Answers to All Your Burning Questions About Sunscreen (2023)

Answers to All Your Burning Questions About Sunscreen (1)


By The New York Times


While most experts agree that you should wear sunscreen year-round to prevent damage from the sun, harmful ultraviolet rays are strongest during late spring and early summer. We’ve partnered with health reporters from Wirecutter, a New York Times Company that reviews and recommends products (and publishes annual ratings of sunscreens for the face and body), to answer some of the most common questions readers have about sunscreen, including how safe and effective it is, how to use it properly, and how to pick the right one for you. Here’s what to know:

How much SPF is enough?

Sun protection factor (SPF) is a measure of how well a sunscreen protects against sunburn, which is most often a result of exposure to ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, the type that cause most skin cancers. Most dermatologists, as well as the American Academy of Dermatology, recommend an SPF of at least 30 for most people and most climates. “There’s no harm in going higher, though,” especially for people whose skin burns easily or for those who have sun-exposure allergies, said Dr. Vinod Nambudiri, a dermatologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Once you go past SPF 30, the protection becomes more incremental. When properly applied, for instance, an SPF 30 sunscreen shields skin from about 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays, while an SPF 50 protects against roughly 98 percent. No sunscreen blocks 100 percent of the sun’s rays.

Most of the experts we spoke with said that more important than the actual SPF is finding a broad-spectrum sunscreen — one that protects against both ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, which mostly cause skin aging and wrinkles, and UVB rays — that you enjoy wearing and can afford to consistently use and reapply. “Most people aren’t getting the SPF benefit on the sunscreen’s label because they aren’t applying a thick enough layer to their skin, and they usually aren’t reapplying often enough — usually every 80 minutes or two hours, depending upon the formula,” said Dr. Belinda Tan, a dermatopathologist in Torrance, Calif.

The average adult needs about one ounce of sunscreen to cover all exposed skin. “We often say a shot glass of sunscreen for the whole body,” said Dr. Jenna Lester, an assistant professor of dermatology at the U.C.S.F. School of Medicine, “but I tell my patients to fill the shot glass up to the brim and use even more if needed so you don’t miss any spots.”

Nancy Redd

What’s the difference between sunscreen and sunblock?



While it may seem that the two terms refer to the same thing, you shouldn’t see the word “sunblock” on labels at all. The Food and Drug Administration banned its use on approved sunscreens in 2011, considering it to be an overstatement of effectiveness since no sunscreen can block UV rays completely. The agency similarly does not allow the terms “waterproof” and “sweatproof.”

Nancy Redd


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Are there any alternatives to sunscreen?

Avoiding the sun (especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when its rays are strongest) is one excellent way to protect your skin from sun damage. So is wearing protective clothing, like long-sleeved shirts and wide brimmed hats. Alternatives like sunscreen pills or supplements “are being studied right now,” Dr. Nambudiri said, but none are approved by the F.D.A. and there is no evidence that they are safe and effective.

Nancy Redd

Which type of sunscreen is better: chemical or physical, and why?

The best sunscreen for you is the one that you will apply — and reapply — often, but there are pros and cons to each type. Physical (or mineral) sunscreens reflect UV rays away from your skin, while chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays so that your skin does not.

One pro of mineral sunscreens is that their active ingredients — zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — haven’t been shown to absorb into the blood. “If you’re a person who is concerned about the potential safety of applying chemical sunscreen to your skin and you also want the benefit of protecting your skin from harmful effects of UV rays, I would say mineral is best,” Dr. Tan said.

Mineral sunscreens, however, “are generally more expensive and less cosmetically elegant than chemical ones,” said Dr. Lawrence Eichenfield, chief of pediatric and adolescent dermatology at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego. Mineral sunscreens tend to take longer to rub in and appear chalkier than chemical ones, which tend to rub in easier, feel less noticeable on and blend in better with the skin.

