The Doctors Weigh In: The Truth About SPF & Sun Exposure

Julia DiNardo

We’ve all had those lazy moments where we’ve waited a bit too long to put on some SPF products (but I wanted to first take a quick dip in the water…), dug a bottle of sunscreen out of the cabinet from last year, or completely forgot to bring the sunhat along. Furthermore, we may have wanted to just “get some color,” or a “base tan,” before a trip, or feel that our makeup, which has SPF, is adequate coverage for the day. Realistically speaking, are we way off base here? Are we seriously damaging our skin for the future?

We spoke with four experts, renowned dermatologists and skin specialists Dr. Howard Murad, Dr. Andrew Jacono, Dr. David Colbert, and Dr. Vermn Verallo-Rowell to find out the truth about SPF; what rating is best, ingredients to look for, how to protect the head and scalp, the benefits of SPF in clothing, and more. Read on for our exclusive Q&A as the doctors weigh in with responses that will surprise, educate, and motivate you to form new healthy habits when it comes to sun care and skin protection (it did for us!). We showcased some of their responses together, and for the most part the wisdom and tips that our experts dolled out were in the same vein, but regardless of some slight difference in opinion, these professionals have imparted all around sound advice, so take heed!

Dr. Andrew Jacono

What is the biggest myth about sunscreen?

Dr. Jacono: The biggest myth about sunscreen is that you do not have to reapply “waterproof” sunscreen. The truth is, sunscreen is water-resistant and not “waterproof.” Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours or after every swim. For the best results, you should put at least an ounce of sunscreen on 20 minutes before you go out in sun to give it time to absorb into your skin.

Dr. Verallo-Rowell: That people who are tanned/ or who tan easily/ or have generally darker skin color are protected by their tan/color, and therefore no longer need to apply a sunscreen. This is WRONG. A tan or medium dark skin color has a low SPF of 3 to 5 while only very dark skin can possibly give an SPF protection of 13-15. Even then, it’s best to stay protected because while less darker-skinned people get skin cancer, they do get skin cancer and it’s often diagnosed late, possibly because it’s not top-of-mind and early warning signs may be dismissed. A sunscreen with high, broad-spectrum protection is needed for any skin tone-not just from UVB but also UVA, and now ideally also from Infrared, and Visible Light.

Dr. David Colbert

Is it a necessity to throw away products with SPF in them after each summer season, or do you think they can still be relatively effective after a year?

Dr. Colbert: Always throw away all of your old sunscreen. The molecules break down over time and lose efficacy.

Dr. Verallo-Rowell: Sunscreens are classified as over the counter drugs and must be treated as such, especially because they are often exposed to extreme conditions: kept in beach bags, or in car seats, on the sand, kept uncovered, with water contaminating it, etc. These conditions can make the emulsion break down and as sunscreen actives are notoriously unstable, the more exposure to extreme conditions, the higher the risk for instability (the product separates or the actives no longer protect that the tested factors).

The average shelf life of sunscreen is usually 1 years. But again, treat it like a drug: look at expiration dates, store it properly as much as possible, and examine it for signs of separation and other physical changes. Besides breakdown of the emulsion, sunscreen ingredients are photosensitive and need other sunscreen ingredients to stabilize them. Too much heat and sun exposure may break down the individual sunscreen actives, to destroy their sunscreening ability on the skin, as well as their photostabilizing effect on other sunscreen actives.

Dr. Jacono: Sunscreen may remain stable for up to 3 years, but it is best to replace it every year, to ensure that SPF is working at full strength.

Dr. Murad: If the product does not contain an expiration date, standard practice is to assume the product has a three-year shelf life so there is no need to throw out a sunscreen you purchased the summer before. But with proper application, a sunscreen should not last you that long! For each sunscreen application, apply one ounce of sunscreen (equal to a shot glass) to the entire body and face daily and continuously reapply when out in the sun for long periods of time. If you plan on swimming or being in water, apply water resistant sunscreen every 40 to 80 minutes for optimal protection.

Everyone seems to think that it is a good idea to get a ‘base tan’ before the summer or a vacation; does this really come into play with how much a person may tan, or burn?

Dr. Murad: The idea that a “base tan” will protect you from sunburn is false. All tanning is damaging. That’s why sunscreens should be applied daily and continuously throughout the day – both indoors and outside to keep your skin well-protected.


Do you see there being a clear advantage of wearing clothing with SPF in them?

Dr. Colbert: Yes, there is a clear advantage to wearing SPF clothing to enhance the SPF in the sunblock. Jill Demling (Entertainment Editor of Vogue) & Karen Mulligan (Studio Manager for photographer Annie Leibovitz) are the founders of Pret-a-Surf, who recently released a fabulous line of sun clothing for women.

Is there a way to protect the scalp, via some kind of product, from the sun’s powerful rays?

Dr. Jacono: You can simply apply regular sunblock directly to the scalp, but if you want a less greasy effect, then try a spray version. Of course, wearing a hat is always your best option as the scalp is very vulnerable to sun damage.

Dr.VermenVerallo-Rowell: Apply the same sunscreen you apply to the body, but select a thinner type lotion to be able to really get it into the scalp and not just on the hairs. Sprays generally give an irregularskin coverage.

Do you think products, like tinted moisturizers with SPF, are just as effective as using Sunscreen with the same number of SPF in it?

Dr. Colbert: Yes, products with added sunblock are just as effective when they add in tints, or other ingredients.

