Beach season is officially in full swing. As a dermatologist, that means I am fielding a slew of questions about proper sun protection. Research studies have proven time and time again that sun exposure causes 90 percent of all skin cancers. Since hiding out indoors is the last thing you want to do on a beautiful sunny day, it is necessary to become acquainted with your sunscreen options.
If you haven’t been shopping for sunscreen in the past year or two, you may be overwhelmed by the many choices filling store shelves. In the past, your biggest decision was about the SPF or sun protection factor on the bottle. SPF is still an important number, but it is not necessarily the best way to choose the sunscreen that is right for you.
There are two basic ways that sunscreen can block the sun’s harmful UV rays—physical and chemical blockers. Physical blockers work by forming an invisible barrier that reflects rays away from your skin. The active ingredients in physical blockers are titanium oxide or zinc oxide. These ingredients are more likely to appear in formulas labeled, “water-resistant” or “sweat-resistant.” While these labels indicate that the product will remain effective longer during swimming or sweating, no sunscreen is truly waterproof. Always reapply after swimming, sweating or toweling off.
Sunscreens with physical blockers are often preferred by people with oily skin because they are non-greasy. In the past, people stayed away from physical blockers to avoid the pale, whitish tint that was often created by the active ingredients. The new formulas on the market have minimized this effect to create physical blockers that are both comfortable and effective. Some favorite brands are Banana Boat, Blue Lizard and the line of sunscreens by Shiseido. If you want a sunscreen that doesn’t feel oily, or you are very active outdoors, this type is right for you.
Chemical blockers work by absorbing UV rays before they penetrate the skin’s surface. With the approval of new active ingredients by the FDA, sunscreen manufacturers in the U.S. now have access to formulas that have been popular in European lines for quite some time. Mexoryl is a new ingredient used to create formulas that feel lightweight and less greasy on skin. Look for it in brands like Lancome and L’Oreal. Other active ingredients in chemical sunscreens are benzophenones, salicylates, cinnamates and avobenzone (also called Parsol 1789).
Some manufacturers are creating new sunscreen technologies that makes these active ingredients more stable, which means better protection. Neutrogena’s line of sunscreens offer long-lasting protection and many of their products are “dry-touch” formulas, designed for everyday wear. Browse these new products, and you will find sunscreens that double as moisturizers and contain antioxidants to fight aging. If you want a comfortable, multi-tasking sunscreen that feels elegant on the skin, this is the type for you.
A Number Isn’t Everything
On your sunscreen shopping spree, you will also notice higher SPFs than we’ve had in the past. The new stabilizing technologies and better formulas mean you can wear an SPF 85 product that feels comfortable all day. If you know you might not always reapply sunscreen as often as you should, buy the highest SPF available. With imperfect use, the SPF 85 may have the effect of an SPF 45, which is still a reasonable level of protection.
The best advice I have for my patients about choosing sunscreen is to pick one that you’ll wear everyday. If a sunscreen feels greasy or you don’t like the scent, you will be less likely to reapply every two hours—if you apply it at all! Therefore, it is worthwhile to find a product you like. With the vast array of choices available at any drugstore, I guarantee you will find a product to suit your needs. In fact, I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to find a sunscreen that you enjoy wearing as much as your favorite face cream.
Photo Credit: Michal Marcol