“People who don’t like the way a sunscreen looks or feels are less likely to stick to consistent use,” said Dr. Lester, whose work focuses on skin color-related disparities in research and health care. In her own practice, she said, “brown-skinned individuals often avoid mineral sunscreens because they tend to leave a white cast on the skin.”

Wirecutter testing has found that chemical sunscreens with active ingredients including avobenzone, octocrylene and oxybenzone tend to feel lighter on the skin, rub in easier and appear less visible.

Nancy Redd

Should I be concerned about cancer-causing ingredients in sunscreen?

On July 14, 2021, of certain Neutrogena and Aveeno sunscreen sprays after internal testing detected low levels of benzene, a colorless chemical that can cause certain cancers, in those products.

It was unclear how benzene, which Johnson & Johnson said was not used in its manufacturing processes, may have found its way into the sunscreens. The company said it was investigating potential sources. It also said in a news release that using the recalled sunscreens “would not be expected to cause adverse health consequences,” though the company had asked consumers to stop using them.

About two months later, Coppertone announced that it had voluntarily recalled five aerosol sunscreen products after its own testing revealed benzene in those products as well.

People are regularly exposed to benzene through inhalation from many different sources — at gas stations, from car exhaust and cigarette smoke, and from working in certain industries, like plastic and rubber manufacturers. The substance can also be absorbed through the skin, though few studies have examined exactly how harmful this route of exposure can be.

When inhaled, benzene can cause leukemia and other types of cancers, said Luoping Zhang, an adjunct professor of toxicology at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved with any of the sunscreen testing.

Still, experts say that at least for now, the reports of benzene in sunscreens should not deter you from using sunscreen products that haven’t been recalled.

Dr. Bernard Goldstein, an environmental toxicologist and former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, said he’d tell his kids to continue using sunscreen “so as to not end up with skin cancer.”


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What about the active ingredients in sunscreen — are those bad for you?

No. In fact, sunscreen can mitigate a lot of potential damage from the sun, which can lead to premature skin aging and increased risk of skin cancer. However, experts have acknowledged that some people may be concerned about past evidence that has shown that some of the active ingredients in many sunscreens sold in the United States can reach the bloodstream and remain there for days.

“We don’t know what the health implications are yet, or even if there are any,” Dr. Lester said, “but we want to give credence to people’s concerns.”

Keep in mind that sunscreen is just one of many topical products whose potential health effects are not completely understood. “Of course it’s very alarming when people think there’s a chemical being absorbed by their skin and detectable in blood,” Dr. Tan said, “but we put a lot of things on our skin — lotions, cosmetics, fragrances — and studies aren’t done on whether or not those ingredients are detectable, so we need to step back and put the sunscreen conversation in context.”

If you’re concerned about the possibility of sunscreen chemicals seeping into the bloodstream, consider using those that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (or both) as their active ingredients, which have not been found to reach the blood.

Nancy Redd

Does sunscreen harm coral reefs?

It can. “Certain ingredients in some sunscreens do contribute to coral reef damage,” Dr. Lester said.

Oxybenzone, octocrylene and octinoxate are among the primary sunscreen ingredients of concern. The only two “reef-safe” active ingredients approved by the F.D.A. are “non-nanotized” zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. (A non-nanotized ingredient means that it is 100 nanometers in diameter or more.)

However, no sunscreen is known to be totally safe for aquatic life, so the best way to protect yourself and the environment is to cover as much of your body as possible with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) clothing (though you’ll still need to use sunscreen on exposed skin).

Nancy Redd

Do you need sunscreen if you have dark skin?

Yes. “It’s a misconception that darker skinned people can’t get skin cancer,” Dr. Nambudiri said. Even though darker-skinned people may not burn as quickly as fairer-skinned people, it doesn’t mean their skin isn’t experiencing deleterious effects from the sun’s rays.

“Sunburns, aging, uneven skin tone and hyperpigmentation are all problems that can be exacerbated by sun exposure in dark-skinned people,” Dr. Lester added.

Nancy Redd


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Can you tan with sunscreen?

