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Choosing the Right Sunscreen for Healthy Skin

June 22nd, 2016 | 3 min. read

By Kaleen Kitay, M.D.


As the weather gets warmer, it’s natural to make plans to enjoy more outdoor activities. But if you start spending more time in the sun, you also need to protect your skin with sunscreen. Being exposed to the sun without the proper protection can increase the risk of damaging your skin and possibly developing skin cancer.

We'll look at the different types of sunscreens and what you need to know as you prepare to spend time outside this spring and summer.

{ Upgrading your Advanced Physical from PartnerMD could include a screening with a dermatologist as a customization option. Find out more about our Advanced Physicals options, even if you're not a member. }

The Basics of Sunscreen

It’s almost second nature to think of applying sunscreen when you prepare for outdoor activities like swimming, going to the beach or taking a long walk in the park. But many people may not realize that protecting your skin from the sun is mandatory anytime you step outside. This includes the winter months as well as a cloudy day in the summer.

No matter the time of year or amount of sun you can see, there are still harmful UV rays being emitted from the sun that will reach your skin. Leaving your skin exposed to these rays can cause premature aging and damage.

Common Sunscreen Ingredients

Sunscreen protects your skin with a mixture of natural and man-made chemicals that help to block harmful UVA and UVB rays from your skin. When shopping for sunscreen, it’s important to make sure the ingredients will block both of these types of rays.

There are two types of sunscreen formulas: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens use physical UV filters (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide), while chemical sunscreens use chemical UV filters (octinoxate, avobenzone, oxybenzone, mexoryl and helioplex). There are also hybrid sunscreens that contain both physical and chemical sunscreen ingredients.

You’ll want to find products that have a mixture of these most common FDA-approved chemical blocking agents:

  • Octinoxate
  • Avobenzone
  • Oxybenzone
  • Mexoryl
  • Helioplex

Those with sensitive skin should look for physical blocking agents such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Avoiding chemical blocking agents is recommended for these patients. For individuals with chemical or fragrance sensitivities, many brands offer allergen-friendly sunblock products with oxybenzone instead of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, as well as fragrance and paraben-free formulas.

Are more expensive or organic sunscreen products worth purchasing? It depends on your preferences. Organic sunscreen pertains to the chemical compound of the ingredients, but isn’t necessarily more natural. Sunscreens with fewer ingredients tend to have a higher cost, as well as sunscreens that are formulated to be non-greasy and light on your skin. If you do not have a preference regarding how the sunscreen feels or any additional inactive ingredients in it, any water-resistant sunscreen offering broad-spectrum protection of SPF 30 or above will suit your needs.

Effective Sunscreen Application Tips

Although using sunscreen may seem like a simple task, there are some best practices that can help ensure you are protecting your skin to best of your ability.

Here are some precautions you can take to minimize your risk of sun damage:

  • Use a product labeled at least SPF 30. You can use a higher SPF if you prefer, but since SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays and SPF 50 blocks 98 percent, the difference is not significant enough to warrant the higher cost that comes with SPF 90+ products.

  • Use sunscreen whenever you plan to be outside, not just on sunny days.

  • Encourage children to wear shirts, hats and sunglasses in addition to sunscreen.

  • Apply a layer of sunscreen 15 minutes before you head outdoors to allow it to absorb into your skin.

  • Reapply your sunscreen frequently. Although water-resistant sunscreen helps while your skin is wet, it must be reapplied when you get out of the water.

  • Apply at least one ounce of sunscreen each time you use it and reapply every two hours. If using a spray, make sure you rub the sunscreen into your skin after application.

  • While a sunscreen formulated for your face may wear more comfortably for day-to-day use or under makeup, it is fine to use the same sunscreen on your face as the rest of your body.

  • Pay special attention to applying sunscreen to easy-to-miss spots, such as the tops of your ears and the back of your neck.

Effective sunscreen application is important for the long-term health of your skin. As you head out the door to spend time in the sun this year, make sure you are covered. Practice sun safety by finding a sunscreen with the proper ingredients and making it a habit of applying early and often.

{ To learn how to make simple changes to your lifestyle to improve your overall health and wellness, download our free eBook: Eat, Sleep and Be Merry. }

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Kaleen Kitay, M.D.