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May 22nd, 2009
12:02 PM ET

Picking the right sunscreen

By John Bonifield
CNN Medical Producer

It’s Memorial Day Weekend—the unofficial start of summer! I’m hitting the beach and taking plenty of sunscreen with me.

Many of you will be spending hours in the sun in the months ahead. Sadly this year, more than a million of you will also learn that you have skin cancer.

We all know sun blocks can work to prevent burns and disease, but how do you pick the right one?

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen. When we talk about sun damage, we’re actually talking about damage to the skin that’s caused by ultraviolet light: UVB and UVA rays.

UVB rays lead to sunburns. When you buy sun block that provides SPF protection, you’re protecting yourself against UVB rays. SPF indicates the level of protection.

UVA rays penetrate deep into the middle layer of your skin. They can lead to wrinkles and age spots. They can also diminish your body’s ability to protect against cancer by weakening the immune system.

Both UVB and UVA rays can cause skin cancer, but not all sun blocks protect against UVA rays. For broad-spectrum protection, you want to buy one that does.

Now, a lot of people wonder about strength: SPF 85 sounds like a lot more protection than SPF 30 or SPF 15, but the difference between them actually starts to get pretty small.

For example, an SPF 15 sun block lets in about 6 percent of the sun’s UVB rays. An SPF 30 lets in only about 3 percentof those rays. An SPF 85 lets in a little more than 1 percent.

So, you’re going to get only slightly more protection with the higher SPFs, but that doesn’t mean you should let yourself bake in the sun longer. The recommended minimum is an SPF 15.

Whatever SPF you pick, be sure to slather on enough sunscreen—a shot glass-full is about right, the recommended one ounce. Reapply frequently, especially after swimming or if you've been sweating profusely.

On “House Call with Dr. Sanjay Gupta” this weekend, we’re kicking off a three-part series called “Saving Your Skin.” We’ll tell you more about picking the right sunscreen.

Also, let us know: what are your skin concerns this summer?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. ldavid56

    Can you recommend a sunscreen that I can apply to my back by myself, that is PABA-free and vitamin E free? PABA blocks my pores and I'm allergic to topical vitamin E.

    May 22, 2009 at 13:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Nancy

    Does sunscreen interfere with Vitamin D production in the skin?

    Nancy

    May 23, 2009 at 07:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. DR MARYBETH CARLBERG

    I AM A PHYSICIAN WHO HAD MELANOMA BUT IS CONCERNED THAT WE ARE RAISING A GENERATION OF VIT D DEFICIENT CHILDREN WHOSE LONG TERM EFFECTS MAY VASTLY OUTWEIGH THE BENEFITS OF SUNSCREEN (ESPECIALLY AS AT THIS TIME THERE IS NO PROOF THAT IT PREVENTS MELANOMA). I FEEL COMMON SENSE IN AVOIDING SUNBURNS IS A MORE HEALTHY OPTION. DR MARYBETH CARLBERG

    May 23, 2009 at 08:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. jeff dickson

    just watched a report on CNN with A Cho about a Sunscreen SPF blog – can't seem to find. But, it seems to me that the US does not regulate the ingredients that go into skin care products and most of them include petroleum that is bad for the skin and hinders it's ability to breathe. Thinking that the ingredients and what they do is more important than the ability to block sun. What does petroleum do to us when applied on the skin ??

    JD

    May 25, 2009 at 14:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. loochy

    I'm also looking for a sunscreen that is Vitamin E free. I've been looking for over 3 years; Eucerin's used to make a moisturizer with SPF 24
    that worked just fine. A few years ago, they changed the formule when
    they upgraded to SPF 30. I've tried unsuccessfully to find something that works. I'm able to use basic Nivea moisturizer on my face and neck
    but need a sunblock/sunscreen. It's a real challenge to find skin care product that does *not* have tocopheral (vitamin e). Botanicals also
    create potential problems for me.

    May 27, 2009 at 21:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. John

    What about a sunscreen for everyday use? I don't want something that makes me look all oily and smells like coconuts. Also, what is the difference between sunscreen and sunblock?

    May 29, 2009 at 12:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Mark Roseman

    If you have really sensitive skin like mine, which starts to burn in 10 minutes under a summer sun, the higher number sunscreens should make a significant difference–in theory, at least. An SPF of 15 extends my time outdoors to only 10×15 = 150 minutes, not enough to complete a round of golf. I need an SPF of at least 30 (giving me 5 hours).

    June 2, 2009 at 14:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Thomas

    A shot glass is about the right size for sun screen. Did he have to use an alcoholic beverage related measure? Honestly, as a nondrinker, I have only a vague notion of the size of a shot, which I guess is about the size of those little cups that come with cough medicine.
    On a radio report of this material that my wife overheard, there was mention that most sunscreens had chemicals that were well known to have undesirable properties of one sort or another, but I see no mention of that here.

    June 20, 2010 at 17:48 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.