How to Choose the Best SPF to Reduce Skin Cancer Risks

What Sunscreen is Best for You?

Woman sunbathing at the beach
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If you have ever been to the sunscreen aisle at your local drugstore, you know how overwhelming it can be. The bottles and tubes are all full of abbreviations such as SPF, UVAs, UVBs and options such as waterproof and water resistant add to the confusion, not to mention the wide array of brands and choices that you have to choose from.

What Is the Best SPF to Reduce the Risk of Skin Cancer?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor.

The higher the SPF number, the better protection against the sun's harmful UVB rays. The SPF number lets you know how much longer you can stay out in the sun without burning. For example, if it usually takes you 20 minutes of sun time to burn, then a SPF 15 will allow you to stay out in the sun 15 times longer without burning — that would mean an SPF 15 would allow you to be in the sun for 5 hours without burning, if there is no addition of water or sweat (the SPF level is compromised once water enters the equation, and so you would have to reapply).

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends wearing an SPF of 15 or higher for maximum protection. SPF is available in levels from 2 to 60. Does the highest level mean the best protection? Not necessarily. An SPF of 50 only provides 1% to 2% more protection than an SPF 30.

UVA and UVB Protection. UVA rays are mostly responsible for the aging effects of the sun while UVB rays are responsible for sunburns and skin cancer.

 However it's important to note that an overexposure to UVA rays can also lead to skin cancer.

The label on the tube of sunscreen will indicate whether it provides UVA or UVB protection. In order to prevent skin cancer and early skin aging, the sunscreen needs to protect against both UVA and UVB rays, with a minimum SPF of 15 — Otherwise the sunscreen is only preventing sunburn, and not skin cancer.

Choose a product that states, "UVA/UVB," protection or has "broad spectrum" protectant.

Waterproof vs. Water Resistant. The level of SPF is compromised when your skin comes into contact with water. This means that you must reapply sunscreen as soon as you are out of the water or if you are participating in an activity where you are sweating.

If you are looking for a sunscreen to use while in the water, choose a sunscreen that is "waterproof" or "water resistant." Waterproof sunscreens are not actually waterproof, and should provide protection in the water for 80 minutes, while water resistant sunscreens provide only 40 minutes of protection.

What Is Right For You

The right SPF varies per person and all depends on how your skin usually fares in the sun. A lower SPF of 30 should be fine for darker skin tones that tan easily and rarely burn when applied every 2 hours. Those with fair-skin that burns easily, should be using a higher SPF of 50 and over at the absolute minimum, and also reapplying every 2 hours or less.

Since SPF claims are strictly regulated by the FDA, SPF labeling is consistent from company to company and switching between brands is not a problem. The right sunscreen for you is the one you're most likely to wear, so be sure to find the one that you like the feel, scent and texture of, while matching the SPF level required by your individual skin tone.


U. S. Food and Drug Administration. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Office of Cosmetics and Colors Fact Sheet June 27, 2000;

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