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You are here: Skin Protection >

The eternal quest for a perfect sunscreen. And how to pick a good one.

The most important information to keep in mind when choosing a sunscreen is that sunscreens are the least reliable defense from UV exposure. First, make sure that you are taking the other key sun protection measures.

In particular, avoid the midday sun; seek shade whenever possible; wear broad-brimmed hats and tightly woven clothing with long sleeves. When indoors, take protective measures against indoor UVA exposure or make sure your windows protect from both UVA and UVB. (See our article on indoor UV protection).

In addition to the above steps, apply a sunscreen to the UV-exposed areas of your body before and during such exposure. But which sunscreen is the best?

A perfect sunscreen has to fulfill the following requirements:

  • It should block a broad spectrum of UV light (UVA and UVB) almost completely.
  • It should be nonirritating, noncomedogenic, non-toxic, without any hormonal or other unwanted biological effects.
  • It should be stable and neither degrade nor react with other ingredients under normal conditions and when exposed to sunlight.
  • It should not absorb into the skin or at least not absorb into systemic circulation. If it does absorb, it should be proven to be very safe pharmacologically.
  • It should dissolve and/or mix well with various skin care vehicles, including oil-based and water-based ones.
  • After an application, it should stick well to the skin and not come off, rub off, dissipate or wash off (if swimming/sweating is expected) easily.
  • It should be backed by sufficient scientific and clinical evidence convincingly demonstrating that the above criteria have indeed been met

You may have guessed that no sunscreen meets all of the above diverse requirements, which are in some cases mutually exclusive. In fact, such absolutely perfect agent is unlikely to appear any time soon. Yet, not all sun-blocking agents and their combinations are created equal. Some come closer to the ideal than others. Furthermore, depending on your lifestyle, some sunscreens may be a better fit for you than others, even though it might not be the right choice for somebody else.

While finding a perfect sunscreen may be impossible, picking a good sunscreen optimal for you is feasible. First, learn how sunscreens work. (You can start with our article on sunscreen fundamentals.) Then try to find a sunscreen matching the above ideal on as many points as possible. Yet, keep in mind that some considerations are more important than others. Here they are:

  • Make sure your sunscreen provides comprehensive protection against all of UVB and UVA. It should have SPF 15 or greater (SPF is a measure of protection). It should also block 90% or more UVA, which is roughly equivalent to PPD of 10 or greater. For details, see our articles on UV radiation and on gauging sunscreen effectiveness.
  • Take safety considerations seriously. Unfortunately, long-term human safety data on most sun blocking agents are lacking. Most likely, no sunscreen ingredient is absolutely harmless under all conceivable conditions. Nonetheless, some sun blocking agents (and their usage practices) are safer then others. For example, among physical sunblocks, zinc oxide appears to be the safest. Examples of reasonably safe chemical sunblocks (based on our current state of knowledge and approved concentration limits) include phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid (ensulizole), homosalate, and ecamsule (Mexoryl SX).
  • Take your situation into account. If you are heading for a beach, pool, or vigorous outdoor exercise make sure you get a sunscreen formulated not to wash off easily. Otherwise, you may want to trade water-resistance in favor of having more of other benefits. If you are very fair-skinned and/or otherwise sensitized to sunlight (e.g. via use of certain drugs, such a retinoids), make greater emphasis on the high degree of broad UVA+UVB protection (SPF 30 or higher for UBV, 95% protection of higher for UVA). If you are darker skinned, you still need to have broad UVA+UVB protection but it does not have to be as strong (SPF >=15 for UBV, 90+% protection for UVA). If you have acne, try selecting sun blocking ingredients and vehicles that do not make it worse, which may require some trial and error. (See our information on individual sun-blocking agents.)

    Specific sunscreen brands/products

    I am often asked to recommend specific sunscreen products. I generally refrain from such recommendations for a number of reasons. First, I prefer not to appear biased towards any specific brand. Second, commercial products as well as the body of scientific evidence change so frequently that today's recommendation may be obsolete, invalid or suboptimal tomorrow. Finally, sunscreen is not a one-fits-all item - what is optimal for some individuals/situations may be a poor choice for others.

    Choosing a suitable sunscreen is an important part of a skin care program. Do your due diligence. Read articles on this website and elsewhere. Determine what kind and degree of protection you need. Then try to find a product(s) with the most effective and safe combination of sun blocking agents that fits your requirements.

    User reviews of sunscreens may be helpful, but you should not rely on them exclusively or even primarily. People can easily see how well a sunscreen protects from sunburn (UVB). However, UVA damage in imperceptible: it cannot be felt and it manifests visibly only in the long term. As a result, user reviews of sunscreens may be unreliable as a sole source of information and should be used as an adjunct only.

    As an illustrative example of sunscreen products with a very high degree of comprehensive UV protection, I would mention Fallene Total Block. It is a well thought out line of sunscreens providing comprehensive UVB+UVA protection by combining several physical and chemical UVA and UVB blockers while attempting to retain cosmetic elegance. This is a difficult task requiring some compromises. For example, some Fallene produts include microfine titanium dioxide, which may cause photocatalytic reaction and generate harmful free radicals. The formulators address this problem by coating titanium dioxide particles and adding antioxidants, such as vitamins E and ascorbyl palmitate. Another concerns is that Fallen products include octyl methoxycinnamate (octinoxate), an effective chemical UVB protector. Animal studies indicate that octyl methoxycinnamate may produce hormonal (estrogen-like) and possibly other adverse effects. On the other, such effects have not been demonstrated with typical human use and Fallen uses lower concentration of octyl methoxycinnamate than many other sunscreens.

    Fallen formulas are an illustrative example of a reasonable attempt to solve a complicated problem. However, in the absence of comprehensive clinical studies, it is a mater of expert opinion whether Fallene strikes the right balance between safety and effectiveness. One should also keep in mind that Fallene Total Block line has been formulated mainly for people with above average sun sensitivity requiring a particularly high degree of UV protection. Hence, even if Fallene Total Block does strike the right balance for that group of people, it may not be the right choice for others.


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