Which sunscreen is right for me? 

The sunscreen market can be confusing and overwhelming. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start, with different formulations, application methods and prices. Luckily, dermatologists Dr Adil Sheraz and Dr Bindi Gaglani have put together this handy guide. 

It's important to note that the effectiveness and suitability of sunscreen can vary depending on individual skin types and needs. It's recommended to choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of 30 or higher, and to reapply it every two hours or as directed on the product label.

What’s the difference between chemical & physical or mineral sunscreens? 

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun's UV rays and converting them into heat. The active ingredients in chemical sunscreens include compounds like avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octisalate. Chemical sunscreens are typically easy to apply and blend into the skin. Traditionally, it has been advised that these should be applied 30 mins or so before going into the sun, although some newer formulations tend to have an immediate effect. 

There have also been some claims with regards to coral reef damage from chemical sunscreen ingredients such as oxybenzone, however this is not entirely clear. The levels found in the ocean would be miniscule, and other factors such as climate change may have more of a role. Some places such as Hawaii have banned sunscreen containing these ingredients, to protect their coral reefs, this decision is however controversial, and more research is needed. 

Physical or Mineral Sunscreens

These sunscreens work by forming a physical barrier on the skin that reflects and scatters UV rays. The active ingredients in physical sunscreens are usually titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide. They are referred to as ‘physical’ or ‘mineral’ sunscreens because they physically block the sun's rays. These types of sunscreens tend to suit those with sensitive skin in conditions such as rosacea. They sometimes leave a white residue on the skin and are often less cosmetically acceptable, particularly in darker skin types. Some newer formulations seem to be more aesthetically pleasing in their appearance.

Combination Sunscreens

These sunscreens combine both chemical and physical sunscreen ingredients to provide broad-spectrum protection. They offer the advantages of chemical sunscreens in terms of texture and ease of application, along with the benefits of physical sunscreens in terms of immediate sun protection.

What are the different types and ways to apply sunscreens?

There are different formulations and modes of sunscreen application to ensure proper coverage and maximum effectiveness. 

Spray sunscreen

Spray sunscreens can either be chemical or physical and come in aerosol cans designed to be sprayed directly onto the skin. While they are convenient and easy to apply (especially in hard-to-reach areas), it's important to ensure even coverage. When using, position the can 4-6 inches away from your skin and spray evenly, making sure to cover all exposed areas. Remember to rub in gently afterward. It may be best to avoid spraying on the face to prevent inhalation or getting into the eyes, particularly when it comes to children. 

Sunscreen lotion

Lotion sunscreens are the most common and traditional form. They come in bottles or tubes and have a creamy consistency. To apply lotion, squeeze an appropriate amount onto your palm and apply it evenly to the exposed areas of your skin. Rub it in gently until it is absorbed.

Sunscreen sticks

Sunscreen sticks are solid formulations that resemble a deodorant stick. They are compact and easy to carry, making them ideal for targeted application, such as around the eyes and lips. To apply a sunscreen stick, glide it directly onto the skin and then use your fingers to blend it in.

Gel sunscreens

Gel sunscreens have a lightweight and non-greasy texture, making them suitable for individuals with oily or acne-prone skin. They are easily absorbed and provide a matte finish. To apply, squeeze an appropriate amount onto your fingers and spread it evenly on the skin. Gently massage it in until absorbed.

Cream sunscreens

More hydrating than lotions, cream sunscreens have a thicker consistency. They are suitable for individuals with dry or sensitive skin. To use, take an appropriate amount and rub between your palms to warm up. Then, apply it to the skin using gentle, upward strokes.

Powder sunscreen

This is another mode of sunscreen application that has gained popularity in recent years. It typically comes in a loose powder form or in a brush applicator format. Here's some important information about powder sunscreen before you buy:

  1. Composition: Powder sunscreen is typically made with mineral ingredients, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which provide physical sun protection by reflecting and scattering UV rays. These mineral ingredients are micronized to create fine particles that can be applied to the skin in powder form.
  2. Application: Powder sunscreen is applied by dusting the powder onto the skin. It usually comes with a built-in brush or puff applicator for easy and even distribution. To use it, you simply brush or pat the powder onto the exposed areas of the skin, ensuring even coverage.
  3. Convenience: Powder sunscreen is often preferred for its convenience, especially for on-the-go touch-ups. It is portable, lightweight, and easy to carry in a purse or pocket. It can be a handy option for reapplying sunscreen throughout the day, particularly for those wearing makeup or for individuals with oily skin who want to avoid a greasy feel.
  4. Mattifying effect: Powder sunscreen can provide a mattifying effect on the skin, helping to control excess oil and shine. It is often favoured by individuals with oily or combination skin types.
  5. Limitations: It's important to note that powder sunscreen may not provide the same level of protection as lotions or creams, especially if not applied generously or if not reapplied frequently enough. It's crucial to follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer to ensure proper coverage and protection.
  6. Suitability: Powder sunscreen is generally suitable for all skin types, including sensitive skin. However, it's recommended to do a patch test on a small area of skin before using it on the entire face or body, particularly if you have any known sensitivities or allergies to the ingredients.

While powder sunscreen can be a convenient option, it is not substitute for regular sunscreen application. It's still important to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an adequate SPF as your primary form of sun protection and to reapply it as needed, especially during prolonged sun exposure or outdoor activities.

Tinted sunscreens

Tinted sunscreens contain pigments that help even out the skin tone while providing sun protection. They are an excellent option for individuals who prefer a light coverage or want to avoid using additional makeup. Tinted sunscreen may contain iron oxides, which also provide some protection to blue light, part of the visible spectrum of light emitted form screens, such as laptops, TV’s, phones etc. This type of blue light may (further studies are needed) result in pigmentary changes in the skin. 

Water-resistant sunscreens

Water-resistant sunscreens are formulated to provide protection even when exposed to water or sweat. Remember, no sunscreen is completely waterproof or sweatproof, so it is essential to reapply after swimming or excessive sweating.

Sunscreens for babies and children

Sunscreens specifically formulated for children and infants are usually gentler on the skin and may have additional features like tear-free formulas or fragrance-free options. It may be better to use mineral sunscreen in children for two reasons. First, they are easier to see therefore you can be certain that you’ve covered the body adequately and secondly there is minimal absorption of the minerals. A study from Germany (2021) found that 21% of parents reported sunburn in their children. We know that sunburn as a child increases the risk of melanoma skin cancer in later years. Therefore, it is vital that we apply regular and adequate amounts of sunscreen on our children.

‘Once a day’ or long wear sunscreens

Whilst some products may claim to be long lasting, it’s important to remember that they can still rub off, especially during swimming, sweating and other sporting activities. Treat them like normal sunscreen and remember to reapply often. 

Edible sunscreens

To date, there has not been enough research into so-called ‘edible’ sunscreens. For now, it’s best to avoid until further studies have been carried out.

Sunscreen applicators 

Applicators can be particularly useful when applying sunscreen to children, or to avoid getting greasy hands at the beach! Always follow the manufacturer's instructions, along with the directions of your chosen sunscreen. 

Regardless of the mode of application or formula, it is essential to ensure that you apply sunscreen generously and evenly to all exposed areas of the skin. Don't forget areas like the ears, back of the neck, and tops of the feet. Reapply sunscreen every two hours or as directed on the product label, especially after swimming, sweating, or towel-drying. The best sunscreen is the one you will use!

Dr Adil Sheraz & Dr Bindi Gaglani

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