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Best sunscreen: Understand sunscreen options
The best sunscreen is one that you'll use generously and according to label directions. Here's help understanding sunscreen ingredients, types of sunscreen and more.By Mayo Clinic staff
Have conflicting media reports left you confused about the best sunscreen? Or wondering whether you should use sunscreen at all?
Lawrence Gibson, M.D., a dermatologist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., says that people are asking tough questions about sunscreens and raising controversial issues about the best sunscreen. He offers the following guidance.
What's the best way to sort through the details on sunscreens?
Start by looking beyond the topic of best sunscreen. Get back to the bigger picture, which is protecting yourself from the sun. Here are three main things to keep in mind:
- Avoid the sun during peak hours. Generally, this is between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. — regardless of season. These are prime hours for exposure to skin-damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, even on overcast days.
- Wear protective clothing. This includes pants, shirts with long sleeves, and sunglasses. Top it off with a wide-brimmed hat. In addition, consider investing in special sun-protective clothing for golf, gardening, walking, running — even swimming.
- Use sunscreen. Liberal use of sunscreen is a key part of any program to protect yourself from the sun.
What does the term 'broad spectrum' mean when applied to sunscreens?
There are two types of UV light that can harm your skin — UVA and UVB. A broad-spectrum, or full-spectrum, sunscreen is designed to protect you from both.
UVA rays can penetrate deeply into your skin and suppress your immune system. This increases the risk of wrinkling and age spots. UVB rays can burn your skin. Too much exposure to both UVA and UVB rays raises your risk of skin tumors, including a form of cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. The best sunscreen offers protection from all UV light.
Does the best sunscreen also have the highest SPF?
SPF stands for sun protection factor, which is a measure of how well the sunscreen deflects UVB rays. Currently, there's no standard for measuring UVA protection.
Manufacturers calculate SPF based on how long it takes to sunburn skin that's been treated with the sunscreen as compared with skin that hasn't been treated with sunscreen. Theoretically, the best sunscreen has the highest SPF number. Many dermatologists recommend using a product with an SPF of 30 or more. However, no one really agrees on a "good" SPF number. A sunscreen with an SPF of 60 might be better than one with an SPF of 30, but not necessarily — and the SPF 60 product isn't likely to be twice as effective as the SPF 30 product.
To understand this, remember how sunscreen is typically used. It might not be applied thoroughly or thickly enough, and it might be perspired away or washed off while swimming. All this can make even the best sunscreen less effective than the SPF number on the bottle would lead you to believe.
Are spray sunscreens better than other types of sunscreen?
You can use sunscreen that comes in any form: spray, lotion, cream, wax stick or powder. Your choice is a matter of personal preference and which area of the body you're covering. If you have dry skin, you might prefer a cream — especially for your face. A gel or spray might work better for areas covered with hair, such as the scalp.
Which sunscreen ingredients are best?
To ensure broad-spectrum protection, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends sunscreens with any of the following ingredients:
- Menthyl anthranilate
- Octyl methoxycinnamate
- Octyl salicylate
You might encounter warnings that sunscreens with oxybenzone can irritate your skin, especially if you're sensitive to skin care products. However, a recent analysis of 64 studies indicates that sunscreens with 1 to 6 percent oxybenzone don't pose a significant risk of skin sensitization or irritation for most people.Next page
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- Diffey BL. Sunscreens as a preventative measure in melanoma: An evidence-based approach or the precautionary principle? British Journal of Dermatology. 2009;161(suppl):25.
- Facts about sunscreens. American Academy of Dermatology. http://www.aad.org/media/background/factsheets/fact_sunscreen.htm. Accessed June 28, 2010.
- Gibson LE (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. June 23, 2010.
- Newman MD, et al. The safety of nanosized particles in titanium dioxide- and zinc oxide-based sunscreens. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2009;61:685.
- Sun safety: Save your skin! U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm049090.htm. Accessed June 28, 2010.
- Sciallis GF. Mayo Clinic statement: Sunscreens and recent questions of health concerns. Mayo Pharmaceutical Formulary Committee. June 2011.
- Wang SQ, et al. In vitro assessments of UVA protection by popular sunscreens available in the United States. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2008;59:934.
- Burnett ME, et al. Current sunscreen controversies: A critical review. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine. 2011;27:58.
- Questions and answers: FDA announces new requirements for over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreen products marketed in the U.S. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/UnderstandingOver-the-CounterMedicines/ucm258468.htm. Accessed July 28, 2011.
- Over-the-counter sunscreen drug products; required labeling based on effectiveness testing. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. http://www.gpoaccess.gov/ecfr. Accessed June 21, 2012.