Holy Name Medical Center Blog

Questions about Sunscreen? We've Got You Covered!

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. So, it's good time to evaluate what you're doing to protect yourself against the sun's harmful rays.

Posted by Fredric Haberman, DO on May 1, 2018

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. So, it's good time to evaluate what you're doing to protect yourself against the sun's harmful rays.

According to the American Cancer Society, 5.4 million skin cancer cases, in more than 3.3 million people, are diagnosed annually, making it the most common form of cancer in the United States.

These are staggering statistics. Especially when you consider skin cancer is not only one of the most preventable forms of cancer, it's also highly treatable when detected early.

So, we're going to shed some light on your most common sunscreen questions. With dozens of options on pharmacy shelves, it's not always easy to choose from SPF to UVA and every letter in between. Dr. Fredric Haberman, chief of dermatology at Holy Name Medical Center and one of the pioneers of the American Academy of Dermatology's Spot Me Skin Cancer Screening program, tells you what you need to know to best protect yourself and your family this summer and beyond.

Dr. Fredric Haberman

Let me start by saying, no tan is a safe tan. While you may not want to hear this, it's true. And while it may be common knowledge that the sun can cause skin cancer and people should protect themselves, what's not always known is how to choose the right protection. The wide variety of lotions and sprays, with an equal array of ingredients, can be confusing and overwhelming. But the American Cancer Society has very specific guidelines when it comes to this purchase.

Broad Spectrum

First and foremost, choose a sunscreen with "broad spectrum" protection. Only sunscreens with this label protect against both UVA and UVB rays. These ultraviolet rays do the most harm to the skin. Typically, all sunscreens protect against UVB rays, which causes sunburn as well as skin cancers, but not all protect against UVA rays, which are just as harmful.

SPF 30 (at least)

Next, choose a sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. The SPF number is the level of protection the sunscreen provides against UVB rays. According to the American Cancer Society, SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93% of UVB rays, while SPF 30 sunscreens filter out about 97%. SPF 50 sunscreens filter about 98% and SPF 100 about 99%. No sunscreen protects you completely; however, it is one of your best protections against sunburn, premature aging, and many skin cancers.

Water Resistant Vs Waterproof

Contrary to popular belief, if a product's label says it's "water resistant," that does not mean it's "waterproof." No sunscreens are completely waterproof and according to the Food and Drug Administration, manufacturers are not allowed to claim that they are. The American Cancer Society says if a product's label makes claims of being water resistant, it must specify whether protection lasts for 40 minutes or 80 minutes while swimming or sweating. For the best coverage, reapply every two hours, at least. Make sure you wipe off the old before applying the new, otherwise the effect is like putting water paint on top of oil paint: it just won't work.

Zinc Oxide

Other options that also protect against both UVA and UVB rays are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide products. Unlike traditional sunscreens, these minerals are not absorbed by the skin. Rather, they sit on top of it to form a barrier against the sun's rays.


Most people don't realize they should apply the equivalent of a shot glass full of sunscreen to their body, 30 minutes before sun exposure, and not just in the summer. The sun's rays are powerful all year long, and so sunscreen needs to be applied whether you're swimming or skiing, even on cloudy days. Additionally, I highly recommend wearing a big hat and sunglasses to protect from the sun's reflective rays. There are also some great sun-protective clothing options right now that are lightweight and provide a sun protection factor of up to 50.

Protecting Baby

If your baby is 6 months or older, apply sunscreen liberally. If your baby is younger than 6 months, you want to keep him or her out of direct sunlight and use protective clothing, including a hat with a brim and even sunglasses. Because babies can get overheated, avoid exposure to the sun during the peak hours of 10a.m. to 2p.m.

At Greater Risk

It's important to note, fair skinned people with a history of severe sunburns are at greater risk of developing skin cancer, as are those with a family history of skin cancer. Changing moles may also be an indication of skin cancer, which is why it is so important to get screened. When evaluating a mole, we use the ABCDE method, meaning:

  • A stands for asymmetry
  • B stands for border irregularity
  • C stands for color variegation
  • D stands for diameter change
  • E means that the mole is changing or evolving

Sunscreen and Proper Screening Save Lives

To find a Holy Name Medical Center dermatologist, visit holyname.org