Sunscreen 101: Answers to Your Burning Questions

Women's Health

by Dr. C.H. Weaver M.D. updated 4/2020

Like most over-the-counter products, not all sunscreens are created equal. Some sunscreens provide higher sun protection, whereas 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.

Ultimately, the best type of sunscreen is the one you will use again and again. Just be sure to choose one that offers broad-spectrum protection, has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or greater, and is water resistant.

If you still have questions or safety concerns, take a look at the following questions and answers to make informed decisions when purchasing sunscreen.

Q: Are high-SPF sunscreens better?

A: Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, which blocks 97 percent of the sun’s rays. SPFs higher than 30 block slightly more of the sun’s rays, but no sunscreen can block 100 percent. 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.

Q: What sunscreens are best for infants and children?

A: Ideally, babies under six months should not spend time directly in the sun. Because babies’ skin is much more sensitive than adult skin, sunscreens should be avoided if possible. The best sun protection for babies is to keep them in the shade and dress them in long sleeves, long pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses.

On toddlers and infants six months or older, sunscreen can be applied to exposed skin not covered by clothing. Sunscreen containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide is most appropriate for the thinner skin of toddlers and infants because it does not penetrate the skin and is less likely to cause irritation.

Q: Are sunscreens safe?

A: 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 outweighs any unproven concerns about toxicity or human health hazard from sunscreen ingredients. Sunscreen alone cannot fully protect people from the sun, however. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that, in addition to applying sunscreen, everyone seek shade, wear protective clothing and sunglasses, and stay out of tanning beds—all important behaviors to reduce the risk of skin cancer.

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

A: 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 and the male chest.
  • Sticks are good to use around the eyes.
  • Sprays are sometimes preferred by parents because they are easy to apply to children. Men may find spray convenient to apply to a balding scalp.

A challenge of using spray sunscreen is that it is difficult to know if you have used enough to cover all sun-exposed areas of the body, which may result in inadequate coverage.

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 it to facial areas. When applying spray sunscreen on children, be aware of the direction of the wind to avoid inhalation. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently investigating the risks of accidental inhalation of spray sunscreen.

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

For adults, a convenient guideline is to apply 1 teaspoon of sunscreen to your face and scalp and to each arm, and two teaspoons to your torso and to each leg—and don’t forget your hands and feet!

What if I have "sensitive skin"?

If you have sensitive skin, however, you may find that some UV-blocking lotions irritate your skin. You may also be allergic to some common ingredients in sunscreens.

While it may be temping to avoid the redness, stinging, and irritation and skip sunscreen altogether, leaving your skin unprotected puts you at risk for more serious skin damage. Fortunately, there are ways to shield your skin without the irritation.

If you’ve had a bad reaction to sunscreen, the following tips can help you find an effective product that you won’t be tempted to avoid—in other words, one that makes your skin feel good and not uncomfortable.

  • Baby Yourself: Babies and young children have sensitive skin that can be easily irritated by the chemicals in sunscreen. Common problem ingredients include para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and benzephenones like dioxybenzone, oxybenzone, or sulisobenzone. Look for sunscreens without these chemicals. You may find products for adults, or you can try a kids’ product. Many will use other effective, nonirritating UV-blocking ingredients, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
  • Choose Natural: You may be able to avoid irritation or an allergic reaction by finding sunscreens with primarily natural ingredients. This means avoiding things like alcohol, fragrances, or preservatives.
  • Experiment: If you know your skin is sensitive, don’t buy a giant tube of sunscreen before you know how your skin will react to it. Try to test products first. Look for travel- or sample-size containers, tester bottles on store shelves, or ask an attendant at the cosmetics counter if you can sample a product. You may want to wait a bit to see how your skin reacts before making your purchase.
  • Wash Up: You can help soothe your skin by removing sunscreen, as well as any dirt or sweat, as soon as you come indoors and are safely out of reach of the sun’s rays. Use your favorite gentler cleanser, rinse well, pat dry, and follow up with a sensitive-skin moisturizer.

