How to choose and apply your sunscreen this summer

The era of beachgoers smothering themselves in tanning oil before basking in the sun is long gone. These days, most of us are aware that the sun’s ultraviolet rays are harmful to our skin, and we know sunscreen helps minimize the damage. We also know there’s no shortage of sunscreen products on the market. But when we’re met with such an overwhelming selection, it’s difficult to figure out exactly what type we need.

Here are few tips to keep in mind when selecting and applying sunscreen, so you can keep your skin safe when you hit the beach or pool this summer.

Spray or lotion?

First, you’ll have to decide whether to opt for a lotion or a spray. There’s really no difference in how these products work, so this choice comes down to personal preference. Lotions provide added moisturization, but sprays are easier to apply. Just don’t spritz from the neck up, because you might end up inhaling it! Instead, spray the product into your hand and rub it evenly onto your face.

Which SPF do I need?

SPF measures the amount of time you can stay in the sun without burning while wearing the product. The numbers are misleading, though, because they’re tested at a thickness that people don’t typically apply to their skin. And higher is better, but only up to a certain point. According to Florida dermatologist James M. Spencer, MD, SPF 15 blocks about 94% of UVB rays; SPF 30 blocks 87% and SPF 45 blocks about 98%. No product blocks 100%. Most people are fine with SPF 30 to SPF 50, because most dermatologists agree that anything above SPF 50 doesn’t give you significant added protection. Just make sure you pick a sunscreen labeled as “broad spectrum,” which means that it blocks both UVA and UVB rays.

Waterproof, sweatproof, or water resistant?

Recent FDA rulings have refined the language previously used by sunscreen makers to define their product’s resilience against moisture. Terms like “sweatproof” and “waterproof” are no longer allowed because they overpromise on an application’s longevity. Now, sunscreens with moisture-resistance properties are labeled as “water resistant up to 40 or 80 minutes.”

What are all these ingredients?

Oxybenzone: Oxybenzone is a common UV filter that’s gained a negative reputation because studies showed that it interacted with hormones when fed to animals in large amounts. But dermatologists have stated that humans would have to smother their bodies in sunscreen every day for 30 years to achieve the concentrations of oxybenzone to which the animals in the study were exposed and to reach the same conclusions.

Retinyl Palmitate: This ingredient is often added to sunscreens to enhance its antiaging properties, but it is not a UV filter. Like oxybenzone, it has a negative reputation due to lab studies on rats—certain studies suggested a connection between skin cancer and retinyl palmitate. But most dermatologists deem it safe, as it has been used in products for more than 30 years with no harmful effects.

Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide: Some sunscreens use mineral ingredients to provide a physical sun barrier. The mineral sits on top of the skin, scattering, reflecting and absorbing the UVA and UVB rays. Mineral sunscreens don’t absorb into the skin as well, resulting in the white war paint you might have seen smeared across the face of your local lifeguard or surf instructor. Nevertheless, these products offer highly effective, broad spectrum protection.

How should I apply it?

So, you’ve picked out your sunscreen and you’re ready to head to the pool. Applying your lotion or spray might seem like a straightforward task, but a lot of people get it wrong. First, make sure you apply it 20 minutes before you go in the water to let it soak into the skin. Use at least one ounce (a shot glass) on your entire body. Don’t forget to apply it to those commonly-missed spots like your ears, the back of your neck, the tops of your feet, and any exposed part of your scalp. And we know it’s hard to keep track of time when you’re splashing around in the water or getting lost in that perfect beach novel, but try to remember to reapply about every two hours.

These tips might seem like a lot to think about when all you want to do is lie on the beach and relax. But protecting your skin is worth the effort, and we’re here to help. We carry high-quality, medical-grade sunscreen in our office and we offer skin cancer screenings, so contact Coastal Dermatology to speak to one of our specialists about any questions you might have.