The Ins and Outs of Sunscreen

Sun worshippers who once baked in the sun with tanning oil are often the ones we hear from now, preaching the importance of sunscreen. We can hear stories of premature aging, visible sunspots, and skin cancer.




In the United States, it is estimated that 5.4 million people are diagnosed with basal and squamous cell skin cancers. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) states that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S, with 1 in 5 Americans developing skin cancer during their lifetime. Fortunately, the two most common forms of skin cancer, basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, are highly preventable and treatable.


Our relationship with the sun is complex. We need the sun to live, but it can also kill us if not careful. The sun regulates our circadian rhythm, which helps us sleep and function. It gives us healthy doses of Vitamin D, improves mood, and allows food to grow. The saying “too much of a good thing” applies to the sun. Too much of the sun’s harmful rays and you can suffer from skin damage, sunstroke, and cancer.  


Hot summer days or vacations in the tropics often lead to hours spent outside under the fiery sun. Ideally, you should take plenty of breaks in the shade, cover up when you can and use plenty of sunscreen. Sunscreen plays a vital role in keeping you safe. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, when you use sunscreen as directed, it will decrease your risk of skin precancers and skin cancers. For example, research has found that by regularly using an SPF 15, you can reduce your risk of developing melanoma by 50% and squamous cell carcinoma by 40%.   It can also help prevent premature skin aging, including age spots, wrinkles, and sagging.


spf 15 sunscreen


Sunscreen is great – so long as it is applied correctly. One study observed over two thousand sunscreen users and found that only 33% applied it correctly. Most people aren’t applying enough or applying it as frequently as they should. Another study found that only 1 in 10 Americans used sunscreen daily, leaving 90% at greater risk of skin damage.

sunscreen uv penetration infographic


Part of people’s hesitancy to use sunscreen may be from claims stating sunscreen is unsafe. According to EWG, there are some troublesome ingredients in many sunscreens. For example, oxybenzone, avobenzone, and homosalate are three ingredients found in some sunscreens, and there are concerns that these ingredients could disrupt hormone levels. In Europe, sunscreen manufacturers may use up to 2.2% of the chemicals, whereas companies in the U.S can use up to 15%. A report recently released found a carcinogen called benzene was in 78 sun-care products in the U.S. Though this ingredient wasn’t added, it was a contaminant included during the manufacturing process. As a result, many popular sunscreens were voluntarily recalled by big brands like Aveeno and Neutrogena.


We’ve all seen media headlines stating that sunscreens are damaging to the coral reef and can do more harm than good. This leaves consumers in a confusing place. Do they risk hormone issues and potential exposure to carcinogens by wearing sunscreen, or do they risk skin cancer and premature aging? 


sunscreen in the news and media


There is an excellent need for tighter control, studies on sunscreen and any additional risks it places. Right now, individuals must do their own research to find safer sunscreens to prevent skin cancer. There are no human studies that demonstrate any associated health risks of using sunscreen, but there are studies that show it reduces skin cancer when worn. In fact, a 2020 review published in the International Journal of Dermatology found there was no conclusive evidence that oxybenzone or octinoxate caused health problems.


Understandably, people are wary of companies' claims that a product's ingredients are safe yet still want to take measures to protect themselves. Dr. Jennifer Beecker, who specializes in emergency medicine, family medicine, and dermatology, told TIME magazine, “UV radiation is a well-established carcinogen… Every day I have to tell patients very bad news because they have skin cancer. We have tons of data that sunscreen prevents [skin cancers] that kill people. I still think the benefits way outweigh the risks”. 


pantient getting skin cancer tested

So, if you want to prevent skin cancer, sunscreen is going to help you do that. It is recommended that everyone over the age of 6 months wear sunscreen. In addition to chemical sunscreen ingredients like avobenzone and octisalate that absorb UV rays, there are physical (mineral) ingredients. Mineral ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide block and scatter UV rays before they can penetrate your skin.


Several sunscreen brands market themselves as being all-natural or organic. Be wary of these. Often, they aren’t as natural as they make it seem and may not be able to back up the claims they make. In addition, skincare experts have expressed concern regarding regulations and control over sunscreen claims, testing, and ingredients. Typically, these products just contain the mineral block ingredients. 


When purchasing sunscreen, you will see different numbers ranging from 5 to 50. This is the SPF number which stands for Sun Protection Factor. This number tells you how long it would take for the UVB rays to redden your skin when compared to exposed skin without sunscreen. For example, if you use an SPF 50 sunscreen, it would take 50 times longer for you to burn than if you didn’t wear sunscreen. 


spf 50 sunscreen lotion water resistant


The SPF you need depends on the levels of sun exposure and skin sensitivity. Although a multivitamin is fine, some natural supplements and medications can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Known as photosensitivity, certain disorders can also make your skin more sensitive to the sun, which means you should raise your protection requirements.


Anything less than SPF 15 isn’t very helpful. As a daily sunscreen, you should have at least SPF 15, and for hitting the beach or spending time outdoors, you should use SPF 30 or higher. Additionally, look for sunscreens that provide broad-spectrum protection. Broad-spectrum protection means the sunscreen will protect you against both UVB and UVA rays. Years ago, it was believed that only UVB rays that cause burning were dangerous, but it is now known that UVA rays are just as dangerous. 


Water-resistant sunscreen is essential when you are swimming or sweating. Although no sunscreen is 100% water-resistant, those with the label will last longer than those that are not. For example, you will have 80 minutes of protection with a water-resistant sunscreen, whereas if you didn’t use a water-resistant sunscreen, you would only have 40 minutes of protection. Sunscreen now comes in a variety of forms, including aerosol sprays, creams, foams, and gels. All versions will help; use the form that is easiest for you to apply.


kids and mom wearing water resistant sunscreen in pool


One of the most significant mistakes users make is not reapplying. They may apply it once in the morning or as soon as they sit in their beach chair and then don’t reapply for the whole day. This is not sufficient. You must apply sunscreen 30 minutes before heading out so the sunscreen can effectively bind to your skin. Following this, you should reapply every two hours or more if you are getting wet.


Ideally, you should apply sunscreen to your entire body before getting dressed in the morning. 

This will give you the best coverage and allow you to liberally lather it on and dry. Further, this will ensure you are still protected if your clothes shift and your body becomes exposed.


Your hair is like an extension of your skin and can also suffer from sun damage. If you have short or thin hair, you are at greater risk for sunburn on your scalp. Though a hat will help, there is also scalp sunscreen available. This often isn’t necessary for someone with a full head of hair, but skin experts agree that you need to be careful. Although the hair offers some protection, your scalp is also at risk for skin cancer development. Don’t worry – you don’t need to pour the bright white sunscreen into your hair. There are plenty of mist and powder formulas that are much easier to use and won’t make your hair look dirty.   


sunscreen spray & mist

To help you remember proper sunscreen application, the Skin Cancer Foundation has created the 5 W’s (& H):


  • Who: Everyone under the sun
  • What: Broad spectrum SPF 15 or higher, SPF 30 or higher when outdoors
  • When: Every day; 30 minutes prior to going outdoors. Reapply every two hours
  • Where: All exposed skin
  • How: An ounce to cover your entire body for each application
  • Why: Reduce the risk of skin damage and skin cancer


You should also use UV-block sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and sun-safe clothing for complete sun protection. Sunburns are nasty! They are painful, ugly and make sleeping on your millet pillow difficult. The best way to handle a sunburn is to prevent one. Sunburns increase your risk of skin cancer and skin damage, but you can reduce your risk by correctly applying sunscreen.

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