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Topics > Healthy Outlook > Which sunscreen is best?

Which sunscreen is best?

Published by Contra Costa Times

Posted on Tue., July 29, 2008
By Thomas Paige, MD

Which sunscreen is best? The store displays have so many colorful brands, with strange terms such as SPF, helioplex and mexoryl. How do we find the best sun protection and why is it so important to protect ourselves anyway?

As many people already know, sun exposure causes many types of skin cancer. Sun exposure has been linked to melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, and also to other forms of skin cancer, which can be disfiguring and dangerous.

There are two types of sunrays: UVB and UVA.

  • UVB rays cause sunburns and most forms of skin cancers.

  • UVA rays are believed to cause aging. They are long wavelength rays that travel through glass, go deeper into your skin and possibly intensify cancer. While all suncreens protect from UVB rays, some do not block out UVA rays as well. New sunscreens are now available that efficiently block out both UVA and UVB rays.

So what should you look for in a sunscreen? First, look at the SPF. Dermatologists recommend a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 - more if you burn easily, are going to be sweating, or are getting wet.

Also, look for sunscreens with helioplex or mexoryl, which are compounds that help protect from UVA rays. Sunscreens with zinc and titanium particles, or sunblocks, also protect the skin from both UVB and UVA rays.

If you are outside or sweating, sunscreen should be reapplied every two to three hours. Reapply every time after getting wet. If you are wearing sunscreen for only light or intermittent sun exposure, reapply halfway through the day.

For best results, wait 20 minutes after applying sunscreen before exposing your skin to the sun.

You can also protect yourself from the sun by wearing a hat and special clothing.

New clothing brands offer hats, shirts, shorts and pants designed with an SPF of 30 or more to protect the skin from the sun. The brands Coolibar and Solumbra are available online, and possibly in stores. Other brands are available at sporting goods stores.

And don't forget your eyes when in the sun. Eyes are sensitive to sun damage, though you may not see the damage like in a sunburn. Look for sunglasses that block out 99 percent of UVA and UVB rays and that don't have any imperfections and distortions.

Although many people only think of applying sunscreen when sunbathing, swimming or hiking, for best skin protection we should think about it everyday.

Apply sunscreen daily to protect your skin, just as you brush your teeth daily to protect your teeth and gums. Even in the winter or when it's cloudy, the sun's rays can cause damage, especially in the snow, which reflects the sun's rays, and increases its damage to the skin.

Keep an eye out for skin spots that may be cancer. Things that suggest melanoma include irregular shape, more than one color, and jagged edges.

Melanomas are usually larger than a pencil eraser, and change over time. Skin cancers, including melanomas, may also crust or bleed. If you see any new growths on your skin that fit this description, contact your doctor.

For more information about the sun and how to protect yourself from skin cancer, visit

Paige is a dermatologist for Contra Costa Health Services at the Martinez and Pittsburg health centers.

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