Be sunscreen-savvy and lessen a main skin cancer risk factor
Selecting the correct sunscreen from a sea of choices may seem daunting, but dermatology experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham say there are key components the right choice will contain.
It is estimated one in five Americans will develop skin cancer, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Avoiding ultraviolet light—a risk factor for all types of skin cancer—could prevent more than 3 million skin cancer cases annually.
"Everyone should wear sunscreen all year round, even on cold, cloudy days," said Marian Northington, M.D., director of UAB Cosmetic Dermatology. "Unless use of a flashlight is necessary to see, you should have sunscreen on."
Selected sunscreen should, according to Northington:
- Be "broad-spectrum"—meaning it provides UVA and UVB protection
- Be at least an SPF 30
- Be water-resistant if participating in sports or in the water
- Be oil-free if skin is acne-prone
Northington suggests not relying on makeup with sunscreen in it.
"With sunscreen, the higher the number, the better. Most people don't use as much as needed in order to achieve that SPF. So it's actually good to have the highest SPF possible," Northington said.
Northington says picking the type of formulation is completely up to the user.
"As long as it is at least SPF 30 and broad-spectrum, whether it is a spray, stick, lotion or gel, it is fine," Northington said. "Get the formulation you like, because if you don't like it, you are less likely to use it."
When it comes to choosing between pricier sunscreens and generic, Northington again notes, as long as it is at least SPF 30 with UVA and UVB coverage, either is OK.
"Between the different brands, some have more elegant formulations than others," Northington said. "Some are zinc-oxide-based, which will be more lightweight and smooth. Some creams can be heavier or thicker and not rub in as well, so they can differ."
If the sunscreen will be used for the whole family, there are some considerations to make, says Amy Theos, M.D., director of Pediatric Dermatology at Children's of Alabama and associate professor in the UAB School of Medicine.
"While regular sunscreens are safe to use on children, they may be more likely to cause irritation," Theos said. "Sunscreens that contain physical blockers, like zinc-oxide or titanium dioxide, are preferred for infants and toddlers because they may cause less irritation to the sensitive skin of young children."
For infants older than six months and children, Theos says a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 should be chosen. This should be reapplied approximately every two hours.
As for application, children and adults should apply three times more than what feels needed, Northington says. "You need to put on so much that you really have to work to rub it in, to be properly protected."