How To Pick The Best Sunscreen

Cynthia Bailey, MD|March 26, 2010


  • Most sunscreens don't protect you from all of the sun's damaging UV rays!
  • Picking the right product is critical for complete and smart sun protection.
  • Even one sunburn creates a sun damage debt you can never repay.

There are 3 simple steps to choosing the best sunscreen for your skin: 1. Your sunscreen must block ALL the harmful UVA and UVB sun rays. Most products don't! Only the ingredient micro zinc oxide can block all the way through the UVA wave length spectrum, meaning it blocks all the harmful UVA rays. All the other sunscreen medicine ingredients stop just a little short from blocking the entire UVA spectrum. Plus, micro zinc oxide is stable in the bottle while you're waiting to use it, stays stable on your sun exposed skin and is not absorbed into your body. I always recommend that my patients use a sunscreen that contains 5% or more micronized zinc oxide. It should be listed as an active ingredient on the back label of your product at this 5% concentration. It's my professional opinion that all the other sunscreen ingredients fall short of the dependable and broad spectrum protection afforded by micro zinc oxide. In my dermatology practice, I've relied on Citrix and Solbar Zinc Sunscreens for years to protect thousands of my patients and my family. These products are formulated for ingredient stability, rub into the skin nicely, don't sting the eyes and rarely ever cause acne, allergic reactions or skin irritation. Remember that the SPF number on a product only tells you how well the sunscreen product blocks the UVB rays, which are the summer sunburn rays that are more intense when you're nearer to the sun. This would include the sun between 10 and 3pm in most parts of North America (except in winter), and in places that are at high altitudes or in parts of the world near the equator. (Geek facts: for every approximately 1000 ft increase in elevation there is a 4% increase in UVB radiation and for every degree of decrease in latitude there is a 3% increase in UVB.) UVA radiation on the other hand is out all day, all year, where ever you are in the world. The SPF value tells you NOTHING about your sunscreen's ability to protect you from UVA. Any product can claim to protect you from UVA if it just protects you from some of the harmful UVA rays. You have to read the back label on your sunscreen and look to see that micro zinc oxide is listed as an active ingredient and is present in a concentration of 5% or higher. If it isn't, then the product will not protected your skin from all the harmful UVA rays in my opinion. My second tier choice of sunscreen ingredients are products with 5% or more micro titanium dioxide. My third tier choice are the products with Mexoryl SX (ecamsule) as in the Anthelios and Vichy brands. Be sure to pick products that contain either zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or Mexoryl SX. 2. Only use fresh sunscreen products. Sunscreen ingredients break down over time, especially if they were stored at high or low temperatures. I talked about this in my recent blog post: If You Want A Nice Sunburn, Use Last Year's Sunscreen. Spring clean your sunscreen and buy a new supply every year. You never know if that tube or bottle of sunscreen from last year was left in your hot car or beach bag. You can't be sure those old bottles are still good so regardless of the expiration date you should chuck 'em and start fresh every spring. 3. The third and final trick is to pick the right sunscreen base for your activities and skin type. Wet sweaty water activities need a water resistant sunscreen - period! You have to use a water-resistant base if water or sweat will be loosening or diluting the product on your skin. You also need to reapply your sunscreen when you get out of the water or dry off after sweating. If you're prone to acne, be sure to pick a product that's in an oil-free base and won't clog your pores. The mineral sunscreen ingredients micro zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can clog pores a little in really susceptible people. The zinc oxide provides such superior protection that I recommend my acne-prone patients add good pore cleaning acne products instead of using an inferior sunscreen. Only if they can't make the zinc oxide products work for their acne should use a Mexoryl product instead. Sensitive skin patients should use a pure zinc oxide sunscreen. My favorite is Glycolix Elite Sunscreen. Zinc oxide is gentle on the skin and almost never causes skin allergy or irritation. More information on sun protection: If You Want A Nice Sunburn, Use Last Years Sunscreen Dermatologist's Simple Trick To Test Your Sun Exposure Making Sense Of The Vitamin D Dilemma And Sun Exposure Reference: Photoprotection: a Review of the Current and Future Technologies, Steven Wang et. al., Dermatologic Therapy, Vol 23, 2010, 31-47 Photo attribution: / CC BY 2.0

Add Your Comment