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What’s the Best Sunscreen for You?

Pharmacists name Neutrogena the No. 1 sunscreen, but that doesn’t mean it provides better sun protection than the rest.

 US News

Pharmacists name Neutrogena the No. 1 sunscreen, but that doesn’t mean it provides better sun protection than the rest.

Original Article:
By  | June 18, 2014 | 8:00 a.m. EDT

sunscreen Let’s face it, you buy sunscreen because you don’t want to burn and look like a tomato, get skin cancer, or wind up with wrinkled skin – when you’re way too young for those age-defining wrinkles. But when you walk into a pharmacy to buy your Defense Against the Sun in a bottle, the options are, well, overwhelming.

Should I go for the lotion or spray?

Do I need protection against UVA or UVB?

Is there really a difference between SPF 30 and 50?

To provide some guidance, U.S. News in partnership with Pharmacy Times surveyed 294 pharmacists to find out which sunscreen brands they recommend most often. Neutrogena came out as the winner with 52 percent of the vote, followed by Coppertone at 30 percent and Hawaiian Tropic at 10 percent.

Product Name Percent of Pharmacists’ Votes
Neutrogena 52%
Coppertone 30%
Hawaiian Tropic 10%
Panama Jack 3%
Australian Gold 1%
Other 4%

So why is Neutrogena recommended more often? “Neutrogena has always been a skin-friendly and skin-conscious company that has provided a multitude of oil-free products that quite frankly separate Neutrogena from its peers,” says Neelesh Nadkarni, a retail chain pharmacist in Washington, D.C. Those oil-free qualities, he adds, make it less likely a sunscreen will cause undesirable side effects such as acne or rashes.

But just because Neutrogena rates No. 1 in the category, it doesn’t necessarily mean the brand provides better sun protection than other sunscreens on the market, as dermatologists say the majority of sunscreens contain the same ingredients approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

While sunscreen ingredients may be similar, the bottle labels are as diverse as the vitamins the next aisle over. U.S. News asked David Leffell, a professor of dermatology and surgery at the Yale School of Medicine and scientific adviser for Coppertone, and David Fisher, chief of the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Dermatology, what you need to know when shopping for a sunscreen. They also shared their best sun-shielding secrets.

What’s the best SPF value?

SPF, which stands for sun protection factor, only measures your protection from ultraviolet B exposure (more on that below) and has values as low as 2 to more than 100. But if you’re not really sure what the number means, you’re not alone. “People are so confused about this,” Leffell says. “Consumers often think the higher the SPF, the less frequently they have to put it on, but the SPF number is not like the proof in an alcoholic drink. In other words, the higher the SPF, you don’t get a stronger sunscreen.”

Most dermatologists recommend SPF 30 for the average person, since it blocks about 97 percent of UVB rays. So is SPF 100 a superhero sunscreen that will defend you against that other 3 percent? Not exactly. As Leffell explains, “the higher you go on the SPF, the tinier the improvement in the UVB blockage.” For example, SPF 50 blocks about 98 percent of UVB rays. Anything higher provides no significant difference in protection, according to the FDA, which recently proposed to limit the maximum value as SPF 50+.

Fisher stresses that the SPF doesn’t matter as much as how you apply it and how often you reapply it. For instance, say you slather on SPF 30. “If you forget to put it back on again after you’ve been in the pool and much of it has washed off, you may have gone from a 30 to a 2,” Fisher says.

[See: Top Recommended Moisturizers With SPF.]

Does skin color change what SPF you need?

For the most part, the SPF 30 recommendation holds true for all skin types. But people more at risk for skin cancer – those with fair skin; blue, green or gray eyes; blonde or red hair; and a family history of skin cancer – need to be extra vigilant in applying sunscreen, Leffell warns.

And even people with dark skin tones still need to use sunscreen. “The most common thing I see is people with darker skin who get skin cancer and say, ‘Geez, I didn’t think I needed to use sunscreen. I thought I was naturally protected,’” Leffell says. Though people with darker skin do have some natural protection (black skin has an SPF 13), a darker tone doesn’t give you immunity against cancer-inducing rays.

What’s the difference between UVA and UVB?

When selecting a sunscreen, you want the label to say “broad spectrum protection,” which means it blocks UVA and UVB rays. These rays are why 1 in 5 Americans get skin cancer, including melanomaand basal cell carcinoma – the most common type of cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

UVB. Think of B for burning, as these rays trigger what Fisher calls an “alarm signal of redness, pain and swelling” meant to get you out of the sun. Leffell, who discovered the skin cancer gene in 1996, says UVB rays are most associated with causing mutations that lead to skin cancer.

Symptoms: They should be obvious. “You know if you were successful or if you failed [to protect yourself] on the basis of whether you had burning or not,” Fisher says.

UVA. If B stands for burning, then A is for aging. These rays penetrate the skin more deeply and lead to those age spots and wrinkles you don’t want. They also play a role in causing skin cancer.

Symptoms: Unfortunately, there aren’t any. “You simply cannot tell because it’s not painful; it will not burn,” Fisher says. While you’ll know whether you were exposed to UVB at the pool because you’ll feel miserable that night, he adds, “for UVA, you may not know until you get cancer five years or 10 years after.”

[Read: What’s the Best Headache Medicine: Tylenol, Excedrin or Advil?]

Does a more expensive sunscreen mean it’s more effective?

Fisher puts it this way: “An SPF of 30 is an SPF of 30 regardless of the price.” The disparity comes down to cosmetics, meaning ingredients that give products a specific look, feel or that summertime sunscreen smell. So if you’re looking to save money, it’s safe to opt for that cheaper generic drugstore brand. Leffell tells his patients: “I don’t care what you buy, as long as you buy something that works and you use it.”

Is a spray or lotion better?

Not to sound like a broken record, but as long as it’s SPF 30, broad spectrum (and water-resistant is a plus), you’re good to go. When applying – whether spray or lotion – just make sure to massage the product in so it seeps into the top layers of the skin about 15 to 30 minutes before you head outside. And don’t forget the commonly missed parts: your ears, shoulder areas you can’t reach and tops of your feet.

[See: The Best Foods for Your Skin.]

How much do you need to put on?

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends an ounce, or enough to fill a shot glass. However, that changes based on your size. “A woman who’s 112 pounds and 5-foot-2 is going to use a different amount than a guy who’s 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds,” Leffell points out.

Keep in mind, more doesn’t equal more protection. “I’ll have people come up to me and say, ‘You see Dave, I have all this sunscreen on me.’ And they put it on like icing on a cake,” Leffell says. Sunscreen chemically interacts with your skin to block ultraviolet rays, Leffell explains, so slathering on half the bottle or any amount “beyond what is needed to interact with skin cells and protect them from UV damage is excess and won’t do anything.”

However, studies show the majority of people don’t apply enough sunscreen, or they miss prime burn spots such as the tops of the ears and nose. When in doubt, give the bottle another squeeze.

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