Imagine yourself standing in the aisle of your local drugstore. You've got one mission in mind: Finding the absolute best sunscreen you can. In that moment, you're an almighty skin protector and defender of all things dermal — you've been burned before and you've vowed to never let it happen again.
Unfortunately, when you look at most bottles of SPF, there's a lot to consider— from SPF numbers, to catch-all terms like "broad spectrum," to a long list of ingredients that seem virtually incomprehensible.
In order to help you make sense of it all, I spoke with Dr. Steven Q. Wang, chair of The Skin Cancer Foundation Photobiology Committee. According to Dr. Wang, understanding the value of your sunscreen goes beyond the number on the bottle.
"I would say most people tend to focus only on the SPF value of a sunscreen product, and they don’t really read the ingredient label on the back," Dr. Wang explains. "A common misconception is that only the active ingredients — the UV filters that block or absorb UV rays — matter in a product. The inactive ingredients can be equally important, since they determine the texture and overall quality of a sunscreen. If you don’t like the feel of a product, you won’t use it, so it’s important to determine which ingredients you like."
So how do you find the ingredients you like? First, start by determining whether you prefer a physical or chemical sunscreen — labels that, while helpful, Dr. Wang says are a bit of a misnomer.
"All active sunscreen ingredients are chemically derived," Dr. Wang explains. "There are two main categories of ingredients. UV organic filters, which are used in what many people call chemical sunscreens, include ingredients such as avobenzone and benzophenone. These work by absorbing UV radiation and reducing its penetration into the skin. So-called physical ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide stay on top of the skin and deflect UV rays. These ingredients are inorganic mineral compounds, but many people may think of them as more natural ingredients."
If you're looking at the back of your sunscreen bottle and noticing a lot more words on the ingredient list, don't fret: Organic and inorganic compounds like avobenzone, benzophenone, zinc oxide, and titanium dioxide are just several of the active ingredients that the Food & Drug Administration has approved for use in sunscreen — in fact, there are 16 in total. Other acceptable actives include aminobenzoic acid, cinoxate, dioxybenzone, homosalate, menthyl anthranilate, octocrylene, octyl methoxycinnamate, octyl salicylate, Padimate O, phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid, uslisobenzone, and trolamine salicylate.
Of course, for the average consumer, understanding the chemical makeup of these ingredients is less important than understanding that if these complicated words are on the bottle, the formula has been tested as safe and effective. Once you've confirmed that, it's all about choosing a consistency you like — and many people have preferences toward one or the other. Those who don't mind thicker, chalkier formulations, or associate the feeling of a real "barrier" on the skin with efficacy, will likely prefer physical sunscreens. Physical sunscreens also tend to be easier on sensitive skin. By contrast, people who hate the whitish cast that physical sunscreens leave behind, particularly people of color on whom the residue is often more noticeable, may prefer chemical sunscreens a quality that Dr. Wang describes as "cosmetically elegant."
Despite the differences between the two, Dr. Wang also explained that many sunscreens on the market are formulated with both physical and chemical ingredients — and the end results are getting better all the time.
"Many new formulations of physical sunscreens are microionized," Dr. Wang says, "Meaning the product’s particles are small enough to blend in and disappear into the skin more easily."
So now we're back to you, the consumer, standing in the drugstore aisle, making your decisions. You know if you have a preference between physical and chemical sunscreens, or you might not mind a combination of both. Don't get too excited — there's still more information to look out for.
"Both UVA and UVB rays can damage skin cell DNA and lead to skin cancer," Dr. Wang says. "A sunscreen should include ingredients that protect your skin from both types. Look for products labeled “broad spectrum” to be sure the sunscreen can protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Choosing a sunscreen with the appropriate level of SPF is also crucial to achieving effective protection. SPF 15 is the minimum you should be using for everyday activity."
Speaking of everyday activity, you should consider your own lifestyle — not to mention skin type — when making your final decisions. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, for example, a water-resistant product with an SPF of 30 or higher is ideal. If you're very fair, or have very sensitive skin, you can buy yourself what Dr. Wang describes as "a valuable safety margin" by purchasing SPF with values of 50 or more.
Regardless of what you choose, the most important thing to consider after you track down an appropriate broad spectrum SPF is if you actually like the formula you're choosing. Does it feel good to the touch? Do you enjoy the scent? Does it blend into your skin the way you want it to? All these factors, according to Dr. Wang, are just as crucial when it comes time to make that final decision.
"At The Skin Cancer Foundation, we believe the best sunscreen is the one you’ll use," Dr. Wang says. "Even the best sunscreen can’t protect you if it’s buried in a drawer because you can’t stand wearing it."