Your Health

When it comes to the best sunscreen, the choices are endless

courtesy of Dr. Patricia Wong.
From tinted to gels, creams and powders, an array of sunscreens on the market protect users from damaging rays.

Many factors must be considered when choosing a sunscreen.

Are you male or female? Do you spend a significant amount of time outdoors? Do you play sports? What is your skin type? Do you have oily, dry or combination skin? Do you have problems with acne? Do you have rosacea? Do you have sensitive skin? Do you wear makeup? Have you had skin cancer or precancerous skin growths?

Personal preferences also play in to selecting a sunscreen. Do you prefer a tinted sunscreen? A scented product? Squeeze-tube, pump, spray, powder or roll-on applicator?

There are myriad formulations to choose from. Using the excuse that you don’t apply sunscreen because you can’t find one you like is akin to saying that you stopped eating food because you couldn’t find anything good to eat.

Clinical studies have proven beyond a doubt that wearing sunscreen daily decreases the risk of skin cancer and helps combat sun damage.

Following is a brief rundown of the various types of sunscreens on the market.


Gel sunscreens are popular with children and men. If you tend to be hairy, lotion- and cream-based sunscreens are too greasy. If you apply a cream and then go to the beach, the sand will stick to you. If you love to run or bike, your legs will be covered with dirt after your outing. Gel formulations are ideal for bald people, especially those who refuse to wear hats and own convertibles.

If you have sensitive or dry skin, gels can burn and cause irritation. Applying gel sunscreen near the eyes can cause stinging and burning, especially if you sweat or rub your eyes. If you have dry skin, gel sunscreen is not the best choice. If you have oily or acne-prone skin, you may prefer this formulation. If you are using an acne medication that causes your skin to peel, do not apply gel sunscreen.

Creams and lotions

The most common sunscreen formulations are creams and lotions. They are manufactured in an emolliating base and can be used as a moisturizer. This is an added convenience, because you don’t need to apply a separate moisturizing product. Cream and lotion sunscreens appeal to those with dry skin. If you’re prone to breakouts, these formulations might be a little too heavy for you.


Tinted sunscreens are popular among people who don’t want to look pasty. Zinc- and titanium-based sunscreens tend to make skin look lighter, though chemical-based sunscreens are capable of causing a similar effect. Choosing a sunscreen that has micronized zinc or titanium particles can help minimize this. Tinted sunscreens contain iron oxide in varying concentrations, depending on your preferred shade. You may notice that your clothes also become a little tinted with these preparations, but it should wash out.


Spray sunscreens were invented for people in a hurry and for those trying to apply sunscreen to children who refuse to hold still for a cream or lotion application. Exercise caution when using sprays. Inhalation and inadvertent application into the eyes can potentially cause medical problems. It’s also difficult to assess how much sunscreen has been applied when it’s sprayed. If you don’t apply the sunscreen in a concentration of at least 2 mg/cm2, you won’t have adequate photoprotection. There have been reports of people catching on fire when using these formulations near flames or cigarettes. Because they are alcohol based, they are potentially flammable.


Powder sunscreens are popular because they are easy to apply. Unfortunately, the powder is rarely applied in a sufficient quantity to achieve an SPF of 15 or 30, as promised on the container. The powder can rub off on and discolor clothing. If you do apply the powder appropriately, to achieve a concentration of 2 mg/cm2, you’ll look very dusty and probably won’t want to be seen in public. The makers of some powder sunscreens urge consumers to buy a spray to “fix” the powder to the skin. This seems to be just one more reason not to bother with this product.


Purely mineral sunscreens are composed only of zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide. A sunscreen formulated exclusively with titanium oxide doesn’t have broad enough UVA protection. These sunscreens are ideal for people with sensitive skin and children. They are hypoallergenic.


Water-resistant sunscreens are recommended for swimmers, beachgoers and athletes. These sunscreens tend to be more acne inducing because of the polymers used to make the sunscreen water resistant. As with all sunscreens, they must be reapplied every two hours to maintain effective protection.

Additional recommendations

Higher SPF sunscreens will feel heavier than lower SPF sunscreens. They contain higher concentrations of the UVA and UVB ingredients. It’s sometimes more difficult to apply makeup over the higher-SPF sunscreens.

Attractively packaged sunscreens with pleasant fragrances from higher-end cosmetic companies tend to be more expensive. For example, coconut oil and lavender essence may induce you to be more compliant about using sunscreen regularly. There is nothing wrong with that. I prefer to minimize the number of unnecessary ingredients applied to the skin. Fragrances have the potential to cause allergic and irritant dermatitis. I tend to recommend sunscreens without fragrances, but this is a personal preference. If you’re not prone to allergies and don’t have sensitive skin, you will probably be fine using one of the higher-end sunscreens.

It’s always a good idea to supplement your sunscreen with sun-protective clothing, wide-brimmed hats and wide-framed sunglasses. Remember to apply lip balm with sunscreen. Lips do not tan. Skin cancers that develop on lips are very aggressive.

The most effective way to apply sunscreen is with an initial application 30 minutes before going outside, followed by a second application 15 minutes before going outside. While this is not in the instructions accompanying the sunscreens, dermatologic studies show that it’s more effective than reapplying it two hours later as your second application.

Dr. Patricia Wong is a dermatologist in private practice in Palo Alto. For more information, call 473-3173 or visit

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