Sunscreen: 10 essential facts

Before your next stroll down the sunscreen aisle, learn what to look for and how to interpret the wave of new ingredients and products that arrive each summer. But remember, whenever available, shade and sun protective clothing are your first line of of defense against sunburns and over exposure. 

Here are the 10 things you need to know about sunscreen:

1. Broad Spectrum is a must! 

Most products on the market provide some protection from both UVA and UVB rays, but the SPF rating only reflects protection from UVB rays. Look for the words broad spectrum on the sunscreen label. While not all such products provide the same level of protection, this is a good first step for ensuring adequate sun protection.

2. 30 is the new 15. 

While SPF 15 is the minimum rating that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows for claims of protection against skin cancer, the Children’s Melanoma Prevention Foundation recommends a SPF 30 standard.

3. People are more likely to misuse high SPF sunscreens.

People tend to extend their time in full sun when they feel protected by high-SPF products, but according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), there is very little difference in using a SPF 50 versus SPF 100. For example, a correctly applied SPF 50 sunscreen protects against about 98 percent of UVB rays, and SPF 100 sunscreen protects against about 99 percent. While the protection ratio difference is minimal, many consumers wrongly assume SPF 100 sunscreen will protect them twice as long as SPF 50 sunscreen, making them more vulnerable to sun exposure and damage. 

4. Sunscreens are NOT waterproof or sweatproof. 

In fact, these terms are no longer allowed to be used by sunscreen manufacturers—although some still do. Remember that all sunscreens do wear off over time, and quicker with exposure to water or sweat. Also, be leery of water-resistant claims. While this phrase is only to be used if tests confirm a sunscreen product provides 40–80 minutes of protection, if your child is sweating or swimming, sunscreen will need to be reapplied often. 

5. Avoid spray and powder sunscreens. 

The EWG has expressed concerns that spray and powder sunscreens pose inhalation risks, and may not provide a thick and even coating on the skin, which is essential for effective protection. The risk of inhalation with young children who are unskilled at coordinating their breathing is unclear, and it's easy to miss a spot or apply too little sunscreen making your child more susceptible to sunburns. While they seem like easy options, resist the temptation to spray or powder your child.

6. Don't use sunscreens that contain Vitamin A. 

Vitamins are healthy, right? Well, not in this context. A form of vitamin A often called retinyl palmitate or retinol has been implicated in the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin and exposed to sunlight. It's an antioxidant that is used in products to slow skin aging but is sometimes found in sunscreen products marketed for use with babies and young children. Be sure to check your sunscreen bottle for this ingredient before your next use.

7. You need more than you think. 

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends applying one ounce — about a palm-full – evenly to all exposed skin. Most people only apply about one-half or even one-quarter of the recommended amount of sunscreen that's needed to achieve the product's SPF rating. 

Note: For infants under 6 months old, avoid direct sun exposure (find or make shade) and dress baby in sun protective clothing. When direct sun exposure can't be avoided, apply limited amounts of sunscreen to exposed skin, such as the face and hands. The rest of your baby's body should be protected by clothing and a wide-brimmed sun hat. Learn more sun safety tips for your baby here.

8. Sunscreen doesn’t work right away.

Apply your sunscreen 20–30 minutes before heading outdoors so your skin has time to absorb it before sun exposure. 

9. Reapply often.

Be sure to reapply sunscreen immediately after towel drying. And if you’re in the water or sweating a lot, reapply your sunscreen every hour. For less active situations, aim for at least every two hours. 

10. Avoid combination products. 

Use sunscreens for sun and bug sprays for bugs. Steer away from products that claim to be two-in-ones. You need to reapply sunscreen frequently, so using a combination product would expose you to higher levels of pesticide (found in bug sprays) than are recommended. Ideally, apply sunscreen first and allow it to dry (10-20 minutes) before applying insect repellant.

For more about summer safety, read this.

Last updated December 27, 2020

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