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Dermatology

What you need to know about sunscreen

While there are numerous sunscreen products on the market, not all are created equal. It can be difficult for consumers to know if they are using the best product for their needs.

What to look for in a sunscreen

  • Make sure the sunscreen is "broad spectrum" for protection against UVA and UVB rays

  • Ensure it is water-resistant

  • Look for an SPF of 30 or higher. There's little evidence to suggest an SPF of 50 or greater offers better protection.

  • Lotions or creams provide more consistent protection, since they can be challenging to get consistent coverage with a spray.

  • More expensive products do not necessarily mean they are better products.

When and how to apply sunscreen and stay smart in the sun

  • Apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going into the sun.

  • Reapply sunscreen after 30 minutes of your first exposure to the sun, and then again every two hours as long as you're outside.

  • Apply a sufficient quantity of sunscreen. An average-sized person should apply an amount equivalent to one ounce (approximately a shot glass size).

The Sun Protection Factor, or SPF, essentially suggests how long individuals can stay outside with sunscreen. People mistakenly believe they can stay outside longer because of the sunscreen. But that isn't true. The strength of UV light varies throughout the day, so it's important to be smart in the sun.

Expiration dates on sunscreen

Putting an expiration date on sunscreens is not the idea or initiative of the manufacturer; it is a requirement imposed on the manufacturer by the FDA to protect consumers. It can also be the manufacturer's tested duration for guaranteed protection.

Sunscreen does not stop working the day after the expiration date. Sunscreen is usually effective for at least three years, which is usually longer than the expiration date marked.

What to look for when you have allergies or sensitive skin

Skin allergies can be a common problem. For individuals with sensitive skin, try physical sunscreens.

Physical sunscreen protects your skin by deflecting or blocking the sun's rays, while chemical sunscreens absorb the sun's rays. Look for sunscreens with main ingredients of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. 

Spray sunscreens may also cause allergic reactions in individuals, so again, lotions or creams may be better.

How to stay safe outdoors with both sunscreen and insect repellent

Some popular new products on the market combine sunscreen with insect repellent, a seemingly convenient and cost-effective method of protecting yourself against the effects of sun exposure and mosquito bites.

Two-in-one products are potentially dangerous because application limits for insect repellent are different than for sunscreen. If you re-apply sunscreen at the recommended intervals, you would actually be over-applying the insect repellent. The Centers for Disease Control recommends applying sunscreen first, followed by a separate product for insect repellent.

What to do when you get sunburned

Despite your best efforts, you may still get sunburned. How you treat it will depend on the degree of the burn.

For mild sunburn, a cool compress or ice within 48 to 72 hours can help alleviate the discomfort. Hydrocortisone or aloe vera gel can also help soothe the skin.

If blisters develop, you can use over the counter treatments, or in some cases dermatologists can help reduce inflammation with prescription drugs.

If pain is severe or you have any concerns, see your dermatologist.

While one or even two sunburns aren't likely to cause significant damage, sun protection is critical for preventing any further damage.