Dr. Murad: You should always apply sunscreens to the face and body, even if your makeup contains an SPF. Think of your makeup with sunscreens as an extra layer of protection, not the full shield. Moisturizers with SPFs are effective but you still have to be cognizant of the rest of your body, not just applying to your face, neck and dcolletage.

Dr. Howard Murad

What is the most important ingredients/protection to look for when buying sunscreen?

Dr. Murad: It is important to make sure that you are using a broad spectrum sunscreen daily that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Most domestic sunscreens solely concentrate on UVB protection (the SPF rating). So I recommend looking for products that offer more complete sun protection, providing defense from both UVB and UVA, the harmful aging rays. Murad sunscreen products are now incorporating the internationally recognized PA rating, that measures both UVA and UVB rays, to give more complete coverage.

Sunscreens should always include hydrators, anti-inflammatory agents and antioxidants as these products will also help repair the skin’s barrier to make it better able to defend itself from the sun and other environmental aggressors, like bacteria and pollution.

To optimize skin hydration, look for sunscreens that contain Hyaluronic Acid and glycolipids to attract moisture to the skin barrier. Licorice Extract is an important anti-inflammatory agent to look for in sunscreens. Pomegranate Extract is both an anti-inflammatory and one of the most effective antioxidants when it comes to sun protection as this ingredient helps protect skin from free radical damage

You should also protect your skin from the inside by giving it the nutritional building blocks of good cellular health. Eat raw fruits and vegetables- the more colorful the better – because they are full of skin-protective antioxidants and have a high water content, which helps keep your skin’s barrier hydrated and more resistant to free-radical damage from the sun and daily pollution. Also, consider taking supplements with pomegranate extract which provides you with powerful antioxidant protection against free radical damage, which accounts for more than 80% of the signs of premature aging. There is evidence that pomegranate extract can even boost the effective SPF of sunscreens.

  Dr. Vermn Verallo-Rowell

People who have generally sensitive skin, what should they look for, or avoid, when buying sunscreen?

Dr. Verallo-Rowell: Those with generally super sensitive skin should look for hypoallergenic, fragrance-free products. Those who have had a patch test can read the ingredients label of the product and if any of their knownallergens is present, should avoid the product. One rule of thumb is that sunscreens that only contain inorganic active ingredients called zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide are generally very well tolerated by sensitive skin. A mix of other chemical or organic ingredients may be problematic for sensitive skin.

And regarding the number of ingredients:

Dr. Verallo-Rowell: The fewer the ingredients, the more hypoallergenic the product…as a rule.

For people who tend to easily burn, what should be their minimum SPF in the summer, and in the other seasons as well?

Dr. Colbert: People of any skin color should always use a minimum SPF 30 in every season.

Is it true that SPF over 50 is really not any more or less effective than the 30?

Dr. Jacono: Yes, it is true. SPF 50 blocks about 98 to 99% of UVB rays and 30 SPF blocks 97% of UVB rays. The difference is very slight.

AND: Would you say it is true that SPF over 50 is really not any more or less effective than the 50?

Dr. Murad: Correct. In fact, the FDA just announced the ban of SPF products higher than an SPF 50 noting that there is no evidence of SPF 50+ products providing greater protection.

Three part question: I’ve seen more and more sunscreen specifically for the face products coming out every season; what do you think is the major difference in the formulation of these products, less of a greasy/oily application?

Dr. Verallo-Rowell: The most important function of sunscreen is protection. Companies are now making lots of headway in making formulations that are more comfortable, lightweight, etc. When I prescribe a sunscreen to a patient, I tell them to look for particular ingredients, protection factors and values, and tell them to use it on the face and body.

Is it still okay to use regular sunscreen on the face?

Dr. Verallo-Rowell: Yes, of course, and like with all other sunscreens: read the label and act accordingly; see the SPF for UVB protection claim; the PFA for UVA protection claim.

…and to avoid breakouts and shine?

Dr. Verallo-Rowell: As a rule most responsible companies avoid comedogenic ingredients. Others do acnegenicity studies. Breakouts can be avoided by choosing the least heavy textured products for facial application. Look at the other ingredients in the formulation…sometimes, a product can be fine in terms of protection but contain many other ingredients that can irritate or clog pores.

What is the right ratio of getting some good sun, i.e. a healthy dose of vitamin D, and overexposure? Can one still absorb the D while wearing minimal SPF on their body?

Dr. Murad: The American Academy of Dermatology recommends against getting Vitamin D from unprotected exposure to sunlight and I agree. Sunlight is not a surefire way to receive the “right” amount of Vitamin D as I see patients who are consistently in the sun but still have low levels of the vitamin.

Instead of trying to get Vitamin D from sunlight, take Vitamin D supplements, incorporate more foods like salmon, shrimp or milk into your diet and continue to wear broad spectrum sun products daily. The amount of Vitamin D needed varies from 400-1000 IU daily so it’s best to talk to your doctor about the appropriate amount for your body/skin type.

Do you see any risk, or if so, the benefits would be outweighed, of letting our bodies absorb the sunscreen, and hence, the chemicals, that are also in the product?

Dr. Colbert: I see no risk in wearing sunscreens. They’re safe. I recommend physical sunblocks like Physicians UV Defense, because it block the sun’s full spectrum of UVA and UVB rays. Physical blocks like Micronized Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide are inert on the skin & are not absorbed. They also reflect the sun off of the skin. The body absorbs very little of the chemical sunscreens and the FDA has proven they are safe. Sunscreen is less toxic to the body than drinking a martini!