What's the Highest SPF Sunscreen You Need?

June 09, 2021

This article was reviewed by our Baystate Health team to ensure medical accuracy.

Richard B. Arenas, MD Richard B. Arenas, MD View Profile
 Back to Articles

With seasonably warm weather, and after months of COVID-19 lockdowns, many people are enjoying the outdoorseven flocking to beaches to beat the heat. While there are health benefits to sunlight—from boosting the body’s vitamin D supply to fending off depression during long dark winters—the sun’s rays can be equally damaging with too much exposure resulting in wrinkles and, even worse, skin cancer.

Remember to practice sun safety when you are outdoors, including the use of sunscreen, a wide brimmed hat, and SPF or tightly woven clothing. Safety measures are especially important for protecting children and infants from sunburn, dehydration, and future risk of skin cancer.

What is SPF? Does the Number Make a Difference?

When you’re deciding which sunscreen to buy, do you ever wonder how high the SPF (sun protection factor) should be for the best protection? The SPF label means that a product blocks and absorbs UVB rays which are the main cause of sunburn and skin cancer.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, which blocks 97% of the sun's UVB rays.

The highest SPF is 100 and blocks out 99% of UVB rays. But experts don’t necessarily think SPF 100 sunscreen is the best choice. This is only slightly better than SPF 30 and 50 (which is blocks 98% of UVB rays). SPF 100 sunscreens can also create a false sense of security in some users, causing them to spend even more time in the sun.

Sunscreen Decoded

  • Choose a sunscreen with “broad spectrum” that can protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Look for “water resistant” sunscreen but note that it lasts either 40 or 80 minutes.
  • Most people don’t use enough sunscreen. You should liberally apply sunscreen to all exposed skin.
  • Reapply sunscreen approximately every two hours when outdoors, even when it is cloudy.

Reducing the Risk of Skin Cancer

“Many skin cancers can be prevented by simply staying away from tanning beds and refraining from being a sun worshipper,” said Dr. Richard Arenas, chief of Surgical Oncology for the Baystate Regional Cancer Program. While everyone is at risk of sunburn due to exposure, babies are particularly vulnerable because their skin is more delicate. All it take is just a few blistering sunburns as a child to more than double the chances of developing a potentially-deadly melanoma (skin cancer) later in life.

Protecting Your Baby from the Sun

Babies are never too young to protect them from the damaging effects of the sun, notes Dr. John O’Reilly of Baystate General Pediatrics.

“Protective clothing and keeping your baby in the shade are good first steps in protecting your young infant, but sunblock is needed for those areas of the baby’s body that remain exposed to the sun. Hypoallergenic sunblock that contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide sit on top of the skin and may be the best choice for babies under 6 months. Over 6 months any sunblock can be used,” he said.

Dr. O’Reilly and the American Academy of Pediatrics offer the following prevention tips for keeping babies safe from the sun:

  • Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of direct and indirect sunlight because of the risk of heat stroke. Avoid having a baby out between 10 am and 2 pm when the sun’s rays are strongest.
  • Keep babies in the shade as much as possible. For example, they should be moved under a tree, beach umbrella, or stroller canopy. However, it is important to note that on reflective surfaces, an umbrella or canopy may only reduce UVR exposure by 50%.
  • Dress babies in lightweight cotton clothing with long sleeves and long pants and a sun hat with a wide brim.
  • Sunscreen may be applied to babies younger than 6 months on small areas of the body, such as the face, if protective clothing and shade are not available. Test on a small area and if a rash develops, talk with your child's doctor. 

Dr. O'Reilly noted that sun safety isn't something only for a day out at the beach. Parents should take these precautions whenever their children are playing outside.

Want more information about caring for your child? We offer a variety of educational and support programs for parents and families. 

Sun Safety Tips for Adults

Adults also need to follow many of the same recommendations for children, noted Dr. Arenas, who recommends adults avoid being outdoors in the sunlight for too long, especially in the middle of the day when UV light is most intense. In addition to seeking the shade, Dr. Arenas recommends the following tips to stay sun-safe:

  • Keep your shirt on.
  • Put on the sunscreen.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your head.
  • Wear sunglasses that block at least 99% of UV light in order to protect your eyes.

Are the Chemicals in Sunscreen Dangerous?

