Sunscreen is an important part of an overall sun protection plan. Hats, sunglasses, and sun protective clothing are also components of this plan. I would bet that most of us would rather wear sunscreen than a full face mask. But, choosing the right sunscreen is important.
The sun protection factor (SPF) is a number that measures the UV-B protection offered by sunscreen. With a 30 SPF sunscreen adequately applied, it would 30 times longer to get a sun burn than if not using the sunscreen.
I am surprised that I occasionally find sunscreen products with SPF 4 or SPF 8 still on shelves! I have seen them recently at tourist attractions around Tucson. Don’t buy these low SPF numbers. Although low SPF sunscreen is probably better than nothing, generally the higher the number SPF, the better job the sunscreen will do protecting your skin from developing skin cancer and photoaging.
Sunscreens with SPF15 are available everywhere and are probably the easiest to find. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to adequately protect us from the harmful UV light. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreen with an SPF 30 that blocks both UV-A and UV-B (broad spectrum). This should be the minimum SPF rating that anyone uses on their skin.
There are many choices of sunscreen that are SPF 30-50. I recommend these for daily use, even on cloudy days. “Tooth paste, deodorant, sunscreen” is the mantra. Although some sunscreens are better tolerated than others, I urge patients to try different ones in order to find one that feels best on their skin. Once daily application is probably enough if working in an office and simply going to and from your car in daylight.
However, my sunscreen recommendations change if someone is planning to spend time outside. In that case, the higher the SPF, the better! Why? In laboratory testing with perfect conditions and perfect application, higher rated SPF products have only small improvements in the effectiveness of UV-B blocked. But, the real-world use of sunscreens is very different. Most patients apply only about 1/3 the amount of sunscreen they should. In that case, if applied too thinly, patients get far less sun protection than suggested by the SPF rating on the bottle. Plus, in the real world, sunscreen rubs off and is sweat off. So, if one starts by applying a higher SPF in the beginning, their real-world protection will likely be adequate. In addition to using high number SPFs, don’t forget to reapply every two hours, and even more frequently if in the water.
The advice I give patients every day is to cover as much skin as possible with sun protective clothing, hats and sunglasses. For the areas that you can’t cover, find the highest SPF that you don’t mind wearing. If it is a “great” sunscreen according to a magazine or television personality, but it feels terrible when you wear it, you won’t put it on.
More to come…
Michael Huether, M.D.