What to Look for in Sunscreen and the Best Way to Use It

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., and melanoma is the most deadly type of skin cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Melanoma rates have doubled between 1982 and 2011, and more than 90 percent of melanoma skin cancers in the U.S. are from ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure. The primary sources of UV ray exposure – sunlight and tanning beds.

While there are a variety of precautions you can take to limit your risk of skin cancer, two important ones include avoiding tanning beds and wearing sunscreen on a regular basis. Research has found that daily usage of sunscreen can cut the incidence of melanoma in half. That’s a powerful reason to wear sunscreen.

If you’ve spent time shopping for it, you’ve probably been left with more questions than answers. Does a higher SPF offer better protection? Which is better, lotion or spray? If you’re not getting in the water but sweat a lot, should you use a water resistant product?

Though every sunscreen question doesn’t have an exact answer, there are general guidelines you can follow to make sure you’re buying quality sunscreen and using it the right way.

Sunscreen Must-Haves

There’s no one perfect sunscreen, but you should read the label on what you’re buying to make sure it has these three things:

  1. Broad spectrum (it’s designed to protect against UVA and UVB rays): All sunscreens have UVB protection, but they may not have adequate UVA protection despite being labeled broad spectrum. You can make sure it has UVA protection by checking for ingredients like oxybenzone, avobenzone, Helioplex, titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide.
  2. Water resistant: Wearing water resistant sunscreen is a good idea even if you aren’t getting wet – everyone perspires (and you never know when you might get hot and want to get wet). Any sunscreen labeled water resistant is required to list whether it remains effective for 40 or 80 minutes when exposed to water and directions on when to reapply. Select the level of water resistance based on your activities.
  3. Sun protection factor (SPF): Skin experts at the American Academy of Dermatology recommend using an SPF of 30 or higher. An SPF higher than 30 may protect a little more, but once you reach an SPF of 50 the additional protection is minimal. The reason is SPFs above 50 only have a small increase in UVB protection, and SPFs mostly measure UVB protection.

Deciding Between Lotion, Spray, or. . .

Despite the various application methods for sunscreen, what you should use comes down to what you prefer, for the simple reason you’re more likely to use it. A couple of things worth pointing out:


  • Offer strong coverage
  • Have moisturizing effect
  • Last longer


  • Easy to use (especially if you have a lot of hair on your body)
  • No greasy feeling
  • Quick drying time
  • Difficult to apply evenly
  • Risk of inhalation


  • Good around eyes
  • Goes on smooth
  • Doesn’t run

Again, there aren’t any major benefits associated with one versus another as long as you wear the amount recommended on the product. You might consider where on your body you’re putting it and the type of activities you’ll be doing when you choose one.

The Best Way to Apply It

Timing, quantity, and frequency are the big things to focus on with sunscreen. You should always follow the directions on the product, but below are good strategies you can use regardless of your sunscreen type:

  • Time: Put it on 15-30 minutes before you go outside so it can absorb into your skin.
  • Quantity: Cover all exposed skin using at least one ounce of sunscreen. That’s about the equivalent of filling your palm, or two tablespoons. (If you wear make-up, put sunscreen underneath it. Even if it contains sunscreen, almost no one wears enough of it to protect at the SPF level on the label.)
  • Frequency: Reapply it after being in the sun for 30 minutes and then again every two hours. If you’re swimming or sweating a lot, reapply it more frequently.

Remember, if it’s cloudy, overcast, or even winter, you still need to wear sunscreen – UV rays can pass through clouds and reflect off of snow.

(Note: This article focused on the use of sunscreen to prevent skin cancer. In addition to the use of sunscreen, it’s also important to never use tanning beds; limit your time in the sun, especially during peak hours [10 a.m. and 2 p.m.]; wear protective clothing outdoors; and seek shade whenever you can.)

Meet the Author

Anna Magembe Juern, MD is a Dermatologist at Aurora Health Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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