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Sunscreen advice from top dermatologist

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NEW YORK — One trip to your corner drugstore and you’ll find an overwhelming number of sunscreens on the shelves; and every year it seems to grow. While it’s reassuring that the public is now acknowledging the importance of sunscreen, and appropriately dedicating yards of shelf-space for the cause, it can be quite confusing to know which one is the “right” one for you.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration is regulating sunscreens to ensure their safety and efficacy, but confusion still surrounds many customers when it comes to choosing an appropriate product, which is further compounded by their own “skin type” and other underlying skin concerns.

Dr. Rachel Nazarian

Across the board, a “higher” SPF is always a “better” SPF — which is underscored by an FDA proposal to increase the maximum labeling from SPF 50 to SPF 60 or stronger. All else being equal, there are simple ways to find the right sunscreen, based on individual skin type.

For those with sensitive skin, finding a sunscreen that doesn’t make them red, itchy, or potentially result in flare-ups of underlying skin conditions, such as rosacea and eczema, can be difficult. The ideal sunscreen for sensitive skin would have ingredients that are exclusively labeled as “physical blockers.”

Sunscreen is divided into two broad categories: Physical and Chemical.

Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun’s rays and neutralizing them, while physical sunscreens protect the skin by deflecting the radiation. Generally, chemical sunscreens are more irritating for sensitive skin.

Physical blocker sunscreens can be identified by their ingredients, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Additionally, those with sensitive skin should avoid sunscreens that contain parabens, which can also trigger a reaction with sensitive skin allergies. My personal favorite product in this category is Elta MD UV Clear Sunscreen.

For those who are acne prone — and that’s not just teenagers, as many adults, especially women, are still plagued by acne — it’s smart to consider comedogenicity, which refers to ingredients that cause acne, when choosing a sunscreen. There is an array of products that prevent acne, while effectively avoiding damaging ultraviolet rays.

For acne sufferers, the most important thing is to identify a sunscreen that is “non-comedogenic,” which indicates a lower likelihood of pore-clogging and acne-inducing ingredients. Remember to choose a lotion versus a heavier cream product to allow your skin and pores to breathe. Occlusive ingredients, those that increase moisture levels in skin by providing a physical barrier to epidermal water loss, can indirectly trigger acne-like lesions. My top recommendation for acne patients is Neutrogena Clear Face Liquid Lotion Sunscreen.

When it comes to oily skin, sunscreen considerations are actually quite similar to those with acne-prone skin. For oily skin types, the emphasis should be placed on finding sunscreen that is lightweight and “oil-free.” These sunscreens will absorb quickly, without leaving a shiny film. Primers, which are classically used under make-up, can be found with adequate SPF and are ideal for people with oily skin. The result is a matte finish, incredibly lightweight, and no greasy-shine following application. My top picks for oily skin include La Roche-Posay Anthelios Anti-Aging Primer and Cetaphil Oil Control Moisturizer.

Conversely, people with dry skin should choose a product with a cream base. Lotions, serums and gels are lighter, and less moisturizing. Sprays may even contain alcohols, which are particularly drying for skin, and safety and efficacy are not as well-defined as the classic creams. A heavier day cream, with a high SPF, will protect your skin while continuing to keep it hydrated. Neocutis Journee Bio-restorative Day Cream SPF 30 is my personal choice for dry skin.

Of all the various skin types, those with “combination” skin have the trickiest to manage when it comes to sun care. Ultimately, it’s more challenging to find a product that works concurrently with varying conditions of facial skin. To keep all areas happy, those with combination skin need to find a sunscreen that is moisturizing AND oil-free. Some sunscreens have fast-absorption technology to keep your oily-areas matte, while hydrating drier spots. For combination skin, my favorite is Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch Sunscreen.

Above all, the goal is to protect your skin, whatever its type, minimize exposure to radiation, and lower your risk of skin cancer, including melanoma, squamous cell and basal cell.

Board certified dermatologists are trained to help navigate the often confusing industry of sunscreen and skin care. They have knowledge of, and access to, scores of safe and effective sunscreen options. Consider them your partner in achieving your skin-protection goals, and initiate discussion to address any questions or concerns you may have.

Rachel Nazarian is a practicing dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York, a faculty member at Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Department of Dermatology, and the spokesperson for Destination: Healthy Skin Program, a nation-wide campaign between Walgreens and The Skin Cancer Foundation to raise awareness about skin cancer prevention. 


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