Find the sunscreen that’s right for you

Wear sunscreen. Apply a lot of it, and apply it often. Sounds simple enough? But then you’re standing in the drug store staring at shelves of bottles and wondering why it seems so complicated. Which product is right for you, and how can you tell?

There’s been a lot of questions in the news lately about which products are more effective and safer than others. Here’s what you need to know to find the right product:

Know the basics

A lot of the information you need is right on the bottle, if you know what to look for and understand what it means:

Sunscreen versus sunblock: Sunscreen contains chemicals that absorb or reflect the sun’s rays to prevent them from reaching the deeper layers of the skin. In contrast, sunblock has ingredients (usually titanium oxide and zinc oxide) that physically block the light, causing it to reflect or scatter. Sunblocks are thought to keep the skin cooler because they don’t absorb the rays, and may therefore be better for conditions like rosacea that are affected by heat.

Broad Spectrum: Make sure the product protects against both UVA and UVB. UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and are mainly responsible for damage and signs of aging. The Environment Protection Agency’s The Burning Facts (pdf) has a list of federally-approved ingredients and their effectiveness at blocking UVA or UVB rays.

SPF (Sun Protection Factor): SPF indicates how many times longer protected skin can stay in the sun before redness occurs (versus unprotected skin). For example, if unprotected skin burns in 20 minutes, then an SPF 15 extends this time to 300 minutes (20 x 15). Experts recommend using a minimum of SPF 15, but you’ll want to go higher if your skin burns easily or you plan to be outdoors for long periods of time.

However, don’t be fooled by the numbers: they aren’t proportionate to strength. A sunscreen with SPF 15 blocks 93 per cent of UVB rays, while SPF 30 blocks 97 per cent. (There is currently no standard measure for protection against UVA rays.)

Waterproof or water resistant: Sunscreen will wash off in the water or when you sweat. Choose a product that suits your activities.

Stamps of approval: The Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA) logo means that the product meets its criteria. For example, it must have at least SPF 15, contain broad-spectrum UVA coverage, does not promote tanning, is non-comedogenic, non-irritating and hypo-allergenic, and contains a minimum of fragrance or is non-perfumed. (See their criteria for more information).

Many products also feature the Canadian Cancer Society logo, but the organization endorses the use of sunscreen — just not any particular product.

Size matters: An eight ounce bottle may not go as far as you think. Experts estimate that adults should use one ounce (about 30mL) of sunscreen to cover their entire body — that’s only eight applications per bottle.

Sunscreen should also be reapplied during the day, especially after being in the water. You may want to pack a larger bottle for a cottage trip or resort vacation so you can apply it every two hours as recommended. (Most sunscreens are good for two years before they expire.)

One exception: if you’re trying a new product, buy a smaller size to test it first.

Which products are best for sensitive skin?

Many people avoid sunscreen because it can cause breakouts or aggravate conditions such as rosacea and eczema. Different products have different combinations of active and non-active ingredients, and some can cause allergic reactions when combined with the sun.

Should that be a reason to give up on sunscreens? No, the key is finding the right one. If your skin is less than cooperative, here’s what to look for:

– Opt for oil free, chemical-free and perfume- or fragrance-free products. These ingredients are common irritants.

– Avoid products containing para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and benzophenones (dioxybenzone, oxybenzone, or sulisobenzone). According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these chemicals are more likely to cause a reaction.

– Try products with zinc oxide and titanium oxide instead — the EPA says these ingredients don’t typically cause a reaction and some experts argue they even help sooth the skin. Today’s smaller particle sizes are less likely to clog pores than previous generations of chalky sunblocks.

– When in doubt, the National Rosacea Society recommends trying a pediatric formula or a moisturizer with dimethicone. The chemicals and ingredients children should avoid can be irritants for adults as well.

Finding the right one may mean a little trial and error. The CDA recommends doing a “spot test” on your skin — try a little of the product on your skin and wait 48 hours to see how it reacts. Ask at the cosmetics counter if any samples or testers are available.

