Sunscreens help shield you from the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays in two ways. Some work by scattering the light, reflecting it away from your body. Others absorb the UV rays before they reach your skin.
A few years ago, choosing a good sunscreen meant you just looked for a high sun protection factor (SPF) — which rates how well the sunscreen protects against one type of cancer-causing UV ray, ultraviolet B (UVB.) “SPF refers to blockage of UVB rays only,” says Leffell.
Research soon showed that ultraviolet A rays (UVA) also increase skin cancer risk. While UVA rays don’t cause sunburn, they penetrate deeply into skin and cause wrinkles. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 90% of skin changes associated with aging are really caused by a lifetime’s exposure to UVA rays.
So which is the best sunscreen for you? Clearly, you’ll want a sunscreen with broad-spectrum or multi-spectrum protection for both UVB and UVA. Ingredients with broad-spectrum protection include benzophenones (oxybenzone), cinnamates (octylmethyl cinnamate and cinoxate), sulisobenzone, salicylates,titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, avobenzone (Parsol 1789) and ecamsule (Mexoryl SX).
- SPF 15 or higher for UVB protection. The SPF factor rates how effective the sunscreen is in preventing sunburn caused by UVB rays. If you’d normally burn in 10 minutes, SPF 15 multiplies that by a factor of 15, meaning you could go 150 minutes before burning.
For the vast majority of people, SPF 15 is fine, Leffell tells WebMD. But people who have very fair skin, a family history of skin cancer, or conditions like lupus that increase sensitivity to sunlight should consider SPF 30 or higher.
Keep in mind that the higher the SPF, the smaller the increased benefit: contrary to what you might think, SPF 30 isn’t twice as strong as SPF 15. While SPF 15 filters out 93% of UVB, SPF 30 filters out 97%, only a slight improvement.
- UVA protection. There is no rating to tell you how good a sunscreen is at blocking UVA rays, says Leffell. So when it comes to UVA protection, you need to pay attention to the ingredients.
Look for a sunscreen that contains at least one of the following, Leffell says: ecamsule, avobenzone,oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, sulisobenzone, or zinc oxide. Any of those should do the trick.
- Water and sweat resistance. If you’re going to be exercising or in the water, it’s worth getting a sunscreen resistant to water and sweat.
But understand what this really means. The FDA defines water resistant sunscreen as meaning that the SPF level stays effective after 40 minutes in the water. Very water resistant means it holds after 80 minutes of swimming. These sunscreens are in no way water-proof, so you’ll need to reapply them regularly if you’re taking a dip.
- A brand you like. Even if a brand is recommended by all the experts, if you don’t like it, you’re not going to use it, says Karrie Fairbrother, RN, president-elect of the Dermatology Nurses Association. Personal preference is really important.
Confused yet? The Enviromental Working Group is here to help you out! Every year, the Group rates many different sunscreens on their effectiveness, the make up and their staying power.
Check out their SUNSCREEN REPORT FOR 2015 (2016 wasn’t release at the time of writing).