Sunscreen Smarts: The Best Ones and How to Use Them

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June 26, 2018


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Sunscreen and summer – they are said together as often as sand and surf this time of year. Whether it’s a neighborhood pool party or family day at the beach, health experts stress sunscreen use to protect your skin against the harmful health effects of the sun, and ultimately, skin cancer.

“While staying out of the sun is the best way to protect against skin cancer, applying sunscreen every day is the next best defense,” said Ramon Jimenez, M.D., chief of melanoma and soft tissue sarcoma surgery at Miami Cancer Institute. “Always use a sunscreen labeled as ‘broad-spectrum, which protects against ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. These rays are linked to premature aging and sunburns, respectively, and both increase a person’s risk of developing skin cancer.”

The Best Sunscreens

With so many sunscreen products available today, how do you know which is the best to use?

Many people choose sunscreen based on “cosmetic elegance,” or cosmetic characteristics such as how greasy or pleasant-smelling the product is, according to a study published in JAMA Dermatology.  Since purchasing sunscreen based on cosmetic features may not always translate into the best protection, consumers should be advised to select a sunscreen with broad-spectrum coverage, an SPF of 30 or higher, and water and/or sweat resistance (if using it for water activities or in high temperatures), the study’s authors advise.

Another well-known source for sunscreen recommendations is the Consumer Reports Sunscreen Buying Guide. Its sunscreen recommendations are based on how the different products perform in tests of UVA and UVB protection, SPF label variation, cost and active ingredients. Of the 73 lotions, sprays, sticks, and lip balms included in the Consumer Reports 2018 Sunscreen Buying Guide, the independent research organization said 24 tested at less than half their labeled SPF number. While this doesn’t mean those two dozen sunscreens won’t protect skin from sun exposure, users may not be protected as much as they think, the guide cautions.

In general, Consumer Reports recommend using a sunscreen with chemical ingredients classified as retinoids and an SPF of 40 or higher. It says while no sunscreen blocks 100 percent, an SPF of 40 or higher ensures at least an SPF 30. Conclusions of their tests include: SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays, SPF 50 blocks 98 percent, and SPF 100 blocks 99 percent. The guide also notes that using any sunscreen is better than using none.

How to Use Sunscreen

“A sunburn is an inflammatory response to excessive ultraviolet, or UV, light,” said Christopher da Fonseca, M.D., a family medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care at Kendall Breeze.  One of the known results of repeated sunburns over time is skin cancer.

Physicians like Dr. Jimenez and Dr. da Fonseca stress the importance of minimizing overexposure to UV light to prevent the development of skin cancer. Likewise, dermatologists advise patients to use a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30 daily to prevent incidental sun exposure, as when driving or sitting by a window at work.

If the threat of an increased risk of basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – doesn’t resonate, overexposure also causes premature aging, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

While most doctors, researchers and consumer advocates agree sunscreens with an SPF of 30 or higher are best, scientific evidence has been debated. Some studies have suggested that higher SPFs may not provide much more protection from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation — as long as the sunscreen is applied properly and frequently enough. But now a new study suggests that sunscreens with a higher SPF may be your best choice to avoid sunburn. By comparing SPF 50 versus SPF 100 on 200 skiers in Colorado, researchers in this study found the side of a skier’s face covered with SPF 50 sunscreen was 11 times more likely to burn compared to the side covered with SPF 100 sunscreen.

The general consensus from the medical community is to apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher, for outdoor activities and reapply according to label instructions or at least every two hours – more frequently with sweating or if in the water. Used early, often, and liberally, a person can get the same protection with an SPF 30 sunscreen as with SPF 100, say most doctors. Sunscreens with an SPF of 30 or higher should be reapplied according to label instructions or at least every two hours – more frequently with sweating or if in the water, dermatologists say.

In addition to properly applying sunscreen, taking other precautions that can help prevent overexposure to the sun include:

  • Wear a hat, preferably with a wide brim, to protect the scalp, face and neck.
  • Wear protective clothing, such as long sleeves and pants, for added protection from harmful UV rays.
  • Wear sunglasses to protect the eyes and the delicate surrounding skin.
  • Avoid sun or reduce exposure to sunlight between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., especially during the summer months, when the sun is closest to the earth.
  • Keep infants less than 6 months old out of the sun at all times.

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