Sunscreens are generally available in four different forms: lotion, spray, gel and stick. While some formulas are designed with athletes or children in mind, all sunscreens contain one or more of the following active ingredients: titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, avobenzone (Parsol 1789), Mexoryl SX, Tinosorb, homosalate, octisalate, octinoxate, octocrylene and oxybenzone.
Experts say the following about choosing sunscreen:
- The No. 1 cause of skin aging and damage is sun exposure. Therefore, reviews recommend your sunscreen contain no less than an SPF 15, and should include UVA protection with titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, avobenzone or Mexoryl SX (or Tinosorb outside North America). The SPF factor only indicates UVB (or surface sunburn) protection and an SPF over 30 doesn’t offer any better protection from UV rays. Sunscreen should be worn any time you are outside, regardless of how long you will be out, and should be reapplied frequently (every 40 to 80 minutes if swimming or perspiring, even with water-resistant sunscreen).
- Waterproof versus water-resistant sunscreen. In 2002, the FDA mandated that manufacturers change their labels from waterproof to “water resistant” or “very water resistant,” since no product can be completely waterproof. Surprisingly, not all manufacturers have made this change.
- For the best protection, apply sunscreen 30 minutes prior to exposure. Sunscreen can take up to 30 minutes to dry and become effective to reduce the effects of sun exposure. It’s also important to follow the directions about the amount required to fully protect the skin.
- Sunscreen SPF ratings on the bottle are only realized when you apply enough product. Experts say that adults should be using one ounce of sunscreen for full-body coverage. This is the equivalent of approximately two tablespoons or a palm-full. Experts say that most people do not apply enough sunscreen and that this is the most common mistake that people make.
- Some medications and topical retinoids (such as alpha hydroxy acids) increase sun sensitivity. Check with your pharmacist about medications and read cosmetic labels for sun-sensitizing products. Take extra care to apply sunscreen every day and wear appropriate clothing and a hat when outdoors.
- Children’s skin is more sensitive than adults’ and they should wear UVA/UVB sunscreen, too. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises avoiding sun exposure and dressing infants or children in lightweight pants and long-sleeve shirts as a first defense, but recommends that sunscreen can be used on infants even under six months of age, if adequate shade and clothing aren’t available. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the gentlest UVA-protective ingredients for children’s more sensitive skin.
- Antioxidants can increase the efficiency of sunscreen. They do not protect against sunburn, but studies show that antioxidants in combination with broad-spectrum sunscreen protect against cell damage better than either antioxidants or sunscreen alone.
- If you wear makeup with SPF in addition to a second sunscreen, the resulting SPF is not additive, but only the highest of the two products. Because sunscreens can clog pores and cause breakouts, experts say that women with oily skin may prefer to use a foundation with a good SPF on their face, and a good sunscreen from the neck down.
- Unless otherwise noted on the bottle, sunscreen is good for about three years from the date of purchase.
- Ideally, sunscreen should be applied daily to the face, neck and hands, whether or not you will be outdoors. UVA rays can penetrate through windows. (Ever gotten sunburn while driving?) In fact, experts say that not wearing sunscreen daily for a year is equivalent to an entire week at the beach without sunscreen.