A Ray of Insight: Choosing the Right Sunscreen

Sunscreens have changed a lot over the years, and recently labeling guidelines and recommendations for how to use them have changed, too. It may seem challenging at first to learn and keep up with the new information, but protecting yourself and your family is worth it.

The sunscreen that people used a generation ago came in a one-size-fits-all type of lotion. Those products were often very greasy, would burn your eyes if you took a dip in the pool and were often difficult to apply from head to toe.

According to dermatologist Dr. Dan McCoy, vice president and chief medical officer for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, the physical blockers used for protection from UVB rays were opaque or solid. "Think of the image of the lifeguard with the white nose. The titanium dioxide or zinc oxide blockers in those sunscreens were white, thick and pasty," Dr. McCoy said.

But more recent innovations in sunscreen have added to the range of product choices. Now you can get gels that spread easily, spray mists that quickly cover the body, and powdered and stick sunscreens. You can also choose colorless sunscreens and lotions that look, feel and smell more appealing.

With all these choices, how do we know what sunscreen we should choose? Regardless of skin color or ethnicity, we all need protection from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UV radiation includes both UVA and UVB wavelengths. Sunburn is mostly caused by UVB, but both types of ultra violet light can cause skin cancer and early skin aging.

No sunscreen completely blocks UV rays, but choosing a good product and using it as directed helps. Start by choosing a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. To protect against both UVA and UVB rays, you need a sunscreen labeled "Broad Spectrum Protection." Products with higher SPF that do not have broad-spectrum protection do not provide the UVA protection you need.

Changes made by the FDA in 2012 mean that sunscreens will no longer be labeled "sweatproof" or "waterproof." Look for labels that tell you how long the sunscreen is water resistant. That tells you how often you'll need to reapply. Dr. McCoy reminds us that no matter what water activity you're doing, you're going to need to reapply your sunscreen every two hours. And if you're sweating, you'll need to reapply more often as well.

A Lighter Shade of Pale
Sun protection isn't limited to sunscreen. Technology and innovations have also created sun protective clothing. Ranging from long sleeve swim shirts to pants with extra wicking, vents and pockets, these items can be ideal for those who are out or work in the sun all day. And add a hat for more sun protection.

And for those who do not have to be outdoors all day, try to do your outdoor activities or exercise before or after the peak sun period of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

When Clouds Are Gray
You need sunscreen everyday, even when it isn't sunny out. The harmful rays can still get through the hazy day clouds. And did you know that rays can go through glass while you're sitting in a car?

Starting Your Day
For men and women alike, you can start the day with sunscreen right at your sink. Men can apply a sunscreen moisturizer right after shaving. There are many moisturizers and day creams with SPF 15 for women.

But what about the rest of your body? How much sunscreen do you need? For an average adult, 1 ounce, or about a shot-glass size, is the amount you should use for your body. Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before you plan to go outside.

So Many Choices
Your local drug store may have what seems to be an overwhelming number of sunscreens. And the cosmetic counter at the department store may have even more. Try different sunscreens to see what works for you and your skin. Some people have allergic reactions or breakouts to certain sunscreens. Talk to your doctor if you continue to have skin reactions to your sunscreens.

Some people wonder if it's worth it to spend more for a department store brand. "The generic sunscreens are effective," Dr. McCoy said. "Sometimes there is a difference cosmetically — you might like how a more expensive sunscreen feels on your skin — but a $40 sunscreen offers the same broad spectrum protection as an inexpensive one. It may just smell and feel a little better."

Dr. McCoy's advice for those deciding what to choose, whether you spray, rub or pat your lotion: "The best sunscreen for you to choose is the one that you will wear every day."