Sunscreen: Fact or Fiction?

We all know we need sunscreen, but there are so many product options available it can be overwhelming. In honor of National Melanoma/Skin Cancer Awareness Month, let’s take a quick look at the vast field of sunscreen. In 2011, the FDA passed strict guidelines for manufacture labeling of SPF products. Terms like “sunblock,” “waterproof” and “sweat proof” were eliminated because no product truly blocks the sun and consumers could be misled. Similarly, the use of the term “Broad Spectrum,” which was used quite loosely prior to 2011, now means that a product has shown that it does, in fact, block both UVA and UVB rays. To be effective, your SPF must provide protection from both types of rays – UVA (aging rays) and UVB (burning rays). “Water-resistant” is the highest labeling term manufacturers may use to describe its ability to withstand time in the water and only after strict testing. You will see “water resistant up to 40 minutes” or “water resistant up to 80 minutes.” 80 minutes is the highest level the FDA will test, thus, that is the highest level a manufacturer may include on the label. That should help in reading the SPF labels, but there are consistently a few questions our patients ask:

Q: What is the minimum SPF I should use?

A: SPF 30. The AAD (American Academy of Dermatology) and The Cancer Society recommend SPF 30 or above. SPF only refers to the sunscreen’s ability to filter UVB rays. SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93% of UVB rays, while SPF 30 sunscreens filter out about 97%, SPF 50 sunscreens about 98%, and SPF 100 about 99%. The higher you go, the smaller the difference becomes.

Q: Which is better a physical sunscreen or a chemical formula?

A: The truth is, they provide the same sun protection factor, however differences do exist. An SPF 30 in a physical formula is equal to an SPF 30 in a chemical one. A physical sunscreen provides protection with ingredients that provide a physical barrier for the skin (typically titanium dioxide and zinc); whereas, chemical sunscreens work primarily by absorbing the sun’s rays. Physical sunscreens begin working right after application, whereas, chemical sunscreens become effective 20 minutes after application. Mineral sunscreens and make up provide a physical sun protection. Higher end sunscreens tend to have more elegant formulas and include additional beneficial ingredients, such as antioxidants. Having antioxidants in your SPF formula may help mitigate the free radical damage that occurs with sun exposure. The most important factor in choosing a sunscreen is that you like how it feels on your skin. If you don’t like it, chances are it will stay in the bottle! If you have other skin conditions – acne, rosacea, sensitive skin – ask your dermatologist for a recommendation for an SPF that is suitable for that condition. And don’t forget to REAPPLY and wear SPF EVERYDAY!

Q: How much sunscreen should I be using?

Most people do not apply enough sunscreen. You should use about 2 teaspoons (a shot glass) for face and body or a nickel size dollop for just your face. Remember to reapply every 2 hours or more frequently if swimming. If using a spray, you should see a solid sheen to skin after spraying.

Q: Does sunscreen expire?

Typically sunscreen formulas are designed to maintain their efficacy for up to three years. However, replace your bottle if you have sunscreen leftover that has changed color or consistency, been exposed to high temperatures or has passed its expiration date. If you are using the correct amount of sunscreen for each use, you will most likely finish a bottle prior to the expiration date.

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