What Makes a Great Sunscreen?

What Makes a Great Sunscreen?

Yes, you need sunscreen. Does yours measure up?

With summer in high gear, I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend a bit of time talking about the most important anti-aging skincare product you can own. Sunscreen. 

In fact, if you follow our channel, you might have seen our recent video where we compared the world’s most expensive sunscreen from La Prairie to drug store staple, Ceravé. We looked at just about everything; formula, sun protection, application, feel – we even looked at packaging. 

And yes, I know talking about sunscreen feels a bit like I’m shouting into the sun protection echo chamber – but it really does bear repeating. When dermatologists, plastic surgeons, and doctors from all walks of the profession agree that the best thing you can do for your skin is to apply sunscreen every day, liberally, it’s worth taking note and listening.  

It’s hard to put a new or interesting spin on something that seems so ordinary and a little boring. But that’s the beautiful thing about sunscreen – its simplicity. 

What became clear from our video is that a lot of people are looking for their best sunscreen, and with demand comes competition, marketing, and of course, misinformation. 

So, in the spirit of promoting sun safety and keeping this post original, I’m going to talk about the things your best sunscreen needs to do. As always, I’ll bust some myths and clear up misinformation. 

Does your sunscreen have reliable sun protection? 

First and foremost, your sunscreen needs to have filters that protect against both the UVA (320-400 nm – cancer/tanning) and UVB (290-320nm – burning rays) spectrums. In the USA and Canada, that means SPF, preferably SPF 30+ (UVB), and broad spectrum (UVA) somewhere on the label. Elsewhere in the world, you might see SPF accompanied by PA+ or PPD labels. Basically, they’re a different way of indicating a sunscreen protects against UVA rays, but are reflective of a different labelling, not a better sunscreen. 

How do you know if your sunscreen protects well against UVA rays? There are a number of filters that do a great job protecting across the UVA spectrum - including zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, Avobenzone, and recently ecamsule (Mexoryl SX). But for the most part you really do need a mix of filters to cover the whole spectrum (Here’s a great table from the NCBI website looking at UV filters approved in the US and the wavelengths they protect against). It’s a situation where more can actually be better. 

Invisible but powerful. The range of the UVB spectrum is 290-320nm – these are the rays that cause sunburn, and the range of UVA light is 320-400nm – these are the rays that cause aging and the most DNA damage. Note, the majority of sunscreens – organic and inorganic (chemical and mineral) all peak at 360 nm – which means that they only offer partial protection from the UVA range of 360-400nm. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, but it highlights why doctors always advise that sunscreen isn’t 100% protection, and why hats, shade, and protective clothing are all so essential! 

I’ve heard those pesky chemical filters are dangerous and I should stay away…

There’s a lot of chit chat online about the dangers of chemical filters in sunscreen, and it’s a real shame because it’s made a lot of people afraid to use them. It’s an undeserved reputation and one most doctors don’t support, because any belief that sunscreen is bad will hurt your skin. 

Why? Because in the USA sunscreen is classified as a drug, meaning the FDA approves whether it can be sold to consumers. Some of our sunscreen savvy viewers pointed out that newer, and in some cases more advanced filters are available in other countries, such as Canada. The reason these newer sunscreen ingredients aren’t available for sale in the USA is because it’s very hard to get a new drug approved by the FDA. 

And that’s kind of my point. The filters we have are quite safe and heavily tested. 

For a doctor or a cosmetic chemist, it’s easy to spot the misinformation – they don’t use the right terms, don’t understand (or cite) real research, and when you get past the shock factor (ie: Sunscreen causes cancer!) the logic just doesn’t pass the common-sense test. 

First off, ‘chemical’ and ‘mineral’ aren’t accurate terms. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are chemicals. Ironically, the proponents who tout titanium and zinc oxide as being ‘natural’ alternatives to ‘chemical’ sunscreens are… well, wrong. Processing mineral (non-organic) sunscreen ingredients is an intense chemical process. In fact, ‘chemical’ or ‘organic’ sunscreens are mostly plant derived. I’ve always found it odd that health and wellness movements that embrace plant derived essential oils change their tune when it comes to sunscreen. It goes to show that our societal obsessions over ‘natural’ are based more on feelings than any real science. 

