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Choosing the Best Sunscreen

Heading to a cookout or beach this weekend and wondering which sunscreen to pick- should you choose SPF 30, UVA/UVB protection lotion or SPF 45 Water Resistant, spray?  If you don’t know the answer, you are not alone.  While more and more Americans are slapping on sunscreen as a way to prevent skin cancer, just one in five actually use it appropriately. 

What should you look for on a label?

“To use sunscreen correctly, the first thing to know is what to look for on the label,” says Amy Brodsky, MD, dermatologist at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital.  “Sunscreens should be labeled broad spectrum. This means it will protect against UVA and UVB rays.”

UVA rays cause long term skin damage like premature aging, sunspots, wrinkles and skin cancer while UVB rays cause sunburns and can lead to skin cancer.

In addition, Brodsky says to check the water resistance of the sunscreen.  Most sunscreens are water resistant for either 40 or 80 minutes and it is best to choose one that lasts 80 minutes.  Also, make sure to use an SPF of at least 30.  Anything less than SPF 30 will not offer necessary protection from UVB rays.  However it is important to note that using SPF 30 does not offer you double the protection of SPF 15.  This is because SPF which stands for Sun Protection Factor is a measurement of how long it would take for skin to get sunburned while wearing sunscreen compared to someone wearing no sunscreen.   So wearing an SPF of 30 means it will take 30 times longer to get sunburned than if you were wearing no sunscreen.

Read the ingredients listed on the label and make sure either zinc or titanium dioxide are listed.  These provide the best protection because they are not actually absorbed into the skin but instead reflect the light off the skin.  In addition, they block against both UVA and UVB and begin working immediately which is not the case for chemical sunscreens.  Chemical sunscreens take at least 20 minutes to be absorbed into the skin and start working.   

Finally, avoid sunscreen sprays.  While they may seem easier to use, Brodsky says they don’t offer the necessary protection as it is difficult to make to cover all areas of exposed skin.  Instead of sprays use lotions or sunscreen sticks.  

How to apply sunscreen correctly

While buying the right bottle of sunscreen is important, it will be virtually useless in protecting your skin if it’s not applied correctly.  Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before going outside.  Sunscreen only provides optimal protection for two hours, so it is important to continually reapply especially if you are sweating or swimming. 

“Make sure to use enough sunscreen.  If you use an SPF 30 sunscreen but not enough of it, then it acts like an SPF 15, which will put you at risk for a sun burn” explains Brodsky.  “Each time you apply sunscreen you need to use 2 ounces.  This is the equivalent of two shot glasses or two golf balls of sunscreen.  It is important to cover all areas of exposed skin diffusely.” 

With 1 person dying every hour from melanoma, protecting your skin from the sun is incredibly important.  Next time you head out in the sun make sure you check the ingredient of your sunscreen, use an appropriate amount and continually reapply.

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