When it comes to sunscreen, there are hundreds of brands and varieties to choose from. Whereas before, your biggest decision was what level of SPF to choose, now you can choose from lotion, sprays, gels, sticks, natural sunscreens, sport sunscreens and more. But do they all offer you equal protection from sunburn and skin cancer? Not necessarily.
Before you go throwing away all your sunscreen, using any sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher will help prevent sunburn. However, you’ll want to pay attention to differences in sunscreen formulation when picking the right one for your outdoor activity.
Protection Against Damaging Rays
The first thing you want to check is if the sunscreen is labeled “broad spectrum.” This ensures that it blocks both UVA and UVB rays, which are damaging to your skin and play a role in conditions such as premature skin aging and skin cancers. If your sunscreen is not labeled “broad spectrum,” it will protect you from a sunburn, but not from skin cancer and wrinkles.
Whether it’s a spray, lotion, stick or gel, make sure you apply it correctly and use enough to protect your skin. It’s easier to determine if you’re using enough if it’s a lotion or gel sunscreen (adults will need an amount the size of a shot glass to cover themselves from head to toe). If you choose a spray, make sure you still rub in the product, and be careful not to inhale the spray. To be safe, don’t use sprays on your face, and only apply them outdoors.
There are currently 17 active ingredients approved by the FDA for use in sunscreens. Sunscreens fall into two broad categories: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the rays of the sun before they enter your skin, whereas physical sunscreens (which are mineral-based, e.g., titanium oxide and zinc oxide) reflect the rays away from the skin. Physical sunscreens tend to have a bad reputation of leaving a white film on your skin, but they’ve gotten much better about not leaving a visible residue in recent years. If you have an allergic reaction to sunscreen, check the ingredients. A skin reaction is likely due to one of the chemicals your sunscreen contains; if that’s the case, the physical blockers or mineral-based sunscreens become a great alternative. Usually the mineral-based sunscreens will be labeled as “baby”, “natural” or “sensitive skin.” To be sure, check the active ingredients label on the back.
If you will be swimming, check that the sunscreen is labeled “water resistant.” Sunscreens are tested to be water resistant for either 40 or 80 minutes. It’s still a good idea to reapply after swimming, and if you’re swimming for longer than the approved timeframe printed on the bottle.
An SPF of at least 15 will do an excellent job of protecting your skin. With each increase in SPF, you get a bit more UV protection. But there’s little benefit in anything greater than SPF 50 – don’t let the high numbers provide you false hope! No sunscreen should ever be expected to provide protection past two hours, so make sure you reapply.
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