Sunscreen 101: Answers to Your Burning Questions

By Henry W. Lim, MD , FAAD , CS
Livingood Chair and Chairman of the Department of Dermatology Henry Ford Hospital Detroit, Michigan

Like most over-the-counter products, not all sunscreens are created equal. Some sunscreens provide higher sun protection, whereas others contain ingredients that are better suited for children’s skin. The key is choosing a sunscreen that will provide the best sun protection for all family members and combining sunscreen use with other sun-smart behaviors.

Ultimately, the best type of sunscreen is the one you will use again and again. Just be sure to choose one that offers broad-spectrum protection, has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or greater, and is water resistant.

If you still have questions or safety concerns, take a look at the following questions and answers to make informed decisions when purchasing sunscreen.

Q: Are high-SPF sunscreens better?

A: Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, which blocks 97 percent of the sun’s rays. SPFs higher than 30 block slightly more of the sun’s rays, but no sunscreen can block 100 percent. It is important to note that even if you are wearing a high-SPF sunscreen, it should be reapplied approximately every two hours when outdoors and after swimming or sweating.

Q: What sunscreens are best for infants and children?

A: Ideally, babies under six months should not spend time directly in the sun. Because babies’ skin is much more sensitive than adult skin, sunscreens should be avoided if possible. The best sun protection for babies is to keep them in the shade and dress them in long sleeves, long pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses.

On toddlers and infants six months or older, sunscreen can be applied to exposed skin not covered by clothing. Sunscreen containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide is most appropriate for the thinner skin of toddlers and infants because it does not penetrate the skin and is less likely to cause irritation.

Q: Are sunscreens safe?

A: Scientific evidence supports the benefits of using sunscreen to minimize short- and long-term damage to the skin from sun exposure. Dermatologists agree that preventing skin cancer and sunburn far outweighs any unproven concerns about toxicity or human health hazard from sunscreen ingredients. Sunscreen alone cannot fully protect people from the sun, however. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that, in addition to applying sunscreen, everyone seek shade, wear protective clothing and sunglasses, and stay out of tanning beds—all important behaviors to reduce the risk of skin cancer.

Q: What type of sunscreen should I use? Are spray sunscreens safe?

A: The kind of sunscreen you choose is a matter of personal choice and may vary depending on the area of the body to be protected. Available sunscreen options include lotions, creams, gels, ointments, wax sticks, and sprays.

  • Creams are best for dry skin and the face.
  • Gels are good for hairy areas, such as the scalp and the male chest.
  • Sticks are good to use around the eyes.
  • Sprays are sometimes preferred by parents because they are easy to apply to children. Men may find spray convenient to apply to a balding scalp.

A challenge of using spray sunscreen is that it is difficult to know if you have used enough to cover all sun-exposed areas of the body, which may result in inadequate coverage.

You should never spray sunscreen around or near your face or mouth. Instead, spray an adequate amount of sunscreen into your hands and then apply it to facial areas. When applying spray sunscreen on children, be aware of the direction of the wind to avoid inhalation. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently investigating the risks of accidental inhalation of spray sunscreen.

Regardless of which sunscreen you choose, be sure to apply it generously to achieve the ultraviolet protection indicated on the product label.

For adults, a convenient guideline is to apply 1 teaspoon of sunscreen to your face and scalp and to each arm, and two teaspoons to your torso and to each leg—and don’t forget your hands and feet!

New sunscreen regulations devised by the FDA allow consumers to easily determine a product’s sun-protective properties simply by reading the label, which indicates the SPF number and whether the product provides broad-spectrum protection. To help consumers better understand the new sunscreen labeling requirements, the AAD has developed a “How to Select a Sunscreen” infographic that is available on its website (aad.org).

Also visit the AAD’s SPOT Skin Cancer™ site (spotskincancer.org) to learn how to perform a skin self-exam, download a body mole map for tracking changes on your skin, and find free skin cancer screenings in your area. Those affected by skin cancer can also share their story and download free materials to educate others in the community. SPOT Skin Cancer is the AAD’s campaign to create a world without skin cancer through public awareness, community outreach programs and services, and advocacy that promotes the prevention, detection, and treatment of skin cancer.

Celebrating 75 years of promoting skin, hair, and nail health Headquartered in Schaumburg, Illinois, the American Academy of Dermatology, founded in 1938, is the largest, most influential, and most representative of all dermatologic associations. With a membership of more than 17,000 physicians worldwide, the AAD is committed to advancing the diagnosis and medical, surgical, and cosmetic treatment of the skin, hair, and nails advocating high standards in clinical practice, education, and research in dermatology; and supporting and enhancing patient care for a lifetime of healthier skin, hair, and nails. For more information call (888) 462-DERM [3376] or visit aad.org. Follow the AAD on Facebook (American Academy of Dermatology) and Twitter (@AADskin).