Sunscreen FAQs

Summer Safety Guide

Sunscreen and SPF factsAnswers to the most commonly asked sunscreen questions on CafeMom, from skin cancer expert and dermatologist Barbara Gilchrest, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Dermatology:

Do sunblocks with a higher SPF offer better protection against the cancer and wrinkle causing rays?

For everyday use April through October, in temperate climates, an SPF 15 is fine for adults and children age 1 year and older. SPF 30 or higher is a good number for people who live in the middle, southern and western areas of the country.

If you'll be in direct sun for more than an hour, especially at a beach, pond, or pool, a higher waterproof SPF product is the way to go. Extremely high SPF products (greater than 50) are more expensive and unnecessary if you're already being "sun smart."


Why are there so many darn numbers, anyway -- 15, 35, 45, 60 ... ?

High SPFs are the big thing this year. The SPF is the ratio of the time required to get a minimal sunburn while wearing the product, compared to the time you're not wearing it.. 

So, if you normally turn pink at nighttime after a 15 minute sun exposure earlier in the day, with an SPF 15, it would take 150 minutes to see the same amount of sunburn.

The very high SPF products are only marginally more protective than mid-SPF products. An SPF 15 protects against 93 percent of the burning rays, while an SPF 50 protects against 98 percent and an SPF 100 protects against 99 percent.

All this is true if the recommended amount of sunscreen is applied. In practice, everyone applies half or less of the recommended amount and the protection is therefore less, usually less than a true SPF 10 for any product. 

Are clothes an effective sunscreen?

They are an excellent sunscreen, as long as you can't see through the clothes. Then not so much. Wet t-shirts also don't provide great cover, perhaps an SPF 5 or 10, depending on the fabric. Almost any pants are an excellent sunscreen.

Do sunscreens contain carcinogens?

Sunscreens have a superb safety record dating from the 1950s. Some people are concerned that sunscreens may contain cancer causing ingredients, but from my reading of the literature, this is simply not a concern at all.

In contrast, sunlight is a well proven carcinogen. 

Do you need to reapply waterproof or resistant products after a swim?

Waterproof products give full protection after 90 minutes in the water and water resistant products somewhat less. 

Sunscreens not so labeled often come off readily after a dip and are therefore not a good choice for situations in which swimming, splashing, or sweating will occur. If you're going to be in the water all day, it's safest to reapply even a waterproof sunscreen every few hours.

Should we wash sunscreen off at the end of the day?

There is no evidence that failing to wash off a sunscreen causes any harm.

Can you make your own sunscreen? There are recipes out there ...

I would strongly discourage mothers from making their own sunscreens. There are excellent safe and effective sunscreens available at very moderate cost. If moms wish to make their own sunscreens, I would encourage them to make them out of clothing.

Should we use sun monitor bands to tell us when it's time to reapply sunscreen?

Accurate sunscreen monitor bands are very expensive and inexpensive inaccurate ones are misleading. A little common sense can easily replace them, in my opinion.  At noon in June in Boston or New York, a fair skinned child will sunburn after 10-15 minutes on a clear sunny day.

I'm allergic to sunscreen. What can I do?

Allergy to sunscreen can occur but is extremely rare. More common are complaints of burning or stinging, especially if sunscreen gets in the eyes or is applied to already sunburned skin. 

There are many products formulated to not sting, such as Water Babies and Faces Only. I hate to recommend specific brands, however, as there are many similar ones. Older children and adults may develop acne from chronic use of greasy sunscreens. In that case, try products designed specifically for the face, preferably in a spray, which won't clog pores as easily.


What is your favorite brand of sunscreen?

Read More >