Published on May 27, 2023
Do you know what to look for when you’re buying your sunscreen?
Skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis in the U.S., with at least one in five Americans developing skin cancer by age 70.1 Fortunately, it is also one of the most preventable cancers. Wearing sunscreen every day, regardless of what you are doing or what the weather is like, is one of the best and most effective ways to protect your skin and prevent skin cancer. But with so many sunscreen options out there, it’s hard to know what to look for when you’re stocking up for the summer.
What does sunscreen actually do—and what does SPF mean?
Sunscreen creates a protective barrier between your skin and harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. UV rays can damage the DNA in skin cells, which can lead to cancer.2 The effectiveness of sunscreen is measured by its sun protection factor (SPF), which represents how well the sunscreen filters out those UV rays.3 The higher the SPF, the greater the protection from sunburn. Sunscreens with lower SPFs provide less protection against UV rays. You should always use sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher that has both UVA and UVB protection (also referred to as ‘broad spectrum’). It’s important to use broad spectrum sunscreen because while UVB rays primarily cause sunburn, UVA rays are also harmful. Overexposure to either UVA or UVB can cause skin cancer.4
What’s the difference between chemical sunscreen and mineral sunscreen?
Chemical sunscreen is absorbed by your skin and changes the chemical structure of UV rays before they cause damage.5 Mineral (or physical) sunscreens, on the other hand, sit on top of your skin, creating a barrier blocking and scattering the rays before they can penetrate.6 Despite their descriptions, both chemical and mineral sunscreens contain chemicals. Mineral sunscreens are often more sensitive-skin friendly, but they can leave a white cast (a chalky, white residue), especially on darker skin. Chemical sunscreens rub into your skin more easily, but they need to be reapplied more often than mineral ones.
In recent years, more and more inclusive options that do not leave a white cast have become available. Some examples are ‘clear’ or transparent sunscreens, gel sunscreens and tinted sunscreens.
Many sunscreens on shelves today are hybrids of chemical and mineral sunscreens, combining the benefits of both.
What type of sunscreen should I buy?
Safe, effective sunscreen is available at affordable prices, shielding your skin just as well as luxury versions with the same level of SPF. You can now find sunscreen in so many forms: gels, creams, sprays, oils, moisturizers, and more, all of which are effective if used correctly. It’s important to wear water-resistant and sweat-resistant sunscreens when you are doing outdoor activities, such as swimming or any strenuous exercise. There are also sunscreen options for people with sensitive skin, such as those labeled ‘dermatologist recommended’ or ‘for babies.’ There are also vegan, organic, reef-friendly and cruelty-free options (Reef-friendly sunscreens are mineral-based sunscreens whose ingredients are less harmful to coral reefs).7
Who needs to wear sunscreen?
Those with fair skin and light eyes and hair are at higher risk of skin cancer—but anyone, regardless of skin color, can develop skin cancer. So, everyone needs sunscreen, even those with darker complexions. It’s especially important to make sure your kids are using sunscreen—one bad sunburn in childhood can double your risk of skin cancer later in life.8
The best sunscreen for you is sunscreen that protects your skin and that you will use. Whether that’s mineral or chemical sunscreen, spray or cream sunscreen (to name a few variations), buy and use whatever sunscreen best suits you, your skin and your lifestyle.
1‘Skin Cancer Facts and Statistics,’ Skin Cancer Foundation https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts/
2‘Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation,’ American Cancer Society https://www.cancer.org/cancer/risk-prevention/sun-and-uv/uv-radiation.html
3‘Sun Protection Factor (SPF),’ Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), Food and Drug Administration https://www.fda.gov/about-fda/center-drug-evaluation-and-research-cder/sun-protection-factor-spf
4‘Sunscreen FAQs,’ American Academy of Dermatology https://www.aad.org/media/stats-sunscreen
5‘Mineral or Chemical Sunscreen: Which Should You Choose?,’ Adams, Molly, MD Anderson https://www.mdanderson.org/cancerwise/is-mineral-sunscreen-better-than-chemical-sunscreen.h00-159540534.html
6‘All About Sunscreen,’ Skin Cancer Foundation https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-prevention/sun-protection/sunscreen/
7Reef-friendly sunscreens are mineral-based sunscreens whose ingredients are less harmful to coral reefs. ‘Reef Friendly Sun Protection,’ National Park Service https://www.nps.gov/articles/concessions-sun-protection.htm
8Lew RA, Sober AJ, Cook N, et al. Sun exposure habits in patients with cutaneous melanoma: a case study. J Dermatol Surg Onc 1983; 12:981-6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6643817/