A: The best sunscreen is the one that will best protect you from the harmful rays of sunlight. That may be obvious, but when faced with the vast array of choices on your pharmacy’s shelves, the right answer is not so easily discerned. So, let’s reduce this to a few general principles.
These general principles are: choose the right product (SWAB); and use it effectively (RESWAB)
In making that choice at the pharmacy, look for a sunscreen that is “SWAB”, where:
• S = Strong. Get one with enough protective power.
This means choose one with a big SPF number – at least 30 or more!
• W = water-resistant or water-proof. This is important even if you don’t plan on going swimming. You don’t want your protection to wash away when you sweat.
• AB = protects against both UV-A and UV-B. This is critical because both wavelengths of sunlight are toxic to your skin. As a general rule, only the sunscreens with an SPF of 30 or more protect from UVA.
When using your sunscreen don’t forget to RESWAB, where
• R = Reapply every 2-3 hours and after swimming.
• E = Enough. Apply enough product to achieve effective sun protection. Don’t be stingy – slather it on. Most people apply too little sunscreen and don’t reapply as often as they should.
As a general rule, an adult would need to use about 1 oz (30 g) of a lotion or cream to effectively cover and protect their entire body.
This means that if you were wearing a bikini and were out in the sun for most of the day, you would use up a new 8 oz bottle or tube every other day! And avoid spray sunscreens. Although they are easy to use, it’s more or less impossible to apply them evenly and in sufficient quantity for them to be fully effective.
Babies are a special case. We do not recommend using sunscreens on infants six months or less of age. Babies who are not yet mobile can be physically shielded from sunlight. Physical blocks like shade and protective clothing are more effective than sunscreens and avoid any potential concerns about the long-term safety of some sunscreen ingredients.
Other things to remember
- Sunscreens should be used on all the skin that will be exposed to sunlight.
- Be sure to use your sunscreen even when it’s cool and cloudy. Plenty of harmful ultraviolet light can penetrate that cloud cover and harm your skin.
- Clothing is an even more effective form of sun protection. This does not mean a loose weave t-shirt will suffice. Fortunately, several brands are available that can both block UV light and are comfortable and breathable in hot weather. But even without these special products, fabric with a tight weave provides effective sun protection.
- When you can, schedule your sun-intensive outdoor activities (like swimming or tennis) outside of the peak sun hours – before 10 AM or after 4 PM.
- You can get a sunburn through the window glass of your car, because UV-A can penetrate glass. Drivers often develop more skin cancers develop on the left side of their face and left arm.
There is no such thing as a “healthy tan”.
In the first place, tans provide only a limited protection against sunburn – about equivalent to an SPF of 3 – and you would certainly never waste your money on a weak, SPF 3 sunscreen.
But more importantly, tanning represents an injury response the skin has received too much ultraviolet light.
Suntans indicate that damaging rays of sunlight have entered the skin and penetrated down to the deepest layer of the epidermis. This places them where they can attack the DNA in the skin’s stem (or mother) cells, seting the stage for skin cancer down the road. And these same damaging rays have caused the melanocytes (pigment-producing cells) that also reside deep in the epidermis to make more melanin.
Think instead of suntans as melanocytes and epidermal cells saying “Ouch!”.
You should use sunscreens to permit you to enjoy outdoor activities – like hiking, swimming, playing tennis – but never, never to change the color of your skin. This also means no visits to the tanning parlor, either. Keep your skin the way your mother and father made you – it’s beautiful.
While all of the above is good advice for everyone, some of you should especially LISTEN UP if you are:
• a natural blond or redhead,
• or have freckles (Here the skin said: “OUCH! OUCH! OUCH! Th hurt so much, it caused some ‘pigment scars’.”),
• or have blue, green or hazel eyes,
• or have ever had a sunburn (Epidermis now saying: “That really hurt! Don’t ever do that again!”),
• or have lots of moles (nevi) (more than 25),
• or have unusual or ‘atypical’ moles,
• or have ever had a skin cancer or pre-skin cancer,
• or have close blood relatives who have had skin cancer (and especially if they have had a melanoma).
If you said yes to one or more of these, you are more prone to develop skin cancer down the road.
Sun-induced skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, hands down. And sometimes these cancers are deadly. So, have fun outside, but, please, protect yourself.