Yes. Most people will tan — at least a little — while wearing sunscreen. Broad spectrum sunscreen will decrease how dark your skin gets, but most people don’t apply enough of it at regular intervals to avoid tanning completely. If you’re looking to avoid tanning (and other sun damage), consider other measures, such as wearing protective clothing and avoiding the sun at peak hours. “Think of sunscreen as your last line of defense” against sun damage, said Dr. Jennifer Mancuso, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Michigan.

People with especially fair skin don’t tan without also getting a sunburn, added Dr. Kathleen Suozzi, an associate professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine. For them, applying a liberal amount of broad spectrum sunscreen should help them avoid both tanning and burning.

Ellen Lee

Does sunscreen expire?

Yes. Most sunscreens sold in the United States are stamped with expiration dates, after which the formulas are no longer guaranteed to remain maximally effective. According to F.D.A. regulation, nonprescription drugs — including sunscreens — must remain stable for at least three years. If your bottle isn’t marked with an expiration date, the agency says you should consider the sunscreen expired three years after you bought it.

Tracy Vence

How much sunscreen should I use on my face?



Most people don’t apply nearly enough sunscreen, perhaps especially when it comes to their faces. When applying a sunscreen lotion on your face, Dr. Amanda Doyle, a dermatologist at Russak Dermatology Clinic in New York City, suggested using an amount roughly the size of a quarter. This should provide sufficient coverage for your face, neck and ears. As with all sunscreens, the one you use on your face requires reapplication every two hours, or more frequently depending on your activities.

Caira Blackwell


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Can I use sunscreen with makeup or moisturizer?

If you plan to wear moisturizer in addition to sunscreen, apply the moisturizer before the sunscreen. Make sure that the sunscreen has fully absorbed (it should feel mostly dry to the touch) before you apply anything else, such as makeup. It’s also important to apply sunscreen even if you’re using foundations or powders with SPF built in, since those products may not provide consistent sun protection.

Make sure to reapply sunscreen every two hours (or more frequently, especially after sweating or swimming), even if you’re wearing makeup. This may require reapplying sunscreen on top of it. There are plenty of options for on-the-go sunscreen reapplication, including sunscreen sticks or sprays (though you still need to rub those in). You could also use a makeup sponge to dab on your favorite sunscreen in an even layer over your makeup.

Caira Blackwell

Is it safe to wear sunscreen every day?

Yes; in fact, it’s recommended. “Whether it’s sunny or cloudy, UV rays are present 365 days a year, and I encourage my patients to use sunscreen year-round,” Dr. Nambudiri said.

While it is not necessary to wear sunscreen on body parts that aren’t exposed to the sun (usually because they’re covered by clothing), it’s important to apply it to the face, ears, hands, forearms, neck and other often-exposed body parts to help prevent sun damage.

Nancy Redd


Answers to All Your Burning Questions About Sunscreen? ›

The main blockers used in sunscreen are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. They are both good at blocking UV-B and thus preventing sunburn. Zinc oxide can also block the UV-A rays and has the broadest spectrum of protection of any single sunscreen ingredient.

What is in sunscreen that keeps you from burning? ›

The main blockers used in sunscreen are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. They are both good at blocking UV-B and thus preventing sunburn. Zinc oxide can also block the UV-A rays and has the broadest spectrum of protection of any single sunscreen ingredient.

Why do I burn no matter how much sunscreen I put on? ›

The primary reason that so many of us burn so easily is that we simply aren't applying our sunscreen liberally enough. You don't get the protection listed on the label unless you wear the correct amount, so a quick spritz over each limb isn't going to keep you sufficiently shielded from the sun.

Does sunscreen protect from burning? ›

A sunscreen's ability to protect you against dangerous sunrays is measured by a number called SPF or Sunburn Protection Factor. SPF refers to how long it takes for skin with sunscreen to burn compared to skin without sunscreen. Generally, the higher the SPF number, the greater protection against sunburn.

