Board-Certified Dermatologist Answers Your Questions About Sunscreen

By Dr. Stephanie Trautman
Board-Certified Dermatologist

The importance of using sunscreen daily has become part of our culture now. As Dermatologists, we believe that providing our patients with good information is an excellent tool for them to make good decisions regarding the health of their skin. For that reason, we genuinely enjoy answering questions about all things sunscreen.

How does sunscreen work?

Sunscreens protect us from the damaging rays radiating from the sun. Two types of solar energy can cause damage to humans. UVB and UVA radiation. UVB rays are the ones that cause your skin to burn. This is why sun protection factors were studied and added to sunscreens. Later it was found that UVA rays can age the skin and cause skin cancer. Nowadays, you can find sunscreens that protect you against both UV rays, called broad-spectrum sunscreens.

There are two types of sunscreens that work in different ways:

  1. Physical sunscreens, also called mineral sunscreens, mostly contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These act like a shield to deflect the sun’s rays away from your skin.
  2. Chemical sunscreens are called absorbers because they work by absorbing the radiation from the sun through a chemical reaction. These sunscreens contain organic (carbon-based) ingredients such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, avobenzone, and octisalate.

Does one type of sunscreen work better than the other?

Both physical and chemical sunscreens work well. However, you want to ensure the label states that they block both UVA and UVB radiation. These are called broad-spectrum sunscreens, and while all physical blockers do this, you want to double-check with a chemical sunscreen. At Bend Dermatology Clinic, we always tell our patients that the best type of sunscreen is the one you will use.

What are the best sunscreens to use on the face?

Although you can certainly use any sunscreen on your face, selecting one specifically formulated for the face might be better. Facial skin tends to be slightly more sensitive, and some heavy sunscreens clog your pores, creating other problems. Here we also have a lot more choices. Some face moisturizers come with SPF protection already. The Skin Cancer Foundation stresses the importance of applying every day, even in the winter. I recommend using one with an SPF of 30 or more.

Tinted moisturizers with SPF will give you some coverage, cutting out a step in your makeup routine. Tinted sunscreens with iron oxide are good for preventing hyperpigmentation. Powder sunscreens are very handy to reapply throughout the day and can be used as a setting powder. These options give you more leeway to select appropriate skin type sunscreen protection. Regardless of whether you have dry, oily, acne-prone, or any other type of skin, you should be able to find something that works for your face. Lastly, when talking about protecting your face from the sun’s rays, don’t forget to wear your wide-brimmed hat!

What are the different types of sunscreens, and how are they different?

Sunscreens come in various formulations, and they each have their benefits:

  • Gel – these are great for people with oily skin or looking for something lighter in the summer. They are also good for hair-bearing areas like your back, chest, arms, and legs.
  • Stick – this formulation is excellent for the face when you know you will be physically active, as they tend not to wear off as you’re sweating. They are easy to reapply when you are golfing, playing tennis, etc., because you don’t have to get the sunscreen on your hands to reapply, and they tend not to run into the eyes when you are sweating. However, they are not as cosmetically elegant since they can leave a whitish residue, so may not be suitable for a day out full of selfies. .
  • Spray – these sunscreens are great for reapplication because they are fast and easy. They can also be great for parents with small children. Ensure you don’t miss any spots when applying them to someone else. For yourself, I wouldn’t recommend them for the first application. It is important not to spray them directly on the face to avoid inhalation or getting them in the eyes. You can spray the sunscreen on your hand first, then apply it to the face.
  • Cream – this formulation is good for people with dry skin but may be too thick if your skin is acne-prone.
  • Powder – I find these cosmetically elegant and great for facial reapplication during the day. I would not rely on these as the only sunscreen you use.

Are there some screens that are better for specific skin conditions?

Acne-prone skin does better with gel formulations because they are not occlusive and typically will not clog pores. You can also buy sunscreens from many manufacturers specifically made for people with acne-prone skin.

Aging skin does well with sunscreens that contain iron oxide. These block visible light which helps protect the skin from photoaging, and it also helps prevent hyperpigmentation. The sun speeds up aging by breaking down collagen, so it’s a good idea to use sunscreen every day regardless of the weather or season. Even on cloudy days, 80% of the radiation from the sun comes through.

Eczema does well with cream formulations because they hydrate the skin better by locking in moisture, especially if you apply it after your bath or shower. The thicker the cream, the better it is at locking in water.

Sensitive skin should stick to physical blockers because they are less likely to cause an allergic reaction.

What is the best way to apply sunscreen?

Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before sun exposure. It takes at least a shot glass full of sunscreen to cover the body adequately. It is prudent to reapply sunscreen every two hours when out in the sun and again after getting out of the water or sweating profusely. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen behind the ears, the back of your neck, the top of your feet, and your scalp, especially if you have thinning hair. We also recommend using sun-protective clothing, such as rash guards and hats. Don’t forget your lips! Use a lip moisturizer with SPF protection. The American Academy of Dermatology has a great video about applying sunscreen here.

One of our highest priorities at Bend Dermatology Clinic is the prevention and treatment of skin cancers.  Our highly qualified, expert Dermatology Providers care deeply about the health of their patients. If you have any questions or concerns about the use of sunscreens and skin cancer, reach out and schedule an appointment. We are available at our East Bend, West Bend, Klamath Falls, Prineville, and Redmond locations. 

About the Author

Stephanie Trautman, M.D.Dr. Trautman is a Board-Certified Dermatologist practicing with Bend Dermatology Clinic since 2008. She specializes in photoaging, skin cancer, acne, rashes, and patch testing for allergic contact dermatitis. She currently works at the East Bend, Redmond, West Bend, and Klamath Falls locations. Dr. Trautman values the compassionate, lasting relationships she forms with her patients and enjoys working with the high-caliber staff at Bend Dermatology Clinic. Working with organizations such as local soup kitchens to give back to the community is one of her priorities.