How to Choose the Best Sunscreen

Remember Magda from There’s Something About Mary? Yeah, I’m thinking she could have used a bit (or a boatload) of sunscreen . . . .

Summer is here, which means hot, sunny, sticky days (if you’re on the East Coast, that is. In Vancouver? We’re getting there . . .). But even if your summer is clouded by rain and grey skies, ultraviolet (UV) rays are still in force; in fact, up to 80 percent of UV rays bypass clouds. That’s why it’s vital to wear sunscreen every day (yes, all 365), to help prevent skin cancer and ward off wrinkles. The problem? Navigating the sunscreen aisle practically requires a PhD: so many choices, so many claims. Since my skin is fair (my family calls me Casper, if that’s any indication) and super sensitive, and I love to be outdoors, I am serious about sunscreen use. As such, I’ve made it a priority to learn the lingo and decode the labels—no easy feat!

Armed with the criteria below, you can head to the drugstore with confidence—and play safe in the sun (or lack of it!) year round.

Top 3 Tips to Choosing Sunscreen

Tip #1: Choose sunscreen labelled broad spectrum.

Products labelled broad spectrum contain active ingredients (see Tip #3) that protect against UVA rays (which increase skin cancer risk and premature aging but don’t cause burning) and UVB rays (which increase skin cancer risk and cause sunburn). So even if you aren’t prone to sunburn, it’s important to choose broad spectrum sunscreen. Given that skin cancer is the most common cancer among Canadians (81,300 new cases of nonmelanoma skin cancers are expected in 2012, and 5,500 cases of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, were diagnosed in 2011), UVs are no joke. Wrinkly, spotty skin is no fun, either: experts say 90 percent of skin aging (bye, collagen and elastin; hello, lines and sagging) is from UV radiation.

Tip #2: Pick products labelled SPF 30 (or higher).

SPF stands for sun protection factor. The number next to the SPF (e.g., SPF 15, SPF 30) indicates the product’s effectiveness at blocking UVB rays and preventing sunburn (there is no protection rating for UVA rays). So, if your skin normally becomes red in 10 minutes in the sun, an SPF of 30 would offer 30 times that protection, meaning you could theoretically be in the sun for 300 minutes without burning.

Keep in mind that no sunscreen blocks 100 percent of UV rays (SPF 30 blocks 97 percent, SPF 15 blocks 93 percent and SPF 50 blocks 98 percent), if they’re adequately applied in the first place: studies show most people apply less than half the amount needed to reach the listed SPF. And note that all sunscreens wear off, so reapply frequently (ideally every two hours) and avoid prolonged sun exposure, especially between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest. (Check the daily UV forecast for your city—above 5 is high.)

Tip #3: Opt for mineral sunscreens, if possible. 

Chemical sunscreens, such as those with avobenzone (Parsol 1789), oxybenzone, ecamsule (Mexoryl SX), salicylates, cinnamates or para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), work by absorbing UV rays, thereby reducing UV penetration. Mineral sunscreens, which contain the minerals titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, reflect rays away from the skin. I find the latter, often called physical blocks, less irritating and more effective (studies show several chemical ingredients, such as PABA and oxybenzone, may actually cause sun sensitivity and allergic reactions). Plus, both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide offer UVA and UVB protection, unlike chemical ingredients. Moreover, I’d rather not put chemicals on my skin (which then get absorbed into the body). The only downside to physical blocks is the whitish “glow” they cast on skin (on second thought, maybe that’s why my family calls me Casper . . .), though newer formulations, particularly those labelled micronized, are more absorbent and clear.

My favourite sunscreen is Isa Sunguard, an SPF 30 mineral sunscreen suitable for ultra sensitive skin. It has no chemicals, parabens, lanolin, dyes or fragrance. Light and thin, it spreads and absorbs really well, with no white tint. It also contains green tea extract, which has been shown to protect against UV damage. (Interested in ordering? Email me for details.) It’s affordable, too–a 4-ounce tube is $20. (Just think of the cash you’ll save on Botox!)

Sunscreen Dos and Don’ts

  • Don’t skimp: use about two tablespoons to cover all exposed areas, including ears, hands, feet and lips.
  • Apply to dry skin at least 15 minutes before heading outdoors.
  • Even if a sunscreen is labelled water resistant (sunscreens can no longer be labelled waterproof), reapply after swimming, towel drying or heavy sweating.
  • Driving or flying? Slather it on! UV rays can penetrate glass, and solar radiation is more intense in flight (studies show pilots are at increased risk of skin cancer).
  • Note the expiry date: sunscreens’ active ingredients lose effectiveness over time. Store in a cool, dry place to ensure maximum efficacy.
  • To know the safety of your sunscreen, head to Skin Deep, Environmental Working Group’s cosmetic and skin care database.
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Posted on July 9, 2012, in How-to .... Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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