Tips on buying the right sunscreen

Make sure you use the right products to protect your skin.

June 4, 2021


As summer begins, the weather continues to get nicer. It’s exciting to head outdoors to enjoy the Pacific Northwest sunshine. Just don't forget to wear sunscreen to protect your skin.

Many people know the pain of a nasty sunburn. But some may not know about the different kinds of sunscreen. Here is a quick and easy guide to keep your skin protected throughout the year.

What kind of sunscreen should I buy?

Today there are so many kinds of sunscreen, it can be hard know what to buy. Overall, you should buy sunscreens labeled as “broad spectrum.” This means they protect against two kinds of light: UVA and UVB.

UVA light has a longer wavelength and leads to skin aging and wrinkles. UVB light has a shorter wavelength and causes sunburns.

I suggest using sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Sunscreen with a higher SPF doesn’t mean it’s better for your skin. An SPF of 70 or 100 is only slightly better at protecting you.

It is more important that you use a lot of sunscreen and put it on often. I suggest putting it on at least every two hours.

Should I use spray-on sunscreens?

These may feel nicer and less sticky, but it is easy to miss parts of your body. This can cause some patches of your skin to go unprotected. Also, spray-on sunscreens are not as well studied. There is some debate about how well they protect you.

If you use spray-on sunscreen, put on a thick layer and be sure to rub it into your skin.

Does it pay to buy more expensive sunscreens?

Sunscreen found at your drug store can be just as good as the higher-priced brands. But the less expensive ones might not smell or feel as good. More expensive sunscreens may go on smoother and feel less tacky. They also might not have that sunscreen smell.

Higher-priced brands may also offer more options. They may have tinted sunscreens, powdered sunscreens for better coverage and cosmetic sunscreens.

Do I also need sport or facial sunscreens?

If you are swimming or doing anything that will make you sweat, get sunscreens that say “water resistant 40 or 80 minutes” on the label.

This means you should put more sunscreen on every 40 or 80 minutes, depending on the label. This is because the sunscreen will slowly wash off and no longer protect you after the time noted on the label.

Sunscreens labeled UV sport or active are water resistant. Facial sunscreens tend to be less sticky or tacky for daily use. They are not always water resistant.

What else should I look for in sunscreen?

There are two types of active ingredients in sunscreen:

  • Minerals or physical blockers such as zinc or titanium oxide.
  • Chemical sunscreens such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate and more.

These sometimes cause allergic reactions. If you have sensitive skin or have had rashes from sunscreen, use mineral-based sunscreens.

Can babies use sunscreen?

You should only use mineral-based sunscreens on babies. These are mostly made of zinc, which is similar to what's in diaper cream.

Is sunscreen bad for our planet?

Some sunscreens have shown to be bad for coral reefs. So while you're in the water near coral reefs, don't use sunscreens with oxybenzone, octinoxate or octocrylene. So when in doubt, use mineral-only sunscreens.

Is sunscreen the only way to protect my skin?

Sunscreen is good but it should not be your only way to protect against aging skin and skin cancer. It is important to find shade during the sunniest hours of the day. This is usually between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

I also suggest wearing a hat that has a wide brim, or edge, all the way around. Sun protection (UPF) clothing is also a good idea.

It’s important to have an active, healthy lifestyle. Getting outdoors during the nicest time of the year can be great for your physical and mental health. Just remember that when you do go outside, you need to protect your skin.

By Tiffany Shih, MD

The Polyclinic and The Everett Clinic are part of Optum.


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The information provided is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for professional health care. You should consult an appropriate health care professional for your specific needs.