Did I put on enough sunscreen? ›

The amount of sunscreen applied along your index and middle finger from palm to fingertip is sufficient to cover your entire head, neck and face. This is 9% of your body surface area. If you have no hair and need to cover your entire head and neck, use 2 fingers.

What SPF is best for not burning? ›

SPF 15 or Higher: SPF tells you how long UVB rays would take to redden your skin compared to amount of time without sunscreen. For example, by using SPF 30, it would most likely take you 30 times longer to burn than if you use sunscreen.

How do you not burn without sunscreen? ›

Here are five ways to protect your skin without sunscreen:
  1. Clothing. Long sleeves and pants offer protection, especially when the fabrics are closely knit and dark. ...
  2. UV-repellent detergent. ...
  3. Sunglasses. ...
  4. Outdoor smarts. ...
  5. Avoiding UV lights.
Jun 30, 2017

Will SPF 50 prevent burning? ›

FALSE No sunscreen is a suit of armour and sunscreen should never be used to extend the amount of time you spend in the sun. Though it may sound like there is a big difference, SPF50+ only offers marginally better protection from UVB radiation, which causes sunburn and adds to skin cancer risk.

How long can you be in the sun without sunscreen? ›

How long can you sunbathe? Some dermatologists believe that, as long as you don't have complications with usual sun exposure, you can sunbathe without sunscreen up to 20 minutes each day . To reduce the risk of sunburn, it may be best to stick to 5 to 10 minutes.

Why does sunscreen doesn t work? ›

Sunscreen can't do it's job effectively if you don't use enough product, or if you're missing exposed skin during application. A good rule of thumb is to use one ounce of sunscreen (about a shot glass full) to cover your entire body and a nickel-sized dollop for the face alone.

What is 3 finger rule for sunscreen? ›

Ideally, 1 teaspoon of sunscreen needs to be applied on your face. You can even follow Fiddy's 3 finger rule - According to Jade (Fiddy Snails), the equivalent to three fingers is the right amount of sunscreen that needs to be applied on your face to get the right protection.

Why does sunscreen only last 2 hours? ›

Certain chemical ingredients within sunscreen may break down when exposed to sunlight or air; thus reducing their effectiveness at providing adequate protection from UV intensity after a couple of hours.

How long does sunscreen last? ›

When does sunscreen expire? Answer From Lawrence E. Gibson, M.D. Sunscreens are required by the Food and Drug Administration to remain at their original strengths for at least three years. This means that you can use leftover sunscreen from one year to the next.

What is the most powerful SPF? ›

The highest SPF is 100 and blocks out 99% of UVB rays. But experts don't necessarily think SPF 100 sunscreen is the best choice. This is only slightly better than SPF 30 and 50 (which is blocks 98% of UVB rays).

Is spray or lotion sunscreen better? ›

Lotions typically have a higher SPF than spray sunscreens, meaning they provide better protection against the sun's harmful rays. Also, they provide good coverage and can be less expensive than sprays, but they're also messier to apply.

How can I protect my skin in summer without sunscreen? ›

Find some shade.

You can reduce your risk of skin damage and skin cancer by seeking shade under an umbrella, tree or other shelter. Even when you are in shade, be sure to protect your skin by using sunscreen or wearing protective clothing.

Can you still get burnt at 5pm? ›

Garshick explains that UV rays are at their strongest between 10am to 4pm This is why experts generally recommend avoiding sun exposure during these peak times. But the potential for getting sunburn at 5 p.m. and after does still exist. "There are still some UV rays being emitted from the sun after 4 p.m.," she says.

Does sunburn turn into tan? ›

When the skin is damaged by the sun, the sunburn may tan, but with every burn the chance of developing non-melanoma skin cancer increases. Sunburn can also lead to hyperpigmentation (darker patches of skin) and photoageing (when the skin ages prematurely).

Why don't I burn in the sun? ›

The skin pigment melanin is produced by special skin cells called melanocytes to protect the body from the damaging effects of ultraviolet light. Higher levels of melanin means less sunburn and less skin cancer.

