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All Sunscreen is Created Equal

Sunscreen

Photo Credit: Flickr/Sunny Ripert

All Sunscreen is Created Equal

By Jessica Klimczak on July 16, 2015

Nowadays sunscreen isn’t just for a day spent lying by the pool. It is recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology to apply sunscreen everyday you plan on being outside for any length of time. This recommendation doesn’t come as a surprise when you learn how melanoma is the number one form of cancer in the United States with over 70,000 cases of melanoma being diagnosed in 2014. Sadly, the American Cancer Society estimates almost 10,000 people died of melanoma last year. While those numbers are scary, the good news is you can take the right steps to minimize your risk.

The tricky part is which sunscreen to purchase. When you walk into your local sundries store there is no doubt an entire aisle dedicated to sunscreen and burn lotions. It makes you stop and wonder if they could all be equally effective. The first thing to consider is the type of sunscreen.

There are two basic sunscreen categories: physical and chemical. Both protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays but the process in which they do so is different. Physical sunscreen acts as a physical blockade on your skin from the sun. Chemical sunscreen is more of a sun ray absorber and in some versions they can also use chemical filters to disperse the sunlight.

While the two types are both effective at blocking the sun, there are concerns around the way chemical sunscreen interacts with the body’s hormones and could produce free radicals when they come into contact with the skin. The popularity of chemical sunscreen comes from the ease in which it is applied and the broad spectrum protection even though you typically need to wait a certain amount of time before going out in the sun.

On the other hand, physical sunscreens use minerals instead of chemicals for sun protection. It is recommended that people with sensitive skin use physical sunscreen as the all natural ingredients are less likely to cause a reaction. The application is effective immediately but they do leave a white residue on the skin.

Secondly, you need to consider the SPF rating. SPF stands for sun protection factor. What is the difference between SPF 15 and SPF 30? Essentially the number indicates how much longer you could stay out in the sun than if you didn’t have any sunscreen on at all. SPF 15 provides the ability to stay in the sun 15 times longer than you would be able to without applying sunscreen. If your skin starts to burn in 15 minutes without sunscreen you could argue that applying SPF 15 would allow you to spend 225 minutes in the sun until you started to burn. In addition, the higher the SPF, the more UVB rays are blocked from your skin (93% versus 97% between SPF 15 and SPF 30). While SPF can block UVB rays, they do not protect from UVA. Additional ingredients in sunscreen like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide can help protect you from UVA rays but there is yet to be a standard measurement for how long these ingredients will keep you protected.

Simple math is not the best way to choose an SPF given the multitude of environmental factors that can increase your chance of burning. Improper application or reapplication, exposure to water or sweat can cause decreased protection. If you plan to spend a long time in the sun you may want to consider sun protective clothing to fully protect you from the sun’s harmful rays.  

When it comes to all sunscreen being equal we can confidently say this statement is FALSE. While there are many schools of thought on the chemical versus physical sunscreen debate it is clear the differences in the products establishes that they are not created equal. Regardless, the best sunscreen is one that is over 30 SPF and applied properly.

If you would like to speak with a dermatologist about sunscreen or skin concerns, click here >