Visit any drugstore’s sunscreen section, and it’s enough to make your head spin. Lining the shelves are dozens of tubes, bottles and cans, all promising to keep your skin as white as Bella and Edward in Twilight.
But which are the best sunscreens? Making an informed decision could literally save your life. According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 82,770 new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed and more than 12,000 people will die from the disease this year.
Rates of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, have been increasing for the past 30 years. “From 2005 to 2009, incidence rates among [Caucasians] increased by 2.8 percent per year,” reads the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2013 report.
“I think all dermatologists would agree we’re seeing more melanoma than we’re comfortable with, even in younger people,” says Dr. Leslie Coker with Associates in Dermatology in Hampton.
Last summer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enacted new guidelines for sunscreen packaging. The intent is to make it easier for consumers to choose the most effective products. Sunscreen companies are no longer allowed to use marketing buzz words like “waterproof,” “sweat proof” and “sunblock.” Manufacturers that claim that their products have an SPF (sun protection factor) higher than 50 are required to label the product as “SPF 50+.”
“The FDA no longer recognizes SPF of 100 because there is no way to perform a test to demonstrate that it blocks 100 times the effect of ultraviolet light,” explains Dr. Michael Gross with Mid-Atlantic Dermatology and Laser Center in Virginia Beach. “You can’t test it, so you can’t say it.”
But what should consumers consider when purchasing their next bottle of sunscreen? First, look for the words “broad spectrum” on the label, meaning the product
protects against both UVA and UVB rays. (UVB rays cause sunburn; UVA rays penetrate deeper levels of the skin, causing premature aging.)
The SPF rating is also important.
“The SPF still matters, and 30 or higher is what we recommend,” says Dr. Bryan Carroll, assistant professor and director of dermatologic surgery at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk.
The new FDA guidelines still allow manufacturers to use the term “water resistant” on packaging, but the label must indicate if the sunscreen is effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes while sweating or swimming, based on standardized testing. Consumers should choose the higher number if they plan to be doing either of those activities.
Lotion, cream and spray sunscreens offer similar protection from the sun, but sprays can be more convenient for squirming children.
“It’s a daunting task to try to rub a kid down every two hours with a lotion or cream,” Coker says. “The broad-spectrum sprays serve well for that purpose.”
Apply sprays heavily to the body until the product is dripping, then allow it to dry. (Sunscreens should be applied 15 to 30 minutes before going outside to allow drying time.) Coker doesn’t recommend using sprays on the face. Instead, use a lotion or cream sunscreen containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide on the face, neck, ears, shoulders and other sunburn- prone areas.
Choosing the right sunscreen offers little protection if it isn’t used properly. It’s important to apply enough sunscreen to adequately protect the skin, and to reapply often—at least every hour or two during regular
sun exposure and immediately after swimming or
The average person should use one ounce of sunscreen—enough to fill a shot glass—to cover their entire body. (And don’t forget the tops of the ears and back of the neck—areas that are sometimes forgotten and prone to skin cancers.)
People with darker skin should adhere to the same sunscreen recommendations as those with fairer skin. Skin cancer rates are lower in darker skin, but sunscreen also has anti-aging benefits and it helps reduce issues with skin pigmentation.
Wearing sunscreen should be a daily habit, and not just limited to use at the beach, since even short sun exposure—like driving in a car or going for a midday walk—can lead to skin cancer.
“Stay out of the sun as much as you can,” advises Dr. William L. Coker Jr. with Associates in Dermatology in Hampton. “That’s the best sunscreen!”
First published in the June 2013 Health Journal (https://www.thehealthjournals.com/2013/06/choosing-the-best-sunscreen/). Written by Donna Gregory.