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Picking the Right Sunscreen for Your Family

May is Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month

May 10, 2017



By Paola Rodriguez, MD, dermatologist, Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center 

With so many sunscreen options, picking the right one can become a daunting task. My recommendation? Choose the one you’ll wear! Pick something you’re comfortable using on a regular basis. After all, any sun protection is better than none.

So why so much emphasis on regular sunscreen use? Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. In fact, the American Cancer Society estimates that more than five million skin cancer cases are diagnosed annually. While some people are at an increased risk for skin cancer, individuals of all ethnicities and skin tones can develop it.

The cause? The most significant risk is overexposure to ultraviolet light. The sun’s ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B rays (UVA and UVB), as well as the lights used in tanning beds, damage our skin, causing early wrinkles, skin cancer and other skin problems even when we don’t burn. That golden tan that people yearn for is the body’s attempt to protect itself from the sun’s harmful rays.

photo of female physician

Paola Rodriguez, MD, dermatologist with Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center.

Now let’s talk about sunscreen and how it protects our skin. There are two types of sunscreen: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens, also called mineral or natural sunscreens, use UV filters to reflect and bounce light right off the skin. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, use active ingredients to absorb UV radiation, preventing them from penetrating the skin cells and causing damage to their DNA. Most physical sunscreens naturally have a broader spectrum of activity, blocking both UVA and UVB rays. Chemical sunscreens, however, combine multiple active ingredients to provide broad-spectrum coverage.

Patients often ask, “what sunscreen should I use?” and I explain that it depends on their individual skincare needs.  For example, physical sunscreens made with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide tend to be better for patients with sensitive skin, since it doesn’t get absorbed into the skin. Chemical sunscreens, which are absorbed into the skin, are made with chemical UV filters – most commonly oxybenzone, homosalate and octinoxate – and some people have higher rates of allergic reaction to them.  People with sensitive skin should also opt for products that are fragrance free and dye free, with as few extra ingredients and preservatives as possible.

One key difference between physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens is the texture. Physical sunscreens tend to be thicker and can leave a chalky cast on the skin. Chemical sunscreens appear white upon application, but are quickly absorbed into the skin. If you have any concerns about skin sensitivity or the risk of absorbing small amounts of chemical filters, opt for a physical sunscreen. But if you’re concerned with the texture or appearance of a physical sunscreen, opt for a chemical sunscreen instead. Either way, the benefit of blocking UV rays far outweighs any risks of using sunscreen – no matter the type.

If a person’s skin type falls into the normal category, I recommend choosing a sunscreen that best meets their personal preference and lifestyle needs. The various sunscreen applications – cream, lotion, stick, spray and gel – are all practically equally efficient at protecting the skin from UV rays.

If you or your child is prone to breakout, however, I recommend that you opt for an oil-free formula that’s non-comedogenic. These are water-based instead of oil-based, so they’re lightweight and won’t clog skin pores. They’re also less likely to aggravate acne. Additionally, because many acne medications and acne treatments can cause sun sensitivity, making the skin more vulnerable to burns, it’s especially important that acne patients adequately protect their skin. Another great option for acne patients are sunscreen powders.

For people with dry skin, I recommend a hydrating lotion or cream-based formula.

Finally, no matter what sunscreen you use, keep these points in mind:

  • Use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30, even on cloudy days
  • Reapply every two hours
  • Apply enough to cover the entire body – usually about 1 ounce or 5-6 teaspoons
  • Make sure your sunscreen provides broad-spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB rays
  • Check the expiration date – some ingredients in sunscreen break down over time
  • Model sun safety: children will pick-up your sun protection habits if they see you modeling them