Dermatologists Answer Burning Questions About Sunscreens


Like most over-the-counter products, not all sunscreens are created equal. Some sunscreens provide higher sun protection, while others contain ingredients that are better suited for children’s skin. The key is choosing a sunscreen that will provide the best sun protection for all family members, and combining sunscreen use with other sun-smart behaviors. “The best type of sunscreen is the one you will use again and again,” said dermatologist Henry W. Lim, MD, Livingood Chair and chairman of the department of dermatology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Mich. “Just be sure to choose one that offers broad-spectrum protection, has an SPF of 30 or greater, and is water resistant.”

To help consumers make informed decisions when purchasing sunscreen, dermatologists answer some of the most common sunscreen questions and address some consumers’ safety concerns about sunscreen.

Are high SPF sunscreens better?

Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with a SPF of at least 30, which blocks 97% of the sun’s rays. SPFs higher than 30 block slightly more of the sun’s rays, but Lim cautions that no sunscreen can block 100% of the sun’s rays. It is important to note that even if you are wearing a high-SPF sunscreen, it should be reapplied approximately every two hours when outdoors and after swimming or sweating.

What sunscreens are best for infants and children?

Ideally, babies under 6 months should not spend time directly in the sun. Since babies’ skin is much more sensitive than adults, sunscreens should be avoided if possible. Instead, Lim says the best sun protection for babies is to keep them in the shade as much as possible and dress them in long sleeves, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.

Sunscreen can be applied to exposed skin not covered by clothing on toddlers and infants 6 months or older. Lim noted that sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are most appropriate for the thinner skin of toddlers and infants 6 months or older since they do not penetrate the skin and are less likely to cause irritation.

Are sunscreens safe?

Scientific evidence supports the benefits of using sunscreen to minimize short- and long-term damage to the skin from sun exposure. Dermatologists agree that preventing skin cancer and sunburn far outweigh any unproven concerns for toxicity or human health hazard from sunscreen ingredients. However, sunscreen alone cannot fully protect people from the sun. Instead, the American Academy of Dermatology (Academy) recommends that in addition to applying sunscreen, everyone should seek shade, wear protective clothing and sunglasses, and stay out of tanning beds – all important behaviors to reduce the risk of skin cancer.

What type of sunscreen should I use? Are spray sunscreens safe?

Lim says the kind of sunscreen you choose is a matter of personal choice, and may vary depending on the area of the body to be protected. Available sunscreen options include lotions, creams, gels, ointments, wax sticks and sprays.

  • Creams are best for dry skin and the face.
  • Gels are good for hairy areas, such as the scalp or male chest.
  • Sticks are good to use around the eyes.
  • Sprays are sometimes preferred by parents since they are easy to apply to children. Men may find it convenient to apply it to a balding scalp. The FDA is currently investigating the risks of accidental inhalation of spray sunscreens. Lim pointed out that the challenge in using spray sunscreens is that it is difficult to know if you have used enough spray sunscreen to cover all sun-exposed areas of the body, which may result in inadequate coverage.

Lim added that you should never spray sunscreen around or near your face or mouth. Instead, spray an adequate amount of sunscreen into your hands and then apply the sunscreen to facial areas. When applying spray sunscreens on children, be aware of the direction of the wind to avoid inhalation.

Regardless of which sunscreen you choose, be sure to apply it generously to achieve the UV protection indicated on the product label.

“For adults, a convenient guideline is to apply one teaspoon of sunscreen to your face and scalp and to each arm, and two teaspoons to your torso and to each leg,” said Lim. “Don’t forget your hands and feet.”

With the new sunscreen regulations recently introduced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, consumers can easily determine a product’s sun-protective properties simply by reading the label, which indicates the SPF number and whether the product provides broad-spectrum protection. To help consumers better understand the new sunscreen labeling requirements, the Academy has developed a “How to Select a Sunscreen” infographic that can be viewed and downloaded on the Academy’s website.

Visit the Academy’s SPOT Skin Cancer™ website — — to learn how to perform a skin self-exam, download a body mole map for tracking changes on your skin, and find free skin cancer screenings in your area. Those affected by skin cancer also can share their story via the website and download free materials to educate others in their community. SPOT Skin CancerTM is the Academy’s campaign to create a world without skin cancer through public awareness, community outreach programs and services, and advocacy that promote the prevention, detection, and care of skin cancer.

Celebrating 75 years of promoting skin, hair and nail health. Headquartered in Schaumburg, Ill., the American Academy of Dermatology (Academy), founded in 1938, is the largest, most influential, and most representative of all dermatologic associations. With a membership of more than 17,000 physicians worldwide, the Academy is committed to: advancing the diagnosis and medical, surgical and cosmetic treatment of the skin, hair and nails; advocating high standards in clinical practice, education, and research in dermatology; and supporting and enhancing patient care for a lifetime of healthier skin, hair and nails. For more information, contact the Academy at 1-888-462-DERM (3376) or Follow the Academy on Facebook (American Academy of Dermatology) or Twitter (@AADskin).

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