How to Choose the Best Sunscreen: 6 Questions You Should Ask Before You Buy

Amanda Herzberg

Confused about sunscreen or what it means to be UV protected? There's a lot to know, and a lot of choices, so we've broken it down for you into some of the more important decision-making elements when it comes to selecting the best.

SPF shouldn’t be the only deciding factor in your selection process. There are many things you should consider before slathering it on. Use this guide to decipher sunscreen labels and to answer those burning questions. Whether you’re choosing from your personal stash or buying new, we’re here to help.

What is Sun Protection Factor (SPF)?

  • SPF or Sun Protection Factor is the rating that indicates how much solar intensity is needed to produce a sunburn—the higher the SPF (up to SPF 50), the greater the solar intensity your sunscreen will protect against. A higher SPF does NOT extend the amount of time you can stay out in the sun, nor does it indicate how effective a sunscreen might be at protecting you against skin cancer. SPF refers only to the UVB (the rays responsible for sunburns) protection factor, not UVA.

Does it say “Broad-spectrum” (or UVA/UVB) protection?

  • If not, skip it. Don’t waste your time (or money) on sunscreen that doesn’t have broad-spectrum protection.
  • If so, then what the heck does that mean?
    • While SPF only indicates the UVB protection, broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are the pesky rays responsible for tanning and skin aging. Both types of UV radiation have been linked to cancer, however, so if you want to ensure maximum protection, choose a sunscreen that’s clearly marked “broad-spectrum.”

What are the active ingredients?

  • The active ingredients in a sunscreen are those responsible for actually providing sun protection—but some are better than others. If the active ingredients in your sunscreen include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octinoxate, or PABA, you may want to reconsider, as many of these additives penetrate the skin and are suspected hormone disruptors. Some may also contribute to ecological issues. Instead, seek out sunscreens with active ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide--or both! These active ingredients are all natural, and proven safe for your skin and for the environment.

Waterproof, water-repellant, or water-resistant?

  • Sunscreens that claim to be waterproof just simply aren’t. If a sunscreen claims any of the terms above, you’re safe to assume the product is actually water-resistant, which means you’ll want to reapply every 80 minutes (or immediately after toweling off) if you’re swimming or sweating.

Does it need the Skin Cancer Foundation recommended seal?

  • Some sunscreens may be stamped with the Skin Cancer Foundation “recommended” seal. But if they aren’t, don’t think twice about it. The seal ultimately indicates that the sunscreen will protect you against UV radiation—and that the brand donning the seal put forth $10,000 or so to use it on their packaging. Our advice: pay more attention to what’s in the sunscreen than what’s on it.

Does sunscreen expire?

  • Sunscreen should bear an expiration date somewhere on the packaging. If it doesn’t, use your senses to determine if the sunscreen looks, smells, or feels a little strange. Expired sunscreen might not only contain bacteria, it may also have broken down in terms of the effectiveness of the active ingredients. If your sunscreen is, or is suspected to be, expired, it’s best to part with it.

 

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