Recent studies by the FDA and researchers at Baystate have shown that chemicals in sunscreen are absorbed into the blood stream. Of the chemicals in the sunscreens tested for, oxybenzone was found to be absorbed within 30 minutes and reached the highest levels in blood. Oxybenzone, also listed as benzophenone-3 on labels, is a chemical that absorbs light and protects the skin from the harmful effects of UV radiation.

Most is excreted from our bodies within one to two days, and therefore, exposure to it is limited to the periods of use. What this tells us is that oxybenzone is an effective sunscreen that protects from skin cancer, but can also be absorbed into our bodies. As a result, there is an ongoing debate regarding the use of products containing this class of chemicals.

Hawaii and a city in Florida have banned the sale of sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate. These ingredients have been found to be harmful for the environment, specifically delicate coral reefs.

If you are concerned about using sunscreen with oxybenzone, you can choose a mineral sunscreen with alternative ingredients generally considered safe such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

The Natural Park Service says these ingredients seem to be less harmful to marine life.

Common Questions About Sunscreen

Can I be allergic to sunscreen?

The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology says some people can be allergic to ingredients found in sunscreen, like:

  • benzophenones (especially benzeophenone-3, or oxybenzone)
  • dibenzoylmethanes
  • cinnamates
  • added fragrances

The reaction can look similar to a sunburn with redness, sometimes itchy, rashes.

Try switching to a sunscreen with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which is less likely to trigger a reaction. Just make sure to do a patch test first.

Talk to your doctor if you have repeated skin reactions.

Can pregnant women safely wear sunscreen?

Yes, sunscreen is safe for pregnant women. If you’re worried about chemicals, you can use mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

Should I apply sunscreen before or after applying makeup?

There’s not a hard and fast rule about what order to apply makeup and sunscreen.

Some dermatologists suggest moisturizing before you put on sunscreen, which can sometimes dry out your skin. They recommend putting on makeup after sunscreen.

Others say it’s not so much about the order they’re applied in so much as whether you’re putting on enough sunscreen and reapplying.

Is moisturizer with SPF as good as sunscreen?

Moisturizer with SPF usually only have SPF 15. A study published in Plos One showed people using moisturizer with SPF instead of sunscreen tended to miss their eyes, which is where skin cancer often shows up.

Dermatologists don’t recommend relying solely on foundation or makeup creams with SPF either. They typically aren’t the recommended SPF 30, and you’re more likely to miss applying it to sensitive areas of your face.

Do I need sunscreen for my lips?

Your lips are a sensitive part of your body that can be susceptible to skin cancer. Dermatologists recommend using lipstick or lip balm with SPF 30 or higher.

Do people of all races need to wear sunscreen?

Yes. All people can get sunburns and skin cancer. Everyone, regardless of race or skin color, should wear sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.

What’s the best sunscreen for my skin type?

Your skin type shouldn’t stop you from protecting yourself. There’s a sunscreen for everyone.

  • Oily Skin: Go for a mineral sunscreen and avoid fragrances. Try liquid or gel sunscreens, which are lighter on the skin.
  • Sensitive or Dry Skin: Get a sunscreen with ingredients like colloidal oatmeal or ceramides. They help moisturize your skin while offering the same sun protection.
  • Acne-prone Skin: Look for oil-free brands. Those labeled “noncomedogenic” won’t clog your pores.

If you don’t know whether a new sunscreen will aggravate your skin, do a patch test first.

Should I put sunscreen over my new tattoo?

You can’t put sunscreen on your tattoo until it’s fully healed. Cover it up with loose clothing in the meantime.

Does my dog need sunscreen?

The American Kennel Club says dogs need sunscreen just like their human friends. Apply sunscreen to places on your dog’s body that will get the most exposure, like the bridge of the nose, ear tips, skin around lips, groin, and inner thighs.

Does sunscreen have expiration dates?

The FDA requires sunscreen to be good for at least three years. Throw your sunscreen out after that.

Some sunscreens have expiration dates printed on them. After that date, they’re not effective and should be thrown out.

Learn more about skin cancer.

SPF 30 or SPF 50 Sunscreen? Does the number make a difference in preventing sunburn and skin cancer?

baystate health's the beat monthly e-newsletter subscribe image

Health & Wellness Tips

Sign up for monthly emails from Baystate Health.

Back to Top