Can I live without sunscreen? ›

Without protection, ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun and other sources can be harmful. Sunscreen is a great way to protect yourself, but there are many other helpful tools. Wearing protective clothing is just one example of how you can protect yourself.

What did people do before sunscreen? ›

Most people used scarves or clothing items to avoid direct sun exposure. Rice, crushed jasmine petals, olive oil, sunflower oil, lupine, pine needles, mud, charcoal, cocoa butter, and burnt almond paste were some of the everyday things that were tried before sunscreen became commercially available.

Is it OK to never wear sunscreen? ›

For example, persistent sun exposure without sunscreen can cause you to age prematurely, leading to wrinkles, fine lines, and even skin discoloration. If you experience repeated sunburns over a number of years, you could also increase your risk of developing skin cancer.

Why do I still get sunburn even with sunscreen? ›

Do you wear sunscreen, but still get sunburned? You might be using it incorrectly. “The biggest thing I see with patients is that they are not applying enough sunscreen and they aren't reapplying it,” says David Harvey, M.D., a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Piedmont.

At what point does SPF stop working? ›

However, as SPF increases, the benefit decreases, ultimately plateauing at SPFs higher than 50. SPF-15 sunscreen stops approximately 93% of radiation from getting into your skin, SPF-30 stops 97%, and SPF-50 can protect you from 98%.

What is sunscreen made of? ›

There are two types of sunscreens: Physical blockers reflect ultraviolet rays from the sun and contain one of two active ingredients, zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Chemical blockers contain chemicals that absorb the sun's ultraviolet rays.

Should you pat or rub in sunscreen? ›

Once you've applied the sunscreen, make sure to rub it fully into the skin until you cannot see it anymore. Dermatologists recommend your fingers as the best applicator here, but you can use a sponge or brush so long as you're accounting for the amount of sunscreen that will get absorbed into the tool.

How long does SPF 50 last on face? ›

SPF50 should protect you 50 times as long as your skin would be able to naturally protect itself. However, remember that the lower the SPF and longer the length of time since application, the less UVB rays will be filtered, so a reapplication every two hours is highly recommended.

What is the rule of nines sunscreen? ›

With the rule of nines, the body's surface area is divided into 11 areas, each representing roughly 9% of the total (box). Sunscreen can be applied to each of these areas at a dose of 2 mg/cm2 if two strips of sunscreen are squeezed out on to both the index and middle fingers from the palmar crease to the fingertips.

What is the rule of 2 in sunscreen? ›

Two Finger Method

The method involves applying two lines of sunscreen directly onto your index and middle fingers first, starting from the base of the fingers which connects to the palm, until the very tips. Then you use this to apply to your face and neck. With this amount, you are sure to be protecting your skin.

Where does sunscreen go? ›

Sunscreen should be worn all over the face, ears included, recommends New York City-based, board-certified dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD. "Cover your entire face with sunscreen as well as your neck and hands," she says. "You can apply it first thing in the morning."

What are the benefits of sunscreen? ›

Wearing sunscreen is one of the best — and easiest — ways to protect your skin's appearance and health at any age. Used regularly, sunscreen helps prevent sunburn, skin cancer and premature aging. To help make sunscreen a part of your daily routine, dermatologist Anna Chien addresses common concerns.

How long to wash off sunscreen? ›

Rinsing helps wash away all traces of loosened sunscreen, dirt and cleanser residue. Run warm water over your face for at least one minute to ensure everything is rinsed away completely. Pat dry with a clean towel.

Does any sunscreen last all day? ›

Remember, the SPF of your sunscreen is not linked to how long you can stay in the sun, just to the amount of sun exposure you're protected from. Regardless of SPF, the protection will begin to wear off after a few hours. The advice from experts, therefore, is to reapply sunscreen every two hours.

