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What sunscreens should I use to protect my skin this summer?

Are sprays or creams better? What are peak sun exposure hours? How can I reduce my risk for skin cancer this summer? Dermatologist Ingrid Polcari, MD, FAAD, has answers.
University of Minnesota Health Dermatologist Ingrid Polcari, MD, FAAD, discusses sunscreen usage and summer skin care.

What sunscreen should you use to keep your skin well-protected this summer?

University of Minnesota Health Pediatric Dermatologist Ingrid Polcari, MD, FAAD, recommends that you read labels when you are shopping for sunscreen. Look for an SPF rating of 30 or higher with “broad spectrum” coverage. This means it protects against both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. UVA rays—also known as long-wave rays—are primarily responsible for causing wrinkles and sunspots on skin, Polcari said. UVB rays are the culprits that cause sunburn. Both UVA and UVB rays contribute to the development of skin cancer.

Our team of board-certified dermatologists provides comprehensive care for conditions ranging from acne to skin cancer. Learn more about the University of Minnesota Health dermatology services.

Polcari recommends lotions instead of sprays because they tend to be more foolproof. Sprays can be effective, she said, as long as users take time to ensure they are getting an even coating on their skin. The sprayed area of skin should look wet, then the product should be rubbed in. Avoid using sprays in windy conditions.

Spray-on sunscreen can also be an irritant for eyes and lungs, so Polcari recommends that users—particularly parents helping their children—avoid spraying sunscreen directly into the face. Because some of the propellants used in spray-on sunscreen are also flammable, Polcari suggests that users be careful around grills, bonfires or other sources of open flame during the summer.

If you have sensitive skin, Polcari recommends choosing a product that has zinc or titanium as the active ingredient.

Reapply your sunscreen every two hours, or after swimming or sweating, Polcari said, especially on the head, neck, back and lower legs, which usually get the most sun exposure. She also recommends purchasing water-resistant sunscreen for those planning any water-related activities.

Peak hours for UV exposure are between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., with some variation depending on the season. Still, it is possible to burn in the mornings and evenings, Polcari said. The UV index, commonly known as the “sunburn index,” is a useful tool when deciding whether you need protection from the sun.

“Most people need to take precautions in the sun if the UV index is 3 or higher,” Polcari said.

If you do burn, keep the skin area hydrated with a fragrance-free moisturizing cream and use ibuprofen to soothe the inflammation and discomfort, Polcari said. Cool baths and wet compresses may also help.

If you suspect that you or a member of your family may be at risk for developing skin cancer, Polcari recommends scheduling a baseline skin screening with a board-certified dermatologist.