the highest level you’ll see on a sunscreen label. At the same time, sunscreens with an SPF between 2 and 14 must state that the product has not been proven to prevent skin cancer.

Are They Really Waterproof?

Now about “waterproof” sunscreens. It sounds like you could go swimming all day and never bother to reapply your sunscreen, right? But that’s not quite true. Beginning next year, manufacturers can only say that a sunscreen is water resistant, and they have to give you an idea of how long it lasts while swimming or sweating. There will be two categories, 40 minutes and 80 minutes. The term “sweatproof” will also be gone because it’s simply not a true claim.

Remember, the reasons why you should wear sunscreen isn’t just to prevent skin cancer; it’s also to prevent sunburn as well as premature aging, such as wrinkles. So wear at least SPF 15, and reapply every few hours. Make sure you get a product that protects against UVA and UVB. And don’t forget about wearing sunglasses and hats – they help with protection too!

More on Summer Skin Care:

FDA Q&A on Sunscreen Regulation Changes

American Academy of Dermatology - Skin Care Safey

5 Spots Commonly Missed When Applying Sunscreen


Photo Source: Thinkstock/Stockbyte

John J. Whyte, MD, MPH is the Chief Medical Expert & Vice President for Continuing Medical Education where he develops, designs and delivers health programming.








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