How to Choose and Use Sunscreen

This time of year we’re all about sunscreen, sunscreen and more sunscreen. And, of course, with all of the magazine and news stories stressing the importance of sun protection, there are always a handful with a negative spin that try to scare us with less-than-savory sunscreen information. As a dermatologist, I understand that sunscreen isn’t 100 percent perfect, but other than totally sun avoidance, it’s the best thing we have to shield our skin from the sun.

Understanding the Sunscreen Basics

There are two types of sunscreens: Chemical and physical. In my opinion, chemical sunscreen ingredients offer the best protection, especially against cancer- and age-causing UVA rays. These ingredients are absorbed by the body and then excreted in the urine, but we haven’t seen any long-term negative side effects. When exposed to UV rays, chemical sunscreens can cause free radicals, so always layer an antioxidant underneath or look for a product with antioxidants like Neutrogena Healthy Defense Daily Moisturizer SPF 50.

If you have sensitive skin, common chemical ingredients such as methoxycinnamate and benzophenone can cause allergies, either when applied or when exposed to the sun. Avobenzone (also known as Helioplex or Parsol) can cause stinging. That’s why I’m a fan of the ingredient Mexoryl found in some of La Roche-Posay’s sunscreens since it has less chance of irritation. Benzophenones sometimes get a bad rap in terms of side effects, but as a doctor I can tell you that the benefits of using these sunscreens far outweigh the risks.

My Favorite Sunscreen: Zinc Oxide

Physical sunscreen ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are another option. In fact, given the choice, zinc oxide is my favorite. Zinc oxide is a great option for those who have frequent allergies, children under 5, or anyone who wants to avoid chemicals.

It’s important to look for a formula with micronized zinc so the sunscreen isn’t too thick and so it won’t leave white residue.  It might be a bit white and harder to rub in than chemical sunscreens, but it is chemical free.  Keep in mind, when you put sunscreen on the entire body, the amount of chemicals you are exposed to is much higher. So applying zinc oxide is a great way to go, because you are not absorbing the ingredients, they are laying atop the skin. If you wait five minutes, the white usually goes away, although those with darker skins may have an issue with physical sunscreens since they can lend a purple hue to the skin.

Most experts agree that zinc oxide is safe. In fact, when looking at the photoreactivity of metal oxides in sunscreens, researchers reported that particles of microfine zinc oxide were too large to penetrate the stratum corneum, and thus were biologically inactive (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology).

There is some controversy about titanium dioxide and nanotechnology used to miniaturize the particles so they are less white on the skin.  While some scientists say that it’s possible for these super-small particles to penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream—and potentially cause long-term side effects like cancer—I don’t believe this is an issue that should make us avoid titanium dioxide. The fact is, these studies about nanoparticles entering the bloodstream were based on inhalation exposure, not topical exposure, and the results of these studies on humans showed insufficient data. In fact, studies performed by the FDA found that this is not a risk when titanium dioxide is applied to intact skin, even when it is micronized.

So I am a fan of sunscreens that contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as a chemical-free option for those allergic to chemical sunscreens, children under 5 years of age, or for those who want to avoid exposure to chemicals. Zinc oxide is my favorite overall.

My favorites are: Elta MD Pure, Obagi Tint SPF, and Blue Lizard Sensitive Skin. I apply a 1/2 teaspoon to face and a shot glass to the body, and advise reapplying every hour while in the sun.  

3 Things to Avoid While Using Sunscreen

For best performance of your sunscreen, you should avoid using certain ingredients that can cause sun sensitivity. Often referred to as a photoallergy, itching or redness can occur when UV rays hit a chemical on your skin, prompting your immune system to “attack.”

1.) Fragrances and Teas with Bergamot, Fig, or Lime

If this happens to you, check your product labels for bergamot, fig or lime. Perfumes are a major cause of photoallergies as well, and Earl Grey tea has been found to cause reactions as well (so stick with the chamomile tea bags for puffy eyes, please!).

2.) PABA, Benzophenones, and Salicylates

Ironically enough, some sunscreen ingredients can react with UV light and leave you seeing red. PABA (which is rarely used anymore, because of this reason), cinnamates, benzophenones and salicylates are most commonly associated with sun-induced reactions, but you can avoid the threat altogether by using a sunscreen with avobenzone, ecamsule and/or physical UV-blocking ingredients such as those found in MD Solar Sciences or Neutrogena Healthy Defense.

3.) Pain Relievers

The pain reliever you take for a headache—along with other common drugs—can interact with the sun, and cause almost instantaneous pain and redness the second you step outside. NSAIDs such as ibuprofen and naproxen (i.e. Advil and Aleve) as well as antibiotics like tetracycline can increase the chance of skin reactions. Statins and diabetes medications are culprits as well. My advice: Read the labels on your prescriptions to see if there are sun warnings. (If so, stay out of the sun, obviously.) If by some chance you have a skin reaction while taking another drug, call your doctor or pharmacist.

How to Get the Best Results Out of Your Sunscreen

In addition to avoiding the above ingredients:

First, apply one of the recommended zinc oxide sunscreens, like Elta MD Pure, Obagi Tint SPF, and Blue Lizard Sensitive Skin. Make sure that you apply a ½ teaspoon to the face and a shot glass full to the body.

Next, take an oral Heliocare.  

Lastly, make sure that you reapply your sunscreen. If you wear makeup and don’t want to reapply sunscreen every time, we found a facial spray that can be applied over makeup every hour.

In Summary

One thing we do know for sure is that long-term unprotected sun exposure definitely increases the risk of skin cancer, and is the number-one cause of wrinkles, uneven pigment and sun damage symptoms like rough, dry skin. So do your health and your beauty a favor this summer and make sunscreen a part of your daily skincare regimen. To make it even easier to choose the right one, go to and take the quiz to find out what sunscreens are right for your skin type.


Dr. Leslie Baumann, M.D. and her team at Baumann Cosmetic Dermatology believe in proof, not promises. World-recognized for both cosmetic and general dermatology, our treatment strategies rely exclusively on evidence-based, scientifically verified products and procedures that promote skin health and a natural appearance. We combine effective medical procedures with individualized instruction on proper skincare, nutrition, supplementation and lifestyle in order to maximize the health of the skin and body as a whole while minimizing the effects of aging. For more, visit Dr. Baumann’s blog for daily updates Monday through Friday, or inquire about an appointment through

August 1, 2016 Skincare