The ABCs of SPF

by Frank Contacessa M.D.

With summer in full swing and the UV index high, it is extremely important to take the proper steps to protect ourselves from the harmful rays of the sun. It can be very confusing, however, to navigate the sunscreen aisle and pick the right products. Here are some of the common questions and misconceptions that often arise:

  1. The higher the SPF, the better!- This is not necessarily true! The FDA claims that any SPF above 50 is of no additional benefit. The brands that boast SPFs of 70, or even 100 are of little added value. There has even been talk of banning claims of SPF above 50.
  2. My sunscreen protects my skin from damage, as well as sunburn: While sunscreens definitely protect the skin from getting burned, it does not provide adequate protection from the damaging free radicals that form from UV exposure. Wearing sunscreen is certainly better than not wearing it, but you shouldn’t feel “immune” to the sun while you’re outdoors.
  3. Brand name sunscreens are better than generic/ store brands: Some generic brands outperform well-known brand names in consumer product tests. You can go to to enter your sunscreen into their product database. It will provide a rating compared to other products, and tell you if it contains any dangerous ingredients. You may be surprised at your product’s rating!
  4. Can I still get my vitamin D when wearing sunscreen? Vitamin D is a hormone that plays an important role in bone health and keeping your immune system working well. We get our vitamin D from our diet, as well as when our skin is exposed to the sun. Many Americans are deficient in vitamin D, as we have become smarter about protecting our skin from the damaging UV rays of the sun. We really don’t know how much sun exposure is safe, while still getting us enough vitamin D. For now, it makes sense to take a vitamin D supplement in the winter months when sun exposure is at a minimum. You should talk to your doctor about being tested for Vitamin D levels, because too much vitamin D can also be harmful.

As you head out into the sