Choosing the Right Sunscreen for Your Skin

It's hot. The sun is beating down on your face and back. You feel your skin starting to cook and know that if you don't head for shade or reach for sunscreen quick you'll end up looking like a boiled lobster tomorrow. But what sunscreen should you choose? Now it seems there's at least half an aisle in every grocery or drug store dedicated to different sun protecting potions. SPF 15? 30? 100? Mineral? Chemical? Spray? Cream? Waterproof? Long-lasting? What does it all mean and what is going to work best for you?
Finding the right sunscreen to fit your lifestyle is important and can protect you not only from annoying sunburn and premature skin aging, but also from skin cancer which, according to the EPA, is the most common form of cancer with more than 1 million people diagnosed in America each year.
A Few Burning Facts
  • There are two types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation emitted by the sun that penetrate the ozone layer and affect the skin: UV-A rays and UV-B rays. UV-A rays get into the skin and contribute primarily to premature aging. UV-B rays mostly affect the surface of the skin and are the primary cause of sunburn.
  • There are two types of sunscreen: chemical and mineral. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays, which are then released as a small amount of heat. Mineral sunscreens (which can be called sunblock) typically contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These tiny mineral particles act as microscopic mirrors spread across the skin and reflect the UV rays.
  • A quick look at the active ingredients listed on the back of product packaging will help you determine whether the sunscreen is chemical or mineral. Some active chemical ingredients are avobenzone, octocrylene and octinoxate. 
Simplifying SPF
There is a lot of attention paid to the number that follows "SPF" on sunscreen packaging, but you may be surprised to realize that the difference between SPF 15 and SPF 100 isn't nearly as drastic as you may think. "SPF" stands for Sun Protection Factor and addresses how long you can be exposed to the UV-B rays that cause sunburn. Everyone's skin has a natural SPF, which hinges on how much melanin your skin contains, and directly correlates with the darkness of your skin. "SPF" is technically a multiplication factor. More specifically, if you can stay out in the sun for 15 minutes before burning, a sunscreen with an SPF of 10 would ideally allow you to stay out for 10 times 15 minutes, or an hour and a half.

Still, though sunscreens with an SPF of 30 may provide slightly more protection from UV-B rays, they aren't nearly twice as protective as those labelled with an SPF of 15. Sunscreens with an SPF of 50 or greater provide only a small percentage of increase in UV-B protection over similar sunscreens labeled SPF 30.
Rather than focusing specifically on the sunscreen's SPF protection, it is more helpful to choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that will protect you from both UV-A and UV-B rays.
A Look at the Labels
As we've just discussed, the SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, rating is typically only a gauge of the product's effectiveness against sunburn-causing UV-B rays. If exposed for stretches of time longer than two hours, a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more should be at least adequate. The effectiveness of sunscreen significantly diminishes within two hours, so make sure to reapply regularly.
Broad-spectrum labeling indicates that a product is deemed effective against both skin-burning (UV-B rays) and skin-aging (UV-A rays).
Despite claims made in previous years on packaging, no sunscreen is waterproof. New Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines allow producers to label sunscreen "water-resistant" up to an hour and twenty minutes.
How to Make Sunscreen Work for You

If you have sensitive skin, it's easy to be concerned with finding a sunscreen that suits your specific needs. You may find it especially helpful to look for something hypoallergenic and fragrance-free. A mineral-based sunscreen may be the best option as the zinc oxide or titanium dioxide deflect both UV-A and UV-B rays rather than absorbing them.
  • For acne-prone skin, it can be difficult to find a sunscreen that is minimally reactive to your skin. Some dermatologists suggest looking into a light, oil-free lotion of the chemical variety that isn't too heavy or sticky.
  • If you have dry skin, it's suggested to seek out lotions or creams with sunscreen protections and added hydrating ingredients like glycerin and aloe. Simple sprays and gels laden with alcohol may contribute to further drying of the skin.
  • For those experiencing more oily skin, it can be helpful to avoid mineral oil on the ingredient list. Pay special attention to "greaseless" formulas that keep from making shiny skin more apparent.
  • If you require a more "water-resistant" sunscreen to stick tight to wet skin for 40-80 minutes, keep an eye out for stickier silicones that stay put on sweaty skin and are especially effective for heavy exercisers.
  • If you're concerned about the chemicals in sunscreen, it's easy to get overwhelmed by long ingredient lists. Trying to remember which ones are considered the safest is nearly impossible. To make choosing a more natural sunscreen easier, you can consult the Environmental Working Group's 2013 Guide to Sunscreens or download their iPhone app.
All things considered, the most important factor when it comes to choosing the right sunscreen is your willingness to use it and reapply it regularly. If you find a sunscreen that feels good and is easy to apply, stick with it, as it is probably the best solution for you and your sun protection needs. 
Environmental Protection Agency, "Sunscreen: The Burning Facts,", accessed on July 10, 2013.
Mayo Clinic, "Best Sunscreen: Understand Sunscreen Options,", accessed on July 10, 2013.
WebMD, "Shedding Light on 7 Sunscreen Myths,", accessed on July 10, 2013.