Pick your protection: How to choose the right sunscreen


Summer is a time for COVID-safe beach days, pool fun and outdoor adventures. But without the right sun protection, your summer escapades can leave you with excruciating sunburn and a higher risk of skin cancer. Experiencing a sunburn just five times over your lifetime doubles your risk of developing melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.

The good news is that sunburn is preventable and there are plenty of options when it comes to sun protection. And if you have a plan — and a little sunblock knowledge — choosing the right sunscreen can be as easy as 1-2-3.

1. Choose a sunscreen type: Mineral vs. chemical sunscreen

Sunblock is classified as mineral or chemical based on its ingredients and how it prevents skin damage from UV rays. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t labeled either type of sunscreen as unsafe, but each type has pros and cons that may help with your decision.

Mineral sunscreen

Mineral (or physical) sunscreen sits on the skin’s surface and physically blocks UV light before it penetrates the skin. This method offers instant protection but can be harder to rub in, needs to be applied more frequently and tends to leave a white film on the skin.

The two main ingredients in mineral sunscreens — titanium dioxide and zinc oxide — are the only sunscreen ingredients recognized as safe and effective by the FDA . These ingredients are gentler than those in chemical sunblock, making mineral sunscreen ideal for sensitive skin.

Chemical sunscreen

Chemical sunscreens work differently than mineral sunblock to protect the skin. They allow UV light to penetrate skin. Then chemicals in the sunscreen convert the UV light into heat, which is released from the skin. Chemical sunscreen is easy to rub in and leaves less residue than mineral sunscreens. But you’ll need to apply it at least 20 minutes before sun exposure because it’s not immediately effective.

There are concerns about the ingredients in chemical sunscreens, especially oxybenzone. Research shows that some ingredients may cause environmental issues including damage to coral reefs and pose health risks such as hormone disruption and allergic skin reactions.

Since the skin absorbs the ingredients in chemical sunscreen, the FDA is waiting for more safety data before labeling them as safe and effective. But experts agree that the health risks of sun exposure far outweigh the potential risk of absorbing sunscreen chemicals.

2. Decide on the SPF (sun protection factor)

Every sunscreen provides an SPF number, which tells you how long the sunblock will protect your skin from the sun’s UV radiation. But sunscreens can vary in the amount and type of UV protection offered.

All sunscreens protect against UVB rays — the main cause of sunburn and skin cancers. But broad-spectrum SPF also helps you avoid UVA rays and adds another level of protection against skin cancer and premature aging.

The higher the SPF number, the longer the protection should last. In ideal conditions, if you wear sunscreen with SPF 30, it should take you 30 times longer to burn than if you weren’t wearing any sunscreen. But the difference between SPF 30 and SPF 50 is more than just timing. SPF 50 allows 2% of UVB rays to hit your skin, while SPF 30 lets 3% of rays through — exposing you to 50% more UV radiation.

Just remember that sunscreen is rarely used in ideal conditions. People sweat and swim and don’t always apply enough. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, and reapplying every two hours or immediately after swimming or sweating. But don’t feel like you need to use the highest SPF available (SPF 100). SPF protection above 50 is only slightly better and tends to provide a false sense of security — people are less likely to reapply when needed.

3. Pick a method for applying sunscreen

The best method of sunscreen application is the one you’ll consistently use, but most people don’t apply enough. Sunscreen sprays, sticks and lotions can be effective when used properly and reapplied every couple of hours:

  • Lotion: The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying at least 1 ounce (2 tablespoons or the amount that fills a shot glass). If you’re using chemical sunscreen, be sure to apply it 30 minutes before you head outside.
  • Spray: It’s hard to see how much sunscreen you’re using with a spray, so spray your skin until it glistens. Even if the bottle says “no rub,” smoothing it into your skin will ensure even coverage. But avoid using aerosol sprays on or near your face — they can contain ingredients that, when inhaled deeply, may cause irritation and possibly irreversible damage to your lungs. Consider skipping spray altogether for young kids (who may move and squirm, accidentally breathing the spray in). If spray is all that’s available, spray it into your hands and rub it onto your face or child.
  • Stick: Stick sunscreen is a great option for small areas such as the ears and face. When using a stick, make four passes with the sunscreen over each area you’re protecting. Rub the sunscreen in afterward for even coverage.

No sunscreen offers 100% protection, so it’s important to seek shade and wear protective clothing whenever possible.

For more information about protecting your skin from the sun, reach out to your primary care physician or a UCLA Health dermatologist.