One of the toughest questions I get asked during the summer months is: what sunscreen do you recommend?  Why is this a tough question?  First, because it requires not only a lengthy discussion of the different types of sunscreen ingredients available in the US right now, but also because it varies by a number of personal factors such as skin sensitivity and skin type (fair or easily tans). Also, there are many different formulations of sunscreen out there, choosing one that is right for you takes some trial and error.

A very important factor that should NOT affect your decision to wear sunscreen is the weather.  Why? Because UV light affects our skin EVERYDAY.  You should wear sunscreen during outdoor activities DAILY even if it is cloudy or cold.


What’s the difference between all those sunscreen ingredients?

Sunscreens are divided into physical and chemical agents.  Physical sunscreens include those with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.  Chemical sunscreens (such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate) absorb UV radiation.  Physical sunscreens (such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) reflect UV radiation.

Sunscreen ingredients also absorb varying amounts of UV light. Some are better at absorbing UVA, while others block more UVB.  Some absorb both UVA and UVB. The chart below summarizes the absorption spectrum of commonly used sunscreen chemicals.

This is why most sunscreens utilize a combination of sunscreen ingredients in order to cover the entire range of UVA and UVB exposure therfore providing broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) protection.  Notably, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide provide the widest range of coverage (although in truth, there is a very small spectrum of UVA light that is not completely blocked by zinc/titanium – mainly the 380-400nm range).  Because of this, sunscreens formulated with zinc or titanium do not require a gaggle of active sunprotective ingredients.

Does the SPF number matter?

YES!  Sun protection factor, or SPF, is a number that is based on tests that compare sunburn rates between unprotected skin and protected skin.  The blockage of UV radiation is then converted to an SPF number.  The relationship of SPF to blockage of UV radiation can be summarized in the following chart to the left

So what does this all mean?  Well, a higher SPF blocks a larger percentage of UV radiation, HOWEVER, it does NOT mean you can stay in the sun longer!  This is a common misunderstanding about SPF which can lead to dangerous outcomes such as sunburns.  My recommendation is always to use the highest SPF number possible.  This way, you can ensure you are getting a high percentage of coverage even if your sunscreen is wearing thin.

Lotion, cream, spray… oh my!

Just like there are hundreds of flavors of ice cream, so too are there numerous choices for sunscreen.  Are you overwhelmed by all the choices?  Me too!

Gone are the days of thick goopy and heavily scented sunscreens.  Companies are coming out with new and innovative formulations of sunscreen to appeal to a wider audience.   There are still creams and lotions, but now you can find sunscreen in a liquid, solid stick, foam, gel and spray.  Choosing the type that suits you best takes a bit of trial and error.

  • If you tend to have dry skin, go for a cream or lotion which will moisturize while it protects.

  • Those with oily skin may opt for a liquid or spray.

  • If your hair has started to thin, you might have noticed a few more burns to the scalp.  A liquid sunscreen tends to be easiest to apply to hair-bearing areas.

  • For active people who perspire, consider a sunscreen stick for the face.  While they are a bit sticky, they won’t run down into your eyes as easily.

Whichever type of sunscreen you decide to try, start with a small bottle to get a sense of the texture before going for the economy-size.  Also ask your store about their return policy just in case you don’t like the type you purchased.

A note about sunscreen sprays: these are a great lightweight solution to sunscreen application, however, they should be sprayed DIRECTLY onto the skin and rubbed in.  Sunscreen sprays should not be applied the way you spray on perfume.  Doing so will give you spotty coverage at best and might cause internal side effects such as irritation of the lungs if inhaled.

Stay tuned for the final installment of our this series: how to make your sunscreen work for you! Learn how to correctly apply sunscreen and also my favorite sunscreens.