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Your Complete Guide to Sunscreen Protection

Your Complete Guide to Sunscreen Protection

Regular sunscreen use is your best defense against the sun's ultraviolet rays. It helps prevent skin cancer and slows the outward signs of aging, but with all the options available, it's hard to know which sunscreen is right for you.

Learning about the differences between physical and chemical sunscreens, the terminology involved, and skin care professionals' recommendations will help your skin stay healthy and radiant for years to come.

Terms to Recognize

You'll get the best sun protection if you know how to decode sunscreen labels.

Broad Spectrum

Broad spectrum, or full spectrum, sunscreen protects you from both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays cause premature aging while UVB rays cause sunburn; both contribute to skin cancer.  

Not all sunscreens are broad spectrum; check labels before you buy. Otherwise, you may inadvertently forgo valuable skin protection.


Sunscreens are categorized by their SPF, or sun protection factor. SPF is the number that refers to the sunscreen's ability to protect skin from UVB rays. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, SPF 15 protects you from about 93 percent of UVB rays, and SPF 30 protects you from about 97 percent.

The American Academy of Dermatology suggests using sunscreen with an SPF or 30 or greater and reapplying every two hours when you're outside.

Chemical sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun's rays. They tend to irritate the skin more than physical sunscreens and sting if they get in your eyes.

Chemical sunscreens contain many ingredients, but the most common is oxybenzone. Its primary purpose is to absorb UV rays. The American Academy of Dermatology states that the chemical is safe, but some controversy surrounds its use. Studies have shown that it's able to penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream, leading some toxicology experts to believe that it may cause health problems.

Chemical sunscreens are colorless and should be applied twenty minutes before sun exposure.

Physical sunscreens

Physical sunscreens work by blocking the sun's rays. They're gentle, unlikely to cause irritation, and can't sink into the skin and penetrate the bloodstream. 

Physical sunscreens are made from titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide. Titanium dioxide, derived from titanium, is noncomedogenic. This means it doesn't contain oil that may block pores and cause breakouts. Titanium dioxide doesn't provide adequate protection from UVA rays so it must be combined with other ingredients to provide satisfactory protection.

Zinc oxide is also noncomedogenic, but it protects skin from both UVB and UVA rays.

Both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are derived from chalky materials and tend to leave a white cast on the skin.

Physical sunscreen begins working immediately after application.

Why Use Sunscreen

Sun protection plays a big role in skin health. Using sunscreen regularly can prevent wrinkles, brown spots, and skin cancer.

Skin Cancer Prevention

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that regular sunscreen use reduced the risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, by 50 to 73 percent.

It also decreases the risk of developing basal and squamous cell carcinomas. These skin cancers are less deadly and invasive than melanoma but still require medical intervention.  

Reduce Signs of Aging

Exposure to sun's UV rays damages skin's elastin, the fibers that keep skin taut and firm. Once damaged, elastin loses its ability to bounce back and skin starts to sag and stretch.

The Skin Care Foundation estimates that about 90 percent of the visible signs of aging comes from sun damage. Wearing sunscreen helps prevent age spots and minimizes the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and applying it daily will help your skin stay clear, supple, and soft.

Added Protection

If you have a family history of skin cancer or just want maximum protection from the sun, avoid direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The sun's rays are the strongest during those hours and can do the most damage. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and protective clothing for even greater protection. 

Regular sunscreen use is the best way to prevent premature aging and protect against skin cancer. Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher for the most effective protection.

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