We all know that sunscreen is essential. It was part of a famous graduation speech by Kurt Vonnegut, turned into a pop song by Baz Luhrmann. It’s a must for everyone year-round, not just during the summer months. It’s universally accepted amongst dermatologists that the sun can cause premature aging, skin damage and most importantly skin cancer. You don’t have to hide from its rays, but knowing how to protect yourself is key.

We enlisted the advice of New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Janet Prystowsky to share her knowledge on how to use sunscreen the right way.

Are all sunscreens created equally?

No, not all sunscreens are created equally. Here are some guidelines for what to select:

  1. Always choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that is water resistant if you are planning outdoor sports (with sweating) or swimming. Water resistance is a must when you are swimming or sweating (and who isn’t sweating on a hot summer day?) 
  2. You do not need water resistance if you are walking a few blocks in moderate temperatures. In that situation, a moisturizer sunscreen that is not water resistant is OK and may feel more comfortable on your skin.
  3. As far as ingredients go, your best choice is a mineral based sunscreen with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.
  4. Sunscreens that are not broad spectrum may protect you from sunburns but will not protect you from photodamage that can lead to premature aging and skin cancer.

Can using a less expensive brand instead of a name brand have consequences for our skin?

Price isn’t the issue. If you can find a sunscreen that ticks the boxes I’ve already mentioned at a cheaper cost, then go for it. Be sensible, though. Counterfeit products do exist. If the price seems too good to be true, consider where you are buying the product from. A drugstore will likely have safe products.

Which offers more protection, spray or lotion?

I prefer lotions because it’s harder to miss a spot when you are actively rubbing the product on your body. Sprays can tend to cause spotty coverage when people forget to rub it in. I also think that inhaling sunscreen sprays is not a good idea. I find it rude when spraying folks are upwind and I have to breathe in the spray that missed their skin. What’s good on the surface isn’t necessarily good to inhale.

What exactly does SPF/UVA/UVB mean to you and your health and which is best for your skin type?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. The higher the number, the higher the rating of protection. Sunscreens with higher SPF’s have a higher concentration of sun screening. Many people don’t apply enough sunscreen (i.e. a thick layer), so I like to tell people that their SPF 50 will give them about an SPF 25 amount of protection, and SPF 30 will give them about an SPF 15 amount of protection.

Tip: try to use about twice as much sunscreen as you think you need if you want the SPF to match its rating.

UVA and UVB stand for Ultraviolet A and B radiation. When the sun emits radiation, some of it is visible to us. We call this the visible spectrum of light. The visible spectrum ranges from red to violet. Ultraviolet radiation is just outside of our visible spectrum. Some sunscreens block UVB, which causes sunburns, skin cancer, and premature photoaging; yet fail to block UVA which causes a lot less sunburn but nonetheless causes premature photoaging and skin cancer. Broad-spectrum sunscreens block both UVA and UVB light – covering all the bases from sunburn to photoaging and skin cancer.

What is the difference between chemical and mineral sunscreen?  Is one more effective than the other?

Chemical based sunscreens are appealing because they are absorbed into the skin and do not show the pasty look that mineral sunscreens have when applied. Mineral based sunscreens, however, are preferable over chemical sunscreens because the long-term effects of chemical sunscreens aren’t well understood. What we do know is that chemical sunscreens can absorb into our bloodstream and potentially have hormonally disruptive effects.

Some chemical sunscreens contain oxybenzone which can cause hormonally disruptive effects in animals and has been linked to the rising deaths of the coral reefs.  Oxybenzone has contributed towards the bleaching and death of coral reefs. It easily washes off when swimming and has even been detected in drinking water. Wastewater treatment plants cannot effectively remove it.

So what’s in mineral sunscreens exactly? Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the gold-standard ingredients.  They both protect against UVA and UVB rays.  Keep in mind that they do look pasty.