July 9th, 2009
02:47 PM ET

The importance of practicing safe sun

By Caitlin Hagan
CNN Medical Associate Producer

Few things can make me as happy as a hot summer day at the beach. I'm a total sucker for sunshine but unfortunately, until recently, I had not been able to spend much time romping around in the sand. So when I packed my beach bag I made sure to bring not one, not two, but three bottles of sunscreen: plenty of protection to make sure my skin was sunkissed, not sunburned. Sounds like a great plan, right? Except all three had different SPFs, some but not all were broad spectrum, and one was just for my face. For a woman who wants to avoid a sunburn but maximize her vacation, things got a little confusing.

Apparently my dilemma is not that uncommon. Dr. Ariel Ostad is a dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at New York University who deals with this issue often. According to him, which SPF, or sun protection factor, you choose is not as important as what kind of radiation you're being protected from. SPF protects you from ultravoilet B, or UVB, radiation, the kind that causes sunburns. But when you are outside in the sun, your skin is also exposed to another type of damaging radiation. "Make sure your sunscreen contains an ingredient to block UVA radiation. 'Broad spectrum' is really the term that people should be looking for," advises Ostad. Since UVA rays are responsible for premature wrinkles and sun spots, it is best to keep your skin out of their reach.

But why isn't SPF the top priority? According to Ostad, the higher and higher SPFs for sale now are more about marketing than actual increased protection. It turns out that a sunscreen with a high SPF such as SPF 80 does not offer exponentially more protection, as most people think it does. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there are diminishing returns the higher the SPF reaches. Sunscreen with SPF 30 lets in about 3 percent of the sun's harmful rays and a sunscreen with SPF 85 does not do much better, letting in more than one percent. "Anything above an SPF 30 makes absolutely no difference," says Ostad.

Keep in mind though, not all sunscreens are equal, even if they are broad spectrum. People worried about breaking out after slathering on sunscreen should opt for non-comedogenic products, which means that they won’t block pores. Sunscreens with an active ingredient of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are good bets for people with sensitive skin who worry about too many chemicals in their products.

Now I know that the next time I head out for a day in the sun, there's no need for confusion (or three bottles).

How do you keep your skin protected?

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soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. Anne

    Hi Dr. Gupta,

    UVA protection is critical, and the only active ingredients that provide UVA protection are zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and avobenzone. Zinc / titanium based products are a bit tacky feeling, but do not have to be reapplied quite as often as products containing avobenzone. Avobenzone absorbs UVA, but is degraded in the process. Hence the need to reapply. Also look for clothing that has SPF protection. Sometimes physical protection like a hat or shirt with long sleeves work well. From: a registered pharmacist

    July 21, 2009 at 13:12 | Report abuse | Reply
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    I hear people asking you questions, and only an idiot would think you're actually answering them. You seem to have no answers and you don't answer direct questions. Any doctor with a brain and integrity would not be supporting Obama's healthcare. You don't even know what it all entails...so why are you acting like it's a great thing???!

    July 28, 2009 at 08:15 | 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.