Remember, your number one priority is to protect your skin. So find a sunscreen that doesn’t irritate your skin, and lather up each time you head outdoors. Reapply sunscreen regularly, especially if you are sweating or in the water, don’t forget your wide-brimmed hat and protective clothing, and try to avoid midday sun exposure when possible.

Sunscreen regulations devised by the FDA allow consumers to 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 AAD has developed a “How to Select a Sunscreen” infographic that is available on its website (aad.org).

Sunscreen Savy

Think using sunscreen is a no-brainer? You may be doing it all wrong (and putting your skin and health at risk). Nothing ages skin faster than sun damage. Using sunscreen is the easy, obvious solution.Proper sunscreen use can prevent not only wrinkles and lines, but also skin cancer, especially melanoma. This year the deadly disease will strike nearly 140,000 people in the United States, killing nearly 10,000. It’s the most common form of cancer for young adults (age 25 to 29) and the second-most common for those aged 15 to 29 years old. [1]But what you don’t know about sunscreen really can hurt you.Here are three little-known sunscreen facts that can (literally!) save your skin this summer.1.You’re Not Using EnoughYou applied sunscreen this morning. Now you’re set for the day, right?Wrong.“Everyone reading this is probably using too little and applying too infrequently. More is better. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself later,” says Talia Emery, MD, medical director of Remedy, a cosmetic dermatology center in Westlake Village, California.“No matter which SPF you use, sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours and immediately after swimming or sweating.”The American Academy of Dermatology suggests you generously coat exposed skin 15 minutes before going outdoors, using “enough to fill a shot glass.”[2]2.They’re Not Created EqualThe most common sunscreens are chemical-based formulations, containing ingredients that absorb the sun’s rays.Sunscreen may also be mineral-based**,* containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These deflect* ultraviolet rays away from the skin. Mineral sunscreens are less likely to sting your eyes; they are gentler to skin; and they block both UVA and UVB rays.“Mineral sunscreens are the most trustworthy. They are the most stable [i.e., don’t degrade as quickly on your skin or in the bottle] and provide the broadest protection,” says California dermatologist Cynthia Bailey, MD, whose blog (drbaileyskincare.com) covers sun protection.In addition to the messy white goo that we all love to hate, you can find sunscreens in sprays, wipe-on sheets, powders, roll-ons, and waxy sticks.And many sunscreens do double-duty as beauty products. “Moisturizing, anti-aging, medicated, tinted, acne preventative, makeup priming, and other all-in-one SPF-30+ sunscreens are evolving, so one beauty product treats a variety of needs,” says esthetician Naomi Fenlin, owner of About Face Skin Care in Philadelphia.Some sunscreens also contain antioxidants such as Vitamin C and green tea, or plant-based ingredients such as aloe vera or avocado butter, for a protective boost.3.30 is Not Twice as Much as 15Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 15 sunscreen blocks about 93 percent of UVB rays, compared to SPF 30, which blocks 97 percent. SPF 50 protects against 98 percent of UVB rays.[3]Many dermatologists recommend SPF 30. “The payoff above SPF 30 is negligible,” says Minneapolis dermatologist Charles Crutchfield III, MD.But SPF measures only UVB rays — not UVA rays, so be sure to choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects from both types of the sun’s skin-damaging ultraviolet radiation.“UVB refers to the burning rays. UVA are the aging rays that cause brown spots and penetrate deeply into the skin. UVA rays are also linked to skin cancer,” says Chicago dermatologist Carolyn Jacob, MD.For additional information about sunscreen on AWomansHealth, see:

[1] Skin Cancer. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at . Accessed February 5, 2015.[2] Sunscreen FAQs. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at . Accessed March 30, 2015.[3] Sunscreens Explained. Skin Cancer Foundation website. Available at . Accessed March 30, 2015.

Celebrating 75 years of promoting skin, hair, and nail health Headquartered in Schaumburg, Illinois, the American Academy of Dermatology, 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 AAD 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 call (888) 462-DERM [3376] or visit aad.org*. Follow the AAD on Facebook (American Academy of Dermatology) and Twitter (@AADskin).*