How to choose the best sunscreen

Applying sunscreen on a baby

Sunscreen is an important component to maintaining healthy skin and reducing your risk for skin cancer. But not all sunscreens are the same, and some work better for some people than others. Certain sunscreens are considered more environmentally friendly, and some are less likely to introduce new skin issues, such as irritation or acne. You can get a sunburn if you don’t use enough sunscreen when protecting your skin, but is there any issue with using too much?

The purpose of sunscreens is to protect your skin, and you can make informed decisions about the products that will best protect from the sun’s harmful rays and pose the lowest risk to the environment.

Are sunscreen ingredients safe?

In 2019, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a study showing that certain sunscreen ingredients may be absorbed and detectable in the bloodstream at levels higher than previously thought. The researchers followed up with another study in 2020, finding that six active ingredients in some sunscreens are “systemically absorbed” into the bloodstream.

The researchers, however, were quick to point out that while further safety tests were needed to assess the effects of these ingredients (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate and octinoxate) if absorbed into the bloodstream, the ingredients were not considered unsafe or harmful. “These findings do not indicate that individuals should refrain from the use of sunscreen,” they said in the 2020 JAMA publication.

We should also keep in mind that these studies looked at only a small number of participants (24 and 48 participants), and sunscreen was applied in substantially higher amounts and much more frequently than what the average consumer uses in reality.

The ingredients noted in the studies have been around and in use for decades, and while additional safety tests may be warranted, we do know that exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun is a known risk factor for skin cancer. The risks from sunburn and skin cancer are of much greater concern than any concerns posed by use of sunscreens. There are also many sunscreens available that don’t include these six ingredients.

How to choose a safe sunscreen

The FDA recognizes only two ingredients as meeting the GRASE (generally recognized as safe and effective) classification that are considered safest for consumers and not harmful to the environment — titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Both are mineral sunscreens, which act as physical blockers that block ultraviolet rays and reflect them off the skin.

Because titanium oxide and zinc oxide are mineral-based and NOT chemically based ingredients, they typically don’t cause skin irritation or rashes in the way some chemical sunscreens can.

As a dermatologist, I recommend looking for sunscreens with these qualities:

  • Broad spectrum ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B (UVA/UVB) protection
  • Water-resistant for 80 minutes
  • Mineral ingredients, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide
  • SPF 50+

Note that SPF refers only to UVB protection, so broad spectrum with both UVA and UVB coverage is still important.

We should be wearing sunscreen every day

I advocate daily use of sunscreen, particularly for facial use. It’s widely available in daily moisturizers and makeup foundations. Consider applying higher SPF sunscreens over any sun-exposed skin with warmer weather and outdoor activities, especially in the summer months.

With heat and sweating, I recommend reapplying every two to three hours.

SPF-containing moisturizers and foundation can provide protection

Makeup or moisturizers with SPF 25+ can provide adequate protection for everyday activities. If you know you’ll be outside for extended periods of time or in high-intensity ultraviolet exposure, however, it’s best to apply SPF 50+ and/or consider additional sun protection, such as sun-protective clothing, hats and sunglasses.

Can sunscreen expire?

Sunscreens should be marked with an expiration date, but it’s always a good rule of thumb to start with a new supply each season.

While expired sunscreens won’t harm you, they may not provide as much sun protection if they’re expired or have been opened for an extended period of time.

Remember: There are many sunscreen products that are safe, effective and not considered harmful for the environment. The harmful effects of sun exposure can be cumulative, so it’s best to consistently protect your skin.

More tips for protecting your skin:

Routine visits to a dermatologist can lead to better skin health

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