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SPF Explained: How to Select the Right Sunscreen

Protecting your skin from the sun's harmful rays is essential for maintaining a healthy, youthful complexion. With an overwhelming number of sunscreens available, finding the right one can feel like a daunting task. It's crucial to understand the differences between mineral and chemical sunscreens, the importance of broad-spectrum protection, and how to navigate various SPF levels to ensure you choose a product that is both safe and effective.

In this guide, we'll break down everything you need to know about sunscreens, from their benefits and drawbacks to price ranges and expert recommendations, so you can make an informed decision for your skin health.

Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreens: Pros and Cons

Mineral sunscreens, also known as physical sunscreens, contain active ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that sit on top of the skin and reflect UV rays. The pros of mineral sunscreens include being safest for skin and the environment, helping with reactive skin, and having anti-inflammatory properties. However, they can leave a white cast on the skin (especially for darker skin tones) and may rub off more easily, requiring frequent reapplication. Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays and convert them into heat. They tend to have lighter formulas that spread more easily and don't leave a white cast.

However, they can cause skin reactions in sensitive individuals and have raised concerns about trace amounts being absorbed into the bloodstream, although the significance of this is currently unknown. Dermatologists generally recommend mineral sunscreens as being slightly more effective with broader spectrum coverage.

Broad-Spectrum UV Protection

Broad-spectrum sunscreens provide protection against both UVA and UVB rays, the two types of UV radiation that reach the earth's surface and can damage the skin. UVB rays are the chief culprit behind sunburn and play a key role in the development of skin cancer, while UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply, contributing significantly to premature skin aging like wrinkles and age spots.

UVA rays account for up to 95% of the UV radiation reaching the earth's surface. They maintain equal intensity during daylight hours throughout the year and can penetrate clouds and glass. In contrast, UVB rays fluctuate in intensity depending on the time of day, season, and location, and cannot significantly penetrate glass.

The term "broad spectrum" on the label indicates that the sunscreen contains ingredients that effectively protect against both UVA and UVB rays. In the past, many sunscreens only protect against UVB rays. Now the FDA requires that sunscreens labeled "broad spectrum" provide proportional protection against both types of radiation.

When selecting a sunscreen, look for the words "broad spectrum" and an SPF of at least 15 to ensure you are adequately shielding your skin from both UVA and UVB rays. For extended outdoor activity, choose a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Reapply every 2 hours or after swimming or sweating.

While SPF is still important, broad-spectrum protection should be a top priority when choosing sunscreen, as it's essential for defending the skin against the damaging and aging effects of UVA and UVB rays. Opting for a broad-spectrum formula ensures your skin is getting the most complete UV protection possible.

The Role of SPF in Sun Protection

SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, measures how well a sunscreen protects skin from UVB rays, the type of radiation that causes sunburn and contributes to skin cancer. SPF indicates how long it would take for UVB rays to redden skin when using the product compared to unprotected skin. For example, SPF 30 sunscreen would take 30 times longer to burn skin than without sunscreen. However, SPF is not directly related to the time of solar exposure, but rather the amount of solar exposure.

Factors like time of day, weather conditions, skin type, and amount of sunscreen used can impact the effectiveness of the SPF. Dermatologists generally recommend using SPF 30 or higher. While no sunscreen can block 100% of UV rays, SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays, and SPF 50 blocks 98%. Proper application and frequent reapplication of sunscreen are key to ensuring optimal protection.

Sunscreen Price Range

Sunscreens are available at a wide range of price points to suit different budgets and preferences. Many affordable options can be found at drugstores and big box retailers like Walmart and Target, with prices starting as low as $5-$10 for basic formulas. Store-brand or generic sunscreens are often just as effective as more expensive name brands.

Mid-range sunscreens from popular brands like Neutrogena, Aveeno, CeraVe, and La Roche-Posay are typically priced between $10-$25. These may offer additional benefits like antioxidants, more cosmetically elegant formulas for the face, water resistance, or sensitive skin formulas.

High-end and specialty sunscreens can cost upwards of $30-$40 or more. These premium formulas often contain skincare ingredients like peptides or hyaluronic acid and may have more luxurious textures. Some are specifically formulated for acne-prone skin, to layer well under makeup, or for outdoor sports.

Mineral sunscreens tend to be slightly pricier than chemical sunscreens on average due to the higher cost of their active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Sunscreens without controversial ingredients like oxybenzone also command higher prices typically.

While sunscreen is crucial for protecting skin health, a high price tag doesn't necessarily indicate a superior formula. Expensive doesn't always mean better when it comes to UV protection. Dermatologists advise choosing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 from a reputable brand, applied liberally and often. How consistently you use sunscreen is more important than how much you spend on it.


With so many sunscreen options, I recommend using the guide published each year by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The EWG is a non-profit with a team of scientists - toxicologists, chemists, and epidemiologists - who are dedicated to protecting human health and the environment since 1993. I highly trust their recommendations, especially those that carry their EWG-verified symbol.

Click HERE to learn more about the safest sunscreen available.

By understanding the key differences between mineral and chemical sunscreens, the importance of broad-spectrum protection, and how SPF works, you are well-equipped to choose the best sunscreen for your skin. Remember, the right sunscreen can protect your skin from sun damage, prevent premature aging, and reduce the risk of skin cancer.

If you're ready to elevate your sun protection routine and discover the safest, most effective sunscreens, click here to contact us or call 276-235-3205 to schedule your complimentary 15-minute discovery call.

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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