What do I need to know about sunscreen ingredients?
Sunscreens contain filters that reflect or absorb UV rays. There are two main types of sunscreens:
- Organic. Organic sunscreens absorb UV radiation and convert it to a small amount of heat. Organic sunscreens might contain PABA derivatives, cinnamates, salicylates and benzophenones.
- Inorganic. Inorganic sunscreens reflect and scatter UV radiation. They might contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Inorganic sunscreens are typically less irritating to skin.
Often sunscreens include a combination of organic and inorganic filters.
Sunscreens might also contain:
- Insect repellent. It's typically recommended that insect repellent be applied no more often than every six hours. When using this type of combination product, reapply a sunscreen without insect repellent after two hours outdoors or after swimming or heavily sweating.
Retinyl palmitate. The antioxidant retinyl palmitate is a form of vitamin A or retinol. Antioxidants are substances that neutralize free radicals — unstable oxygen molecules that break down skin cells and cause wrinkles. While concerns have been raised about sunscreens containing retinyl palmitate, research suggests it's safe.
However, recommendations regarding safety for use during pregnancy aren't available. If you're concerned, consider avoiding sunscreens containing this ingredient during pregnancy.
Are some brands of sunscreen better than others?
Brand matters less than how you use the product. Look for water-resistant, broad-spectrum coverage with an SPF of at least 15. Check the sunscreen's expiration date. Also, find a sunscreen you like. If you don't care for the sunscreen, you're not as likely to use it consistently.
Should I use a spray sunscreen or a lotion?
Consider the pros and cons for different applications, including:
- Creams. If you have dry skin, you might prefer a cream — especially for your face.
- Lotions. Lotions are often preferred for application on large areas. Lotions tend to be thinner and less greasy than creams.
- Gel. Gels work best in hairy areas, such as the scalp and a man's chest.
- Stick. Sticks are useful when applying sunscreen around the eyes.
- Spray. Parents often prefer sprays because they're easy to apply on children. Because it's difficult to know how well you're applying spray, apply a generous and even coating. Or consider using a gel or cream first and using a spray to reapply sunscreen later. Also, avoid inhaling the product. Don't apply spray near heat, an open flame or while smoking.
Do I need to apply sunscreen if I wear cosmetics that contain sunscreen?
It depends on how much time you'll be spending in the sun. If you won't be spending too much time outdoors, wearing cosmetics that contain sunscreen, such as moisturizer and after-shave, is sufficient. However, if you will be spending a lot of time outdoors, use a stronger form of sunscreen.
What else do I need to know about sunscreen?
When you use sunscreen:
- Apply generous amounts of sunscreen to dry skin 15 minutes before you go outdoors.
- Use sunscreen on all skin surfaces that will be exposed to the sun, such as your face, ears, hands, arms and lips. If you don't have much hair on your head, apply sunscreen to the top of your head or wear a hat.
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours — and immediately after swimming or heavy sweating even if you're using a product that's water resistant.
- Remember that sand, water and snow reflect sunlight and make it more important to use sunscreen.
- Since UV light can pass through clouds, use sunscreen even when it's cloudy.
You can apply sunscreen to children as young as age 6 months. Keep younger children in the shade as much as possible.
Use sunscreen year-round, but don't let any product lull you into a false sense of security about sun exposure. A combination of shade, clothing, sunscreen and common sense is your best bet.
May 18, 2016
See more In-depth
- Sunscreens explained. The Skin Cancer Foundation. http://www.skincancer.org/prevention/sun-protection/sunscreen/sunscreens-explained. Accessed April 8, 2016.
- Wang SQ, et al. Safety of retinyl palmitate in sunscreens: A critical analysis. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2010;63:903.
- Sunscreen FAQs. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/media/stats/prevention-and-care/sunscreen-faqs. Accessed April 8, 2016.
- Baron ED. Selection of sunscreen and sun-protective measures. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed April 8, 2016.
- Burnett ME, et al. Current sunscreen controversies: A critical review. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine. 2011;27:58.
- Sun safety: Save your skin! U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm049090.htm. Accessed April 8, 2016.
- Schalka S, et al. Brazilian consensus on photoprotection. Anais Brasileiros De Dermatologia. 2014;89:1.
- Sciallis GF (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. April 13, 2016.
- Gibson LE (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. April 26, 2016.