Shopping for Sunscreen: What You Need to Know

Nearly 9,500 people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer every day. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. These numbers are only increasing; while most cancers are becoming less common, skin cancers are becoming more so.

Dermatologists at the University of Minnesota say there are ways to protect yourself from these statistics, and it starts by protecting yourself and your loved ones from the sun.

“Protecting yourself from the sun’s harmful UV rays is actually quite easy,” said Ingrid Polcari, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Dermatology, Medical School.

Polcari recommends planning outdoor activities during times of day when sun is least strong, such as before 10 am and after 2 pm. She also says when outside, choose places covered by shade or or bring your own shade, like a beach umbrella or sun tent. Wear a hat to protect your scalp, ears, and neck, cover as much skin as possible with clothing, and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes. And, of course, wear sunscreen.

But when it comes to sunscreen, finding the perfect bottle can be intimidating. The average drug store often has shelves upon shelves to choose from! Polcari says it doesn’t have to be a challenge. She shares a few simple pointers to keep in mind while shopping for sunscreen.

It’s all about the rating

“Stick with a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher,” recommended Polcari. The sweet spot is between 30 and 50 SPF; above 50 offers little additional benefit.

Two other important words to look for are “Broad Spectrum.” This means the sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays are responsible for sunburn and play a key role in the development of skin cancer. UVA penetrate the skin more deeply and can lead to skin aging and wrinkling. Recently, scientists discovered UVA damages skin cells in a basal layer of the epidermis where most skin cancers occur, evidence that these type of rays also leads to skin cancer.

Going for that “golden tan” 

Previously thought to be a sign of health, a suntan is actually a sign the skin has been damaged by UV radiation.

“Therefore any product aiming to enhance a suntan is not recommended,” explained Polcari.

In addition to staying away from tanning oils and lotions, dermatologists also caution people away from tanning and UV booths. A common misconception is achieving a “base tan” before venturing out in the sun lowers the chance for sunburn and sun damage. This is false. To get a tan in the first place, you have to damage your skin, and therefore the risk of skin cancer has already increased.

Spray or lotion?

Once you have your SPF picked out, there are many forms of sunscreen to choose from. The FDA recommends lotions, creams or sticks and University of Minnesota dermatologists agree. Spray sunscreens may be convenient but there is a concern that children could accidentally inhale the particles in those products.

Waterproof or no?

“The simple answer is, there is no such thing as a waterproof sunscreen,” said Polcari. In fact, as of 2012, sunscreen producers aren’t allowed to make this claim.

Instead, a sunscreen bottle may read “water-resistant” if the manufacturer reports how long the product will offer the claimed SPF protection, up to a maximum of 80 minutes. If you plan to swim outdoors, sun-protective swimwear such as swim shirts are a much more effective way of protecting your skin.

Keeping kids safe

“Sun protection is a habit we should create for our children early in life,” counsels Polcari.

As infants, make it a priority to avoid the sun when possible. When there is sun exposure, keep skin covered with hats and clothing. When it comes to sunscreens, dermatologists generally recommend “physical blocker” sunscreens for infants and young children. These products contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the only active ingredients. Unlike other types of sunscreen, physical blockers don’t absorb into the skin to work.

Be mindful of labels as well, since a product labeled organic or “baby” isn’t always gentle or hypoallergenic. In fact, many of the chemical sunscreens are technically organic. Instead of seeking out these specific terms, look for zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as active ingredients, which are best for sensitive skin.

Don’t jump on the band wagon

In this age of Pinterest and “Do It Yourself” projects, it’s tempting to try an at-home solution.

“I have patients tell me they are making their own sunscreen for themselves or for their children.  In general, this is not recommended,” said Polcari. Sunscreen manufacturers have technology that allows them to test for the effectiveness and stability of a product. When you make your own sunscreen, the SPF is unknown. In addition, certain ingredients will inactivate other ingredients making them ineffective, or even worse, may put you at higher risk for sunburn. It’s better to rely on products carefully tested for their effectiveness.

Education is key

When used appropriately, sunscreen can prevent skin cancer later in life. Consumers are often reminded of this essential product leading up to summer months as it begins to take over many of the shelves, but Polcari says that’s not the only time to lather up.

“The sun can damage our skin any time of year, not just when the weather is warm.” said Polcari. “I recommend everyone become familiar with the UV index and use this to make decisions about sun protection instead of relying on the weather.”

The UV index is a measurement created to help inform the public about how risky the sun’s rays are at any given date, time and location.  A UV index level between 0-2 means there is low risk the sun will cause harm to the skin.  The average person needs to protect their skin when the UV index is 3 or greater. When the level is 6 or above, there is a high risk of harm from unprotected sun exposure.