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Cancer; Prevention

Which sunscreen is best – brand name or generic?

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It’s not the sunscreen brand that matters, it’s what’s on the label - the SPF, broad-spectrum protection, and water resistance.

When it’s time to stock up on supplies for summer, sunscreen should be at the top of the list. Summertime often means more time outside, hitting the pool, or playing golf. Although you should use sunscreen all year round, people tend to think about it more during the summer.

Drug stores offer a plethora of sunscreen brands with different prices, and it can be confusing to pick the right one for you. But sunscreen is usually not a “you get what you pay for” product. For example, CVS, Walmart, and Target sunscreens were high performers in 2018, as ranked by Consumer Reports.

The brand you choose typically has no bearing on its effectiveness, and price differences usually come from marketing tactics, much like any other products you buy. So, how do you know which sunscreen is best?

"Sunscreen is usually not a 'you get what you pay for' product. The brand you choose typically has no bearing on its effectiveness, and price differences usually come from marketing tactics, much like any other products you buy.”

Rajiv Nijhawan, M.D

Ingredients matter more than brand

Rather than choosing your sunscreen by brand, pay attention to the product's active physical and chemical ingredients:

  • Physical: According to the American Academy of Dermatology, physical sunscreens (often labeled as “baby") work like a shield to deflect the sun’s rays from your skin. They contain the active ingredients titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide.
  • Chemical: Chemical sunscreens work like a sponge and absorb the sun’s rays. They contain such active ingredients as avobenzone and oxybenzone. 

That said, some chemicals and fragrances added to sunscreens can irritate the skin. At the store, take advantage of sample product testers, if available, to find out which types of sunscreen are easiest to apply and are made with a texture, smell, and formulation you can tolerate.

Whether your sunscreen of choice is generic or brand name, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a product that includes the following on its label:

  • SPF 30 or higher: To get adequate “sun protection factor,” SPF 30 should be the baseline. Most adults need a shot glass-sized amount (about 1 ounce) of sunscreen to fully cover the sun-exposed skin on their body.
  • Broad-spectrum: This means the product protects against both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays can prematurely age your skin, while UVB rays primarily are the cause of sunburns. Both can contribute to the development of skin cancer.
  • Water resistant: The added protection of water resistance means the sunscreen will stay on even if your skin is wet or sweaty. However, it doesn’t mean waterproof. You will need to reapply every two hours, or after swimming and heavy toweling.

Also, be aware of the sunscreen expiration date on the bottle. With time, the active chemical can potentially become less effective and break down. If there’s no date on the bottle, write the purchase date on it to help you remember later.

How to find the right sunscreen

With so many sun protection products on the market, it can be confusing choosing the right one for you or your family. Stephanie Savory, M.D., answers the burning question surrounding sunscreen.

Cream vs. spray, and other sun protection tips to keep in mind

Just as there’s no universal brand that will work for everyone, there’s no set rule on whether a cream vs. a spray vs. a stick of sunscreen is more effective. That said, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to evaluate the effectiveness of spray sunscreens. The biggest concern is that it’s tough to know if you’re spraying an adequate amount onto the skin. Spraying two rounds of spray can help ensure more even coverage.

Sunscreen is just one component of sun-protective practices. While complete sun avoidance is impractical, doctors at Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center remind patients that it is important to not rely solely on sunscreen and be smart about potential sun exposure.

It’s likely you’ve seen many kids wearing sun shirts while at the pool or beach. Sun-protective clothing like that speaks to sun avoidance, which is the biggest recommendation. Today, you can find much more breathable options when covering your skin or your child’s skin from the sun.

Find the right time to be outdoors with less intense rays and seek shade when you can. Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. is when the sun’s rays are thought to be the strongest. For example, running early in the morning is a better decision than running midday.

Also, know that when it’s cloudy or even rainy, UV rays can still penetrate through and damage your skin. Reapplying sunscreen is key: Think of it as applying in the morning, reapplying at lunchtime, in the afternoon, and so on.

All of us should wear sunscreen every day, regardless of our ethnicity or complexion. It’s especially important as summertime approaches and outdoor activities become more popular. When choosing a product, remember: It’s not the brand name that matters, it’s whether the sunscreen matches your preferences and will work for your skin.

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