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Sunscreen 101: Getting to the bottom of effective skin protection

  • 05.18.2017
Skin Cancer

What used to be a simple matter of grabbing a bottle off the shelf to protect your skin from the sun has become quite complicated. Terms we saw on some bottles recently include: SPF 8 to SPF 100, UVA/UVB protection, broad spectrum, sweat-resistant, water- resistant, Powerstay Technology, Helioplex, Hexiplex, antioxidant enriched, paraben-free, chemical-free, natural sunscreen, organic ingredients, and dermatologist recommended. It’s enough to send you scurrying back inside. In this blog, we break down the key things you need to look for in an effective sunscreen and what you need to do to stay protected. 

What to look for in a sunscreen

While these terms appear on sunscreen bottles, many people have no idea what they mean. Here are explanations of key terms you should understand and look for when selecting a product to protect your skin:Skin Cancer & Sunscreen Basic

  1. Broad Spectrum: If you’re interested in preventing wrinkles, as well as skin cancer, choose a broad spectrum sunscreen. Broad spectrum protects against both UVA (ultraviolet A) and UVB (ultraviolet B) rays. While UVB wavelengths damage the upper surface of the skin and cause sunburn, UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply, and are the chief cause of wrinkles and other signs of aging. Both cause skin cancer.
  2. Sun Protection Factor (SPF): The higher the SPF, the longer you can stay protected in the sun. So, if you would burn after 20 minutes without sun screen, using an SPF 15 enables you to stay in the sun 15 times longer — hypothetically. The challenge is, sunscreens lose effectiveness over time, so it’s vital to reapply every two hours and after swimming or sweating. Cari Herington, Executive Director of the Nevada Cancer Coalition and Sun Smart Nevada, recommends you use a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of  30 or higher for extended stays outdoors. Products with a rating higher than SPF 50 are not proven to increase protection.
  3. Water/sweat-resistant: The terms “water-resistant” and “sweat-resistant” indicate that the sunscreen remains effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes when swimming or sweating. Since no sunscreen is fully “waterproof” or “sweatproof,” the FDA prohibits using those terms.
  4. The Skin Cancer Foundation Seal of Recommendation: This seal indicates that the sunscreen has had its test results reviewed by an independent committee of photobiologists, experts in sun damage and sun protection. Not all brands that have it include this label, so check here for a complete list of Skin Cancer Foundation-approved sunscreens.
  5. a. Physical barrier ingredients: Ingredients such as titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and sulisobenzon stay on top of the skin and deflect UV rays. Sunscreens with these products are good for children and those who have sensitive skin. These products do not absorb into the skin.

    b. Chemical barrier ingredients: Many people do not like the look (sometimes white or filmy) or feel of physical barrier sunscreens. Chemical barrier ingredients work by absorbing UV and reducing its penetration into the skin. If you opt for a chemical barrier, look for one of these ingredients: avobenzone, ecamsule or benzophenone.


Skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis, and it’s the most preventable. Most skin cancer is caused by damage from the sun’s UV rays. When you must be, or choose to be, in the sun with exposed skin, sunscreen is the BEST defense against skin cancer. Get in the habit of wearing a quality sunscreen in every season and be diligent about reapplying when you are outdoors for extended periods of time, sweating or in the water.

If you or a loved one do receive a skin cancer diagnosis, you will find expert care with Dr. Perez and compassionate support from the entire Sierra Nevada Cancer Center team. Call 775.883.3336 for an appointment today, no referral is required.


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