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Skin Cancer Awareness Month (May) is the perfect time to build your knowledge about sunscreen and other types of skin cancer prevention. We know that the use of sunscreen can greatly reduce the chance of skin cancer and can prolong the development of wrinkles and premature aging. We also know that we should be using sunscreen all year round, no matter our age or skin type. But many are unaware that there are two types of sunscreens available: physical and chemical. Not all sunscreens are created equal, so let’s break down everything that you need to know to have more fun in the sun.

A Rundown

  • SPF: Sun Protectant Factor. The SPF number tells you how long it will take for the sun’s UVB rays to redden your skin compared to the amount of time without sunscreen. For example, if you used SPF 30 exactly as directed, it would take you 30 times longer to burn than if you were not wearing sunscreen.
  • UVA: Ultraviolet A-rays. The rays that cause premature aging, wrinkles, and sunspots (an easy way to remember is A = Aging).
  • UVB: Ultraviolet B-rays. The rays that cause sunburn (an easy way to remember is B = Burn).
  • Broad-spectrum protection: Sunscreen that protects your skin from both UVA and UVB rays (in the past, most sunscreens only protected against UVB rays).
  • Water resistant: No sunscreen is waterproof. Sunscreens that are labeled water resistant are effective for up to 40 minutes of swimming or intense sweating/exercising.
Image: Person using sunscreen

Physical vs Chemical Sunscreen

Physical sunscreen uses minerals such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to physically block UV rays from penetrating your skin. Physical or mineral sunscreen tends to be less irritating to the skin compared to chemical sunscreen, making it ideal for people with sensitive or acne-prone skin. In addition, physical sunscreen is a safer option for the environment.

Chemical sunscreen uses active ingredients such as avobenzone, octisalate, or oxybenzone to absorb UV rays before they can damage your skin. Chemical sunscreen is more easily absorbed into your skin without leaving behind a white residue.

Woman putting on sunscreen

Which type should you use?

The best sunscreen is the one that you will use again and again! The type of sunscreen you decide to use is a matter of personal choice. Just make sure that you choose one that offers broad spectrum protection, is water resistant, has an SPF of 30 or higher, and that you apply it generously (you should be applying one ounce – or enough to fill a shot glass – to fully cover your entire body).

Everyone should wear sunscreen every day (even if you work indoors)! Have plenty of protected fun in the sun this season and throughout the year.

Author: Madi Zaidel, CHES®
Madi is a Certified Health Education Specialist and is currently the Community Health Outreach Specialist for Appalachian Regional Healthcare System. Madi holds a degree in Public Health and is working on her master’s degree in Public Health Nutrition. Madi is passionate about health promotion, health education, and holistic well-being, and is an advocate for health at every size (HAES).

ARHS Health Outreach programs use evidence-based initiatives to promote healthy behaviors, prevent disease, and encourage disease management practices. For more information or to request a program, contact Madi at (828) 268-8960.

American Academy of Dermatology Association. (2022) Sunscreen FAQS.

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