How often should I wash off sunscreen? ›

Sunscreens should be reapplied approximately every two hours or after swimming or perspiring heavily. Even so-called water-resistant sunscreens may lose their effectiveness after 40 minutes in the water. Sunscreens rub off as well as wash off, so if you've towel-dried, reapply sunscreen for continued protection.

Why is zinc oxide bad in sunscreen? ›

A study concluded in 2021 found that applying both chemical and physical sunscreens (such as zinc oxide) causes a chemical reaction which reduces the effectiveness of both. Ultimately, both become ineffective, according to the study, after two hours of sun exposure.

Is zinc oxide in sunscreen bad for you? ›

Is Zinc Oxide Safe for Humans? Yes, zinc is a critical mineral nutrient that keeps us healthy. Zinc oxide is the ONLY sunscreen active ingredient that's been tested and FDA approved for use on babies less than 6 months old. It's also great for use around the eyes, as it won't cause stinging.

What chemical in sunscreen blocks the sun? ›

A. There are two types of sunscreens: Physical blockers reflect ultraviolet rays from the sun and contain one of two active ingredients, zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Chemical blockers contain chemicals that absorb the sun's ultraviolet rays.

What ingredient in sunscreen protects skin? ›

Physical blockers: The physical blockers – titanium dioxide or zinc oxide – are minerals that are ground into fine particles. They sit on the surface of the skin and reflect UV rays away from your skin, “a lot like a shield or mirror would,” George says.

What is the safest sunscreen? ›

If you are concerned about health effects, the safest choice is a so-called “mineral” or “physical” sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, dermatologists say. Those are the only sunscreen ingredients that the FDA says are “generally recognized as safe and effective.”

Is zinc or no zinc better for sunscreen? ›

Zinc oxide sunscreen is regularly touted as being a safer alternative to chemical sunscreens. In fact, it is one of only two sunscreen ingredients that the FDA considers “safe and effective for sunscreen use,” with the other being titanium dioxide.

Is there a natural sunscreen? ›

Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide Are the Only Natural Sunscreen Active Ingredients. As we mentioned before, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the only ingredients approved by the FDA to give your sunscreen a natural SPF. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are minerals, naturally found in the earth.

Does sunscreen expire? ›

Sunscreens are required by the Food and Drug Administration to remain at their original strengths for at least three years. This means that you can use leftover sunscreen from one year to the next. Some sunscreens include an expiration date — a date indicating when they're no longer effective.

Is Neutrogena sunscreen safe? ›

Not only do many Neutrogena sunscreens contain harmful chemicals like oxybenzone and methylisothiazolinone – we'll get to those later – but their advertised SPF levels of over 70 have been debunked by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. According to the federal department, SPF levels max out at about 50.

Is oxybenzone in sunscreen harmful? ›

Oxybenzone is one of the common active ingredients in sunscreens that are sold in the US. The FDA says it is safe.

What are the three bad ingredients in sunscreen? ›

Chemicals to avoid in sunscreen include:
  • Oxybenzone.
  • Avobenzone.
  • Homosalate.
  • Octinoxate.
  • Octocrylene.
  • Cinoxate.
  • Dioxybenzone.
  • Ensulizole.
Jul 30, 2019

What is the most active ingredient in sunscreen? ›

The two most common ingredients in mineral sunscreens, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, are the only sunscreen ingredients generally recognized as safe and effective by the FDA.

Does sunscreen seep into your bloodstream? ›

Over almost a month researchers tested blood samples and confirmed that all six active ingredients in sunscreen are absorbed in the bloodstream at measurable levels.

What are the healthiest ingredients in sunscreen? ›

The good news is that two ingredients are labeled as safe and effective — zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These are considered physical blocking ingredients, and they're found in sunscreens with a "mineral" or "physical" label.

Can I make my own sunscreen? ›

Recipes for homemade sunscreens are easily found and promoted online, often by individuals without any specific health expertise. These recipes frequently contain coconut or vegetable oils, essential oils, shea butter, beeswax and zinc. Cancer Council does not recommend making or using homemade sunscreen.


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