Know the 4 Factors to Find the Perfect Sunscreen

little boy applying sunscreen

With summer in full swing, it is more important than ever to purchase the right sunscreen. But with seemingly endless options in the drugstore aisle, the choice can be daunting. There are literally hundreds of products from which to choose, so how do you know you are buying the “right” one? That’s easy … the “right” sunscreen is the one that works with your skin type and you like using it. After all, it isn’t going to work if you don’t actually use it! To find your “best” sunscreen, let’s take it step-by step.

Sunscreen Basics: Why Do We Need It, And How Does It Work?

Unprotected sun exposure is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer. More than 3.5 million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year, affecting 2 million people. At current rates, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in his or her lifetime. About 75% of skin cancer deaths are from melanoma, and the incidence of melanoma has been rising for at least 30 years. The proper use of a good sunscreen can reduce the risk of skin cancer and slow the signs of skin aging.

Sunscreens protect the skin from the sun’s damaging Ultraviolet (UV) rays by either scattering the rays or absorbing them before they reach the skin. Both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays have been scientifically proven to cause skin cancer, therefore a good sunscreen needs to cover both the UVA and UVB spectrum of radiation. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends choosing a broad-spectrum product (meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB) with an SPF of at least 30. For the best protection, it should be reapplied frequently (every 1-3 hours depending on activity level) while in the sun and immediately after swimming or sweating.

Chemical vs. Physical Sunscreen

Sunscreens can be classified into two major types: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens have ingredients that absorb and reduce UV radiation penetration into the skin. These sunscreens are popular because they provide good protection while being invisible and feeling light on the skin. Many of these sunscreens are also reasonably priced making them a great choice for many people.

Physical Sunscreens are products containing ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide which reflect and block UV radiation. Because these products are made of small particles that sit on the surface of the skin, they can be cosmetically unacceptable to some people, because they can leave a thick, white film. However, with newer formulations, the zinc or titanium particles are miniscule, in effect rendering them “invisible” on the skin. The process to manufacture these cosmetically elegant products is more involved, therefore this type of invisible zinc or titanium sunscreen is often more expensive than other products.

Which Sunscreen Is Best for Me?

Once the basics are covered (broad-spectrum with at least an SPF of 30), the best choice will depend on several factors outlined below.

Skin Type
Dry skin types do well with a moisturizing formulation. Many moisturizers have an SPF of 30, but it’s important to use enough of the product to get the full SPF written on the label, so do not skimp and reapply frequently. If your skin is oily or acne-prone, then oil-free, non-comedogenic (won’t clog pores) products are best. A great option here is a light liquid formulation of sunscreen that can go under a mineral-based power. This routine provides excellent, lightweight coverage that can be touched up with the sunscreen powder throughout the day without ruining makeup. People with rosacea or sensitive skin (or anyone with a history of a rash or itchiness with sunscreens in the past) should seek out a physical sunscreen as these are less reactive and irritating on the skin.

Body Area
The right choice in sunscreen may depend on where you intend to use it. On the face, where it is important to be cosmetically elegant, I often suggest a lightweight formulation specifically developed for use on the face. In general, these are more expensive formulations, but it is worth the investment if it will be used every day. On the body, where the look and feel of a sunscreen is less important, a low-cost sunscreen that has good endurance while swimming or sweating is better.

Good options for kids are physical sunscreens with zinc and titanium because they don’t irritate sensitive skin and do not rub off easily. On the face, a great option is the sunscreen stick because the waxy formulation is easy to apply and won’t drip down and sting the eyes.

Some men don’t like sunscreen because traditional formulations can be sticky, which is particularly bothersome on hairy areas. Good options for men include gel and spray or “sport” formulations which are light and don’t require extensive rubbing to get a good, even application. However, when using a spray, care is required to ensure it’s being applied to the skin … not getting carried off in the breeze otherwise the full SPF will not be delivered.

Once the perfect sunscreen product is purchased, be careful not to rely on it too much! Although choosing the right sunscreen for you and your family is important, it is just one component of a complete sun-protection program. To best protect the skin from the sun’s damaging rays, try to avoid the sun when it is the strongest (between 10 am and 4 pm), wear sunglasses, a hat and sun-protective clothing, seek shade whenever possible and of course, wear that sunscreen!