The Sunscreen Story


One of the most frequent questions I get asked is what sunscreen is the best? We’re fortunate to be living in an age where we have access to many fantastic products and many skin care companies are devoting more resources toward developing sunscreens that feel great on the skin and are designed for daily application.

Before we look into specific sunscreens, let’s take a moment to discuss why daily sunscreen use is important. Studies have shown that regular use of sunscreens with SPF of 15 or higher and broad spectrum coverage reduces the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by 40% and the risk of developing malignant melanoma (the most dangerous type of skin cancer) by 50%. If that wasn’t enough of a motivator, regular sunscreen use has been shown to reduce premature skin aging by 24%. Unprotected UV exposure from the sun has been proven to cause mutations in the DNA of skin cells that lead to the development of skin cancer and causes aging of the skin. Daily application of sunscreen can protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays.

But what about vitamin D? Don’t we need sun exposure to help prevent Vitamin D insufficiency? In short, yes, UVB from the sun does trigger the skin’s production of vitamin D, however, no clinical studies have shown that daily sunscreen use to vitamin D insufficiency and in fact the opposite, vitamin D levels are maintained while using sunscreen regularly. This is probably explained by the fact that even when applied perfectly, most sunscreens filter between 93-98% of UVB rays. Rather than relying on sun exposure for vitamin D, I recommend a healthy diet of vitamin rich foods like salmon, tuna, cheese, and fortified milk and orange juice to help maintain vitamin D levels, along with supplements if needed.

So which sunscreen is best? Generally, I recommend a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or better. A broad spectrum sunscreen blocks out both UVA and UVB. I’ve already mentioned that UVB exposure induces changes in the skin that leads to skin cancer, but UVA is the main culprit behind skin aging. Additionally, UVA can penetrate the glass windows of the car or your office, so even when you’re not directly sitting out in the sun you are getting exposed to harmful UV radiation. The sun protection factor or SPF labeled on the sunscreen corresponds to the length of time it takes for the skin to redden as seen in a sunburn. For instance, it will take the skin 15 times longer to redden when a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 is applied than it would for unprotected skin. Higher SPF sunscreens do provide additional protection when compared to the lower SPF’s but beyond SPF 50 the degree of improvement is minor and so it isn’t necessary to chase the highest SPF available.

My personal favorite sunscreens are zinc oxide based as these “physical” sunscreens block out UVA and UVB and are less likely to irritate the skin than “chemical” sunscreens. Specifically, I love EltaMD’s UV Daily sunscreen as it provides excellent broad spectrum coverage while hydrating the skin with hyaluronic acid. For re-application, my favorite is Colorscience’s Sunforgettables sunscreen brush. This mineral sunscreen brushes on like a powder and is completely translucent so it can brush on easily without ruining a woman’s makeup! Both of these products are available in our office at Chicago Dermatology and Cosmetic Center.

View the products recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation