Sunscreens, which come in all shapes and sizes, are anything that stops the skin from absorbing ultraviolet rays. So clothing, hats, sunglasses, and physical and chemical agents (ie, lotions, creams, pastes, and gels) are all sunscreens.

But more often than not, when we mention sunscreens we refer to the agents we rub on our skin. These agents are classified as either physical or chemical agents. To decide which to use, you first need to understand the fundamental differences between the two.

Physical agents are made from either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, and they physically reflect UVA and UVB rays, much like a T-shirt does. While they do not break down over time and do not cause contact dermatitis or photodermatitis, they do leave a visible, white base on the skin that some people find unappealing.

Chemical sunscreens, however, form a clear barrier that absorbs UV rays by way of a photochemical reaction. They carry a low risk for contact dermatitis and come in formulations that block both UVA and UVB rays. Chemical sunscreens degrade with sun exposure, so they require reapplication every two hours.

Many sun-lovers prefer chemical sunscreens because they’re available as creams, lotions, powders and gels. Even more, there are varieties made specifically for use on the face, lips, sensitive skin and children. So which type chemical agent should you use? It depends on your skin type and on your reason for use.

If you have dry skin, grab a cream, which will help hydrate your skin. Those with oily skin might prefer a gel or a liquid. If your skin falls between the two extremes, you’ll most likely find that a lotion works best. You could even try a spray, which many people prefer because they’re so convenient. On the other hand, sticks could be best if you apply sunscreen to the lips and around the eyes.

As an aside, some people believe “tanning pills” protect their skin from harmful UV rays. They don’t. Beyond failing to protect the skin, canthaxanthin, the active ingredient in most tanning pills, is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It can cause nasty side effects that include nausea, diarrhea, itching, and night blindness. There has even been one reported death of a woman who took tanning pills.

If you want to look tan the safe way, use sunless tanners. They’ve come a long way since Coppertone introduced the first sunless tanner in 1960. The streaky, fake, orange-hue days are officially behind us as most popular products today produce seamless tans if you apply them correctly. Keep in mind, however, that most skin-coloring agents do not protect skin from UV rays.

Here are some tips you should consider when selecting a sunscreen:

*Buy a sunscreen that is broad-spectrum, meaning it blocks both UVA and UVB rays.

*The sunscreen should have an SPF of 15 or greater.

*Steer clear of sunscreens with fragrance, as they’re more likely to cause contact dermatitis.

*Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) can also cause contact dermatitis; fortunately, most sunscreens these days are PABA-free.

Remember that the best way to protect yourself from UV rays is to avoid being outdoors from 10am-4pm, when the rays are strongest. The next best thing is to protect your skin with clothing, hats and sunglasses. At the very least, apply an ample amount of sunscreen to sun exposed areas 30 to 60 minutes before sun exposure.

Originally written for

Picture by Mark A. Hicks via


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