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Select the Right Sunscreen: Expert Tips and Tricks

Blog Select the Right Sunscreen: Expert Tips and Tricks

When picking out the right sunscreen, learn what to look for and what to avoid.


One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime. Between 40 and 50 percent of Americans who live to age 65 will have either basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma at least once. As the weather warms up, it’s important to cover up with sunscreen, but the big question is how to choose the right one. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate labels like “sensitive” and “hypoallergenic.”

So what should you do? “To start, it’s very important to read the ingredients listed on products to avoid harmful and irritating results,” explains Melanie Kingsley, MD, dermatologist at Indiana University Health. For instance, Dr. Kingsley suggests avoiding the following ingredients:

  • Synthetic colors. Research has revealed a connection between artificial colors and behavior issues in some children, including kids with ADHD.
  • Fragrance: This can cause irritation, such as a rash, if you have sensitive skin. You may also even be allergic to the ingredients used in the fragrance.  
  • Sunscreens with a long list of ingredients.  “If you have sensitive skin, look for minimal ingredients on a sunscreen’s label, rather than one with 20 or more listed,” says Dr. Kingsley. Instead she says, look for products that contain zinc and few other ingredients.

Also, be wary of products that say they are natural. “Natural means it is made from natural elements, however, there are many natural plants that can be harmful to your skin. So saying something is natural does not mean it is safe,” she says. Instead, keep it simple, look for a short ingredient list and zinc as one of the main ingredients.  “I like the protective zinc-based products that are directed toward babies,” says Dr. Kingsley. 

Also, the American Academy of Dermatology suggests getting a sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays. What does this mean?  Sunlight consists of two types of harmful rays— UVA rays and UVB rays. Overexposure to either can lead to skin cancer.

In addition to causing skin cancer, here’s what each of these rays do:

  • UVA rays (or aging rays) can prematurely age your skin, causing wrinkles and age spots, and can pass through window glass.
  • UVB rays (or burning rays) are the primary cause of sunburn and are blocked by window glass.

Use skin-safe strategies

Here are Dr. Kingsley’s tips on keeping your skin healthy this summer:

  • Slather on sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher (one containing zinc), then reapply the product every 2 hours, as the sun will break down the sunscreen after 2 hours of sun exposure. Reapply every time you get out of the water. 
  • Wear sun protective clothing with a UPF of 50 or higher. UPF is a rating used for clothing; it measures the amount of UVA and UVB radiation that penetrates the fabric and reaches the skin. These include shirts, hats and cover-ups.  “The shirts are great for kids very active in the sun and water,” she says. They are very common and are easy to find both online and in stores. While they are readily available in the kids section they are also made for adults.
  • Make sure you have a hat with a wide full brim all the way around to assure full coverage of your face. 
  • Seek shade when possible, but know that the sun reflects off water, cement, and sand, so still wear sun protection.  

“Avoiding sun burn and tans will reduce your risk of skin cancer and signs of aging,” Dr. Kingsley explains. Plus, you’ll have more fun in the sun when not dealing with irritating products or painful sunburns.

-- By Judy Koutsky 

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