Raise Your Sunscreen I.Q



It’s clear that excessive exposure to the sun increases the risk of skin cancer and premature aging of the skin, yet general knowledge about sunscreens — how they work, how much to use, and what brands are safe — seems to be a bit hazy. 

Here are a few guidelines to increase your sunscreen know-how and help you make better decisions about protecting your skin.

Getting started

For starters, peak exposure happens between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., so apply sunscreen 15 minutes before venturing outside. Even on cloudy days, lather up to shield yourself from light reflected off water, snow, sand, or concrete. 

Always check your product’s expiration date and look for the “broad-spectrum” label, which guarantees protection against both UVA and UVB rays. For the beach or pool, use a “water-resistant” product, which lasts about 40 minutes, while “very water resistant” lasts for 80 minutes.


SPF stands for sun protection factor and experts suggest an SPF between 30-50. Anything higher isn’t necessary. 

Carmen Traywick, MD, founding partner of May River Dermatology, says the most common mistake people make is failing to reapply sunscreen every 2-3 hours, regardless of what SPF is used.  

Typical dosage is using at least 1 ounce (as much as a full shot glass) for your body and a nickel-sized amount for your face. 

Another mistake, cautions Traywick, is failing to rub in sunscreen that is applied by spraying. 

“I see so many people on a windy beach spraying sunscreen and only getting about 10% on their skin,” she says, adding that a recent review of sunscreens found many sprays contain benzene, a known carcinogen. “Generally, I would avoid spray sunscreens unless a specific one is recommended by your dermatologist.”

Consider choosing creams for dry skin, while lotions work well on large areas. Use gels for hairy areas like the scalp or chest and sticks for around the eyes. 

Lips need protection, too. Tuck a lip balm with SPF 30 or higher into your pocket or purse so it’s always accessible.


The most important tip, according to health experts like Dr. Axe and the Mayo Clinic, as well as environmental watchdogs like marketwatch.com, is to read labels carefully. 

Avoid sunscreens containing a long list of chemicals. Although these products tend to be easier to apply, the ingredients can be harmful to you and the environment. 

Environmental Working Group says of the 1,800 products they tested, 40% contained oxybenzone, a suspected hormone-disrupter. Even after one application, the chemical can be detected in the bloodstream. 

“Look for natural mineral-based sunscreens,” advises Traywick. “Check the back of your sunscreen bottle for the list of active ingredients. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the purest sunscreen ingredients.” 

To avoid the pasty, white look after application, she suggests using a tinted product.  

“Zinc is the same mineral used in cream for diaper rash and titanium is found in any white cake icing you’ve ever eaten,” Traywick said. “Both are safe for any age and they rarely cause skin irritation or burning in the eyes.”

Although many adults like to splurge on more luxurious facial sunscreens, less expensive mineral-based products are just as effective. 

Unfortunately, widespread use of chemical sunscreens is destroying our reefs and damaging marine life. To reverse this trend, Hawaii recently banned the sale of sunscreens containing two of the most harmful chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate. 

But don’t be fooled into buying products labeled “reef safe,” as the term isn’t regulated. It’s up to consumers to check the ingredients label to make sure products are as safe as advertised. 


For more guidance about choosing sunscreens, browse through recommendations at DrAxe.com and Marketwatch.com. For more information about the top sunscreen ingredients to avoid, search Whatgreatgrandmaate.com