Certainly, you can be sensitive to certain sun filters – for some people, avobenzone can be sensitizing to the eyes, but zinc oxide can also be drying. What it really comes down to is personal preference and what work best for your skin. As long as you have FDA approved broad spectrum filters that cover the UVA and UVB spectrum, it really comes down to personal preference. 

Any belief that sunscreen ingredients are bad will hurt your skin. What about antioxidants?

Some ingredients, such as antioxidants, can help boost the UV stability of sunscreens, mostly by counteracting free radicals. These include vitamin E, vitamin C, and pycnogenol, to name a few. These can be beneficial in a sunscreen, but they aren’t essential – the UV protection the sunscreen offers is the most important part. 

The same can be said for skincare ingredients. We’re seeing a lot of sunscreens being formulated with beneficial ingredients beyond antioxidants, such as ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and niacinamide. They can all help to calm and moisturize the skin, but they aren’t necessary or essential for a good sunscreen. Sometimes simple formulas, with short ingredient lists, are better for sensitive allergy prone/reactive skin.

What you should really be worried about when it comes to sunscreen?

UV rays from the sun is the number one cause of premature aging and skin cancers. By protecting your skin from the sun, you will do wonders for the health of your skin. 

It’s too bad that, as a whole, we aren’t applying it properly, or every day, in part because people aren’t picking the right sunscreens for their skin.  Someone who might really benefit from a chemical/organic sunscreen avoids them and vice versa. 

What is the right sunscreen? The one that you can apply every day, multiple times a day, and enjoy applying. How much sunscreen? For the face, 1/3-1/4 teaspoon, reapplied through the day, every day. 

And that’s a bigger hurdle than you might think. A sunscreen you like may not be applicable in the right amount, which means you aren’t getting the sun protection your skin needs. And reapplication really is essential. Sunscreens disperse throughout the day and UV rays deactivate them. Application once a day isn’t going to cut it – especially if you’re spending a lot of time outdoors. 

The best sunscreen in the world is one with adequate protection you love to apply. 

Science isn’t black and white, and neither is your sunscreen. Each ingredient has benefits and potential drawbacks – it’s not so much a question of which is the best, but which one is best for you, and which formulas work well for your skin and lifestyle. 

If that’s an inorganic/mineral sunscreen, that’s great – but for others, the answer might be an organic/chemical sunscreen, and that’s fantastic too. 

Regardless of what sunscreen you use, practice sun safety. Wear a hat, cover up, and avoid direct sun exposure between 10am and 4 pm!

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Your Personal Best Sunscreen Checklist: 

1. Does it provide reliable sun protection?
    • Does the sunscreen have adequate protection across the UVA/UVB spectrum?
       2. Supporting Ingredients
    • Are there ingredients that help stabilize the sunscreen filters or provide extra UV support (ie: antioxidants)? 
    • Are there other ingredients included that are beneficial to the skin?
       3. Be Cautious with Fragrance
    • Some fragrance compounds can be photosensitizing, and they aren’t always listed on the label.
       4. How does the product feel?
    • Do you enjoy applying it? 
    • Can you apply the recommended 1/3-1/4 tsp to your face comfortably?
    • Will you realistically apply enough of this product every day, multiple times a day?
       5. Cost/value for the price?
    • Are you getting value for price?
    • How much does each application cost and is it in your budget?
       6. Environmental Considerations
    • Are you travelling to a place where some sunscreen ingredients are restricted to protect reefs? (Inorganic and organic sunscreens can fall into the category).

Written by
Kristi Charish
Edited by
Dr. Gary Linkov
The content of this newsletter is for entertainment and educational purposes only. This content is not meant to provide any medical advice or treat any medical conditions. Patients must be evaluated by an appropriate healthcare provider on an individual basis and treatment must be tailored to meet that patient’s needs. Results and particular outcomes are not guaranteed.


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