Choosing the Right Sunscreen

The first step in finding and choosing the best sunscreen for you is to choose a product that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. That is, the better the sunblock, the stronger its ability to provide you with a high degree of protection against sunburn, skin aging, and skin cancer. A good place to start is the internet. Do a thorough search for the best sunscreens. Read articles and consumer reports. Ask your friends and family what works for them. Check with your dermatologist.

The next step is to find out your skin phototype (skin type) or SPT. This is a system of classification based on a person’s sensitivity to the sun. For example, people with skin types I and II are on the more sensitive part of the scale and therefore at the highest risk for wrinkles or skin cancer. (It should be noted, however, that those photoaging effects can occur in any skin type).

The scale runs from SPT I – SPT VI as follows:

Skin typeTypical featuresSunburn susceptibilityTanning abilitySkin cancer risk
IPale light skin, hazel/blue eyes, red/blonde hairHighNoneHigh
IIFair skin, blue eyesHighPoorHigh
IIIDarker white skinModerateGoodLow
IVOlive skinLowVery goodLow
VBrownVery lowExcellentVery low
VIDark brown or black skinVery lowExcellentVery low

Once you know your skin type, look for a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15. If you are at the top of the chart (SPT I, II, III), you will want a sunblock with a much higher SPF. In addition to giving you information about protection, the SPF can be used to determine how long you can be out in the sun. All you need to know is the UV Index for the day, which you would multiply by the SPF of your sunscreen. For example, if you know that the UV index is 9, you know you will burn in 15 minutes (or less). If your SPF is 15, you can stay outside 15 x 15 or 225 minutes; divide that number by 60 to get 3.75. That is, you can safely remain in the sun for 3 hours and 45 minutes.

When choosing a sunscreen, you should read the label completely and carefully. Make sure you follow any cautions or considerations to the letter. Remember, sunscreens are temporary protection from the sun; they do not give you a license to soak up the rays unconditionally.

Take into consideration your planned activity when choosing your sunscreen. For example, if you will be on a beach by the ocean, you know now that both the sand and the foam on the water are highly reflective and that your exposure to UV rays is increased. Therefore, you will want sunblock with a higher SPF, and you will want to watch the time you are exposed to the sun vigorously. Furthermore, at the beach, you will want to reapply sunblock after swimming or exercising. However, if your afternoon out will be a walk through a wooded forest, you may need a lower SPF and only need to reapply as per the result of multiplying the UV index burn time with the SPF of the sunscreen.

Finally, when reading your sunscreen label, make sure that it has been sufficiently tested scientifically. Usually, the label will indicate its scientific soundness with words like “certified” or “tested” or “studies” or “dermatologists approve.”

How UVA Protection is Measured

SPF is a great gauge for UVB protection, but it gives no information about UVA rays. However, to minimize the signs of skin aging, such as wrinkles or brown spots, and to reduce the risk of skin cancer, UVA protection is critical.

While many sunscreens now claim to protect against UVA and UVB radiation, they often don’t specify the UVA protection strength. (Again, SPF only gives us UVB protection information.) Additionally, detecting UVA damage is impossible unless you have special equipment (such as Wood’s lamp).

SPF measures the speed at which one will burn; as mentioned, UVB rays are the UV rays that can burn the skin. UVA radiation protection has nothing to do with the SPF of sunscreens. To indicate the degree of UVA protection offered by a product, another measure is being added- is Persistent Pigment Darkening (PPD). PPD measures the amount of UVA rays absorbed by the skin. A sunscreen with a PPD of 15 or higher, for example, should provide good UVA protection. Unfortunately, many sunblock manufactures do not provide PPD values because the classification of PPD is so new. Some products, as mentioned before, offer little or no mention of UVA at all. If you wish to learn more about PPD in your sunscreen, contact the manufacturer. If you don’t get a satisfactory response, seeking another product might be a good idea.

How to Apply Sunscreen

Before giving you the how-to in applying sunblock, it’s important to repeat that sunscreens should be part of your comprehensive approach to UV radiation protection, not a miracle sun-damage cure-all. Before going into the sun, it’s important that you consider the more reliable practices of avoiding the sun at peak hours, wearing protective clothing, and other considerations mentioned before. If you are still determined to get into the sun, here is how you can apply your sunscreen:

  1. Choose your Sunscreen
    Get a product with an SPF of at least 15. Look on the label and make sure that it blocks UVA rays, which cause wrinkles and brown spots, and UVB rays, which cause sunburn. Make sure the sunscreen is formulated for your skin type and suited to the activity you’re planning. For example, if you plan on swimming or exercising, you will want to seek out waterproof or sweatproof formulas.
  2. Look at the clock
    In order to give the sunscreen time to absorb fully, apply it about 30 minutes before you enter the sun.
  3. Shake, Squeeze and Rub on
    To make sure the product's ingredients are well mixed, shake the bottle well. Next, squeeze about two tablespoons’ worth into your hand. That should be enough to cover your whole body. Next, rub sunscreen generously onto all the areas of your body that may be exposed to the sun. Some examples include your arms, hands, neck, feet, legs, torso, back, shoulders, and face. You may want to apply sunscreen while you’re naked if you’re going to wear a bathing suit. This way, you will be sure not to miss a spot. Some areas are easy to miss, like near the edge of a bathing suit, near your eyes, your lips, your ears, and your scalp, or the part in your hair. Therefore pay special attention to those areas when applying sunscreen. Ask a friend or a family member to apply sunblock for you on those harder-to-reach areas, especially your back.
  4. Reapply When Needed
    After you’ve been in the sun for two hours—or sooner if you’ve been swimming, sweating, or rubbing against a towel, reapply sunscreen all over.
It’s common knowledge that sun damage is the number one factor in skin cancer and in the aging of the skin. In fact, in the three decades from 1973 to 2003, the incidence of melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, rose by 81 percent.
Ultraviolet rays are divided into three separate categories and have different effects upon our bodies. Those three are: UVA, UVB and UVC rays- often written as UVA, UVB, and UVC. There are varying theories about UV radiation, but most experts agree that only type UVA and UVB rays can reach the Earth and are, therefore, harmful to our skin. UVC rays, while also dangerous, cannot get through the ozone layer to the Earth.
During peak sun hours use window blinds or shades to block out direct exposure. If you can, try to arrange your workspace and sitting areas not to be too close to the windows. These areas will best serve you away from direct sunlight. As you get further away from a window, UVA rays decrease significantly. Therefore, it makes the most sense to avoid spending too much time close to the windows- especially if you have large windows.
Sunscreens come in creams, sprays, gels, lotions, sticks, and ointments. Although a higher SPF number provides better protection, it does not necessarily increase the length of time you can be exposed to the sun.
In the previous sections, the dangers of UV radiation exposure have been clearly explained and expounded upon. However, total avoidance of the sun can also lead to negative consequences. That is, there are health benefits to be had from exposure to sunlight.