Don’t forget to talk to your doctor about any difficulties you’re having. It is possible to be allergic or sensitive to sunlight, and a rash could be symptom of a more serious condition like lupus.

Not so safe?

Most experts agree we should wear sunscreen, and these products are generally regarded as safe by Health Canada, the European Commission and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, critics claim that sunscreens are harmful to your health and these organizations aren’t doing enough to protect people. Here’s why:

Potentially toxic ingredients: There is a lot of debate about the safety of chemicals used in sunscreens. For instance, Benzophenone-3 (known as BP-3 or oxybenzone) can cause cell damage and hormone disruptions. Some evidence suggests that retinyl palmitate (a type of vitamin A) has been linked to an increased risk for skin cancers and is thought to speed upt the development of tumours and lesions.

Other chemicals in sunscreen could also be carcinogenic, and can build up in the body and the environment. An investigation of 1700 sunscreen products conducted by the Environmental Working Group showed that 80 per cent didn’t offer adequate protection or contained harmful substances like oxybenzone or perfumes. (Visit the EWG’s Skin Deep Sunscreens for more details).

Even safer titanium oxide and zinc oxide can be unsafe if they’re tiny particles. “Nano-particles” can penetrate deeper into the skin and cause problems.

The official word? The cosmetics industry and government organizations alike are critical of claims questioning safety, concerned that people may start to shy away from these products. Both sides of the debate note that more research is needed, but the FDA still hasn’t finalized standards for sunscreens. In fact, there is little or no regulation for these products in North America.

Want to see the best and worst offenders? The EWG has a full list of Best Sunscreens versus its Hall of Shame, and Consumer Reports recently released it’s top nine contenders. However, not all brands are available outside the U.S.

Vitamin D deficiency: Critics claim that the use of sunscreen is contributing to Vitamin D deficiency, especially in older adults. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to an increased risk for stroke, heart attack and depression in adults — plus it’s instrumental in preventing cancer. Many experts argue that people aren’t getting enough of this sunshine vitamin. (For more information, see Get your Vitamin D).

While the “how much is enough?” debate continues, experts warn against claims we don’t need sunscreen at all. While it may be true that our ancestors survived without sunscreen, environmental conditions are very different today. Experts note that short periods of unprotected sunshine are enough to fulfill your daily requirements — 10-15 minutes will do the trick — and vitamin supplements can make up for shortfalls.

Other ways to protect yourself

Ultimately, sunscreen shouldn’t be your only defense. Here’s what else you can do to stay safe in the sun:

– Find out if any medications you take make you more sensitive to sunlight and take appropriate precautions.

– Consider the weather and location. UV rays can penetrate clouds, and water, snow and sand reflect more light. Check your local weather report for the UV Index. If it’s over three, you need to take protective measures.

– Wear sunglasses. UV rays can cause serious eye disease. If you don’t wear prescription sunglasses or clip-ons, make sure any glasses you purchase will guard against UVA and UVB. Even if the sticker on the rack at the mall says “yes”, have them tested at your optometrist’s office to be sure. (See Sunglasses: more than great fashion for tips on picking the right pair.)

– Wear a wide brimmed hat to shade your neck, ears and face.

– Play up your summer fashion sense. Tightly woven fabrics block out the light, but light weight and light coloured clothing may offer less protection than sunscreen. Holding the fabric up to the light to see how much light shines through will give you an idea of how much protection you’re actually getting.

– Stay in the shade: Ultimately, your best defense is to stay out of the sun during the peak hours from 11:00am to 4:00pm. If you’re not wearing enough sunscreen or the right protective clothing, that false sense of security is actually putting you at increased risk. An umbrella or portable shelter makes a great source of shade at the park or beach.

A final word of advice: When it comes to making a purchase, don’t be shy about asking questions first. Talk to a pharmacist or cosmetician about which product will be best for you.