The right reasons to choose a sunscreen—and the right way to use it

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me at @drClaire

When you buy a sunscreen, what makes you buy one brand over another?

For many people, the reasons they choose aren’t the ones most likely to keep them safe from the sun.

In a study recently published in the journal JAMA Dermatology, researchers looked at the top 1% of sunscreens being sold on as of December 2015 (65 out of 6,500). By “top,” I mean the ones that had the highest number of reviews and got at least 4 out of 5 stars. When they looked at the brands, they found that a full 40% of those top 65 didn’t meet the sunscreen guidelines of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

The AAD recommends that sunscreens:

  • Be broad spectrum (meaning they protect you from both UVA and UVB rays).
  • Have an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30, which blocks about 97% of the sun’s rays (note: there is no evidence that anything above an SPF 50 protects better than SPF 50).
  • Be water resistant, so that they are more likely to stay on if you get sweaty or go in the water.

The whole point of sunscreen is to, well, screen you from the sun — and prevent not just sunburn and premature signs of aging, but also skin cancer. If you get five sunburns in your lifetime, you will double your risk of getting melanoma. This can be particularly important in children, as sunburns early in life can increase the risk of skin cancer as an adult. So when choosing a sunscreen, it’s important to choose one that will best screen you — and your child — from the sun.

But in the study, that wasn’t the top reason people chose sunscreen. When the researchers analyzed the comments, they found that what was most important to buyers was what the researchers called “cosmetic elegance,” that is, how well the sunscreen rubbed in to the skin, and how it felt on the skin. That was rated more important than how the sunscreen actually worked.

Now, looking all white and streaky, or feeling sticky, are clearly not that desirable — and the researchers did comment that sunscreen manufacturers should try to increase the “cosmetic elegance” of their products so that people were more likely to use them. But given that it is estimated that there will be 76,280 new cases of melanoma diagnosed in 2016, and that 10,130 people will die of the disease, it’s important to keep perspective on what is truly desirable.

It’s important not just to choose the right sunscreen, but also to use it the right way. Here are some tips from the AAD:

  • Apply sunscreen before you go outside. It can take about 15 minutes for it to be absorbed into the skin — if you wait until you get outside, you will be unprotected for that time.
  • Use enough. You need about an ounce of sunscreen (roughly the amount in a shot glass) to cover your skin.
  • Cover all the bare skin. This is where a lot of people mess up. Remember your back, the back of your arms, legs, ears and neck, the tops of your feet. For hard to reach places, you may need help or a spray (never spray near the eyes or mouth — inhaling it is not a good idea). Here’s a tip for parents of small children: put the sunscreen on when they are naked, before you put on their suit. For people with thinning hair (or babies who don’t have much hair yet), use a broad-brimmed hat.
  • Reapply at least every 2 hours, sooner after swimming or sweating a lot.

So choose carefully — and use carefully. It can literally save lives.


  1. Dynamin

    According to studies FDA has approved 17 active sunscreen ingredients which should be present.

    It should include following:

    Aminobenzoic acid
    Ecamsule (Mexoryl SX)
    Ensulizole (Phenylbenzimidazole Sulfonic Acid)
    Meradimate (Menthyl Anthranilate)
    Octinoxate (Octyl Methoxycinnamate)
    Octisalate (Octyl Salicylate)
    Padimate O
    Titanium dioxide
    Trolamine salicylate
    Zinc oxide

  2. Majda Ficko

    Apply sunscreen before you go outside. It can take about 15 minutes for it to be absorbed into the skin — if you wait until you get outside, you will be unprotected for that time….not true….
    You wouldn’t have to do this if you purchase and use a natural sunscreen that contains Zinc Oxide…it’s the nasty chemical sunscreens (eek) that that have to absorb into your skin before they start working.
    Zinc Oxide sunscreen works immediately!

  3. Brenda Beazley

    I can’t believe this article doesn’t mention that most products that claim to be sun screens don’t even include the vital ingredients that actually provide that protection–namely zinc and/or titanium.

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