What type of sunscreen should you use? And why that SPF number really matters
It doesn’t matter your skin tone — nearly everyone is susceptible to getting a sunburn.
It doesn’t matter your skin tone. Nearly everyone is susceptible to sunburn, which could make for not only a painful day but also lead to problems later in life.
Dermatologists recommend people put on sunscreen every day, not just when they plan to go to the beach or be outdoors.
The American Academy of Dermatology says that an estimated one in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point.
“The regular use of sunscreen lowers your risk of skin cancer later in life and also keeps your skin from aging,” said Dr. Darrell Rigel, a dermatology professor at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine. “If you want to look younger in the long run, that’s one of the easiest ways to do it.”
Even though it’s common knowledge that we should be using sunscreen, you might not know which type of of sunscreen to use, which is going to offer the best protection. Here are some factors to consider:
What is SPF?
SPF stands for sun protection factor. It is a measure of how much solar energy is needed to produce a sunburn on protected skin versus on unprotected skin, according to the federal Food and Drug Administration.
“It’s basically the factor by which you can stay out in the sun longer,” said Dr. Dina Strachan, a dermatologist and clinical assistant professor at New York University Grossman School of Medicine.
The FDA says it’s a common misconception that SPF refers to the amount of time it takes before someone gets sunburned and also that sunscreen protects the same at all points of the day.
SPF is directly related to the amount of sun exposure, the intensity of which can vary throughout the day. You’re more susceptible, for instance, to getting burned more quickly at 2 p.m. than at 9 a.m. because of the intensity of the sun.
What type of SPF should I use?
The American Academy of Dermatology says SPF should be a minimum of 30.
But other factors might provide a good reason for people to increase their SPF, according to Dr. Ivy Lee, a dermatologist in Pasadena, California.
“Living in Southern California, I recommend a sunscreen with an even higher SPF — 40 or 50 plus — to compensate for the reality that most of us do not apply an adequate amount on a daily basis,” Lee said.
How much sunscreen should I put on?
Even if you use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, you’re not getting the protection you need if you don’t put on enough of it.
“It’s like when you make a cake: If it needs two eggs, and you [use] one, that’s a different cake,” Strachan said. “So you’re not getting the same thing if you don’t put on enough sunscreen.”
Lee said people usually use only about 25% to 50% of the sunscreen they need to. Which means they’re putting themselves at risk and might not realize it.
She recommends putting 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 of a teaspoon on your face and neck and one ounce — or about what would fit in a shot glass — on your body.
She also prefers sunscreen lotion over spray because using lotion ensures that it will be on your skin. If you prefer spray sunscreen, Strachan said it’s important to make sure you see your skin get wet from it — and don’t spray it like perfume.
If it’s hard to figure out the right amount of sunscreen to put on or you don’t want to risk potential skin damage, Rigel said you can use a sunscreen with a higher SPF, like 75 or 100.
So what’s the best type of sunscreen?
“A sunscreen that is easy to use, feels good on the skin and is affordable,” Ivy said.
What else should I know about sunscreen?
One thing to look for when buying sunscreen is that it’s labeled “broad-spectrum” and “water-resistant.” Broad-spectrum means it offers protection against UVB rays, which are associated with sunburns, and also UVA rays, which are associated with skin aging.
“The SPF rating does not tell you anything about how well the sunscreen blocks UVA rays,” Lee said. “That is why it is also important to find a sunscreen that is clearly labeled broad-spectrum.”
When, how often shold I apply sunscreen?
Sunscreen works right away. So it will kick in immediately if you’re putting it on right when you get to the beach or pool. But putting it on before will give maximum results.
“I tell people about 10 minutes in advance — that it really has a chance to really absorb into the skin and really be most effective,” Rigel said of when to first apply it. “It works right away. But, in a few minutes, it’s going to work better.”
Don’t forget to reapply it, too, if you’re out in the sun for hours. Dermatologists recommend doing so every 40 to 80 minutes and when getting out of the water if you’ve gone for a swim.
How else can I stay sun-safe?
Rigel has two recommendations for people other than wearing sunscreen:
- Wear protective clothing like a hat and shirt when out in the sun.
- Limit your time outdoors at midday, when the sun is strongest.
Strachan said eating foods that are rich in antioxidants, like berries and watermelon, can help reduce your risk of sunburn because they contain lycopene, which helps protects skin cells. Caffeinated drinks, like coffee, also have been shown to help your skin.
If, despite dermatologists’ advice, you don’t want to use sunscreen or to reapply it as often as recommended, Ivy suggests at least wearing a long-sleeve shirt and long shorts to get some sun protection. Some outdoor clothing items — shirts, hats, shorts — even provide SPF protection.
“There’s a lot of different options now,” Ivy said, “a lot more affordable than ever before and a lot more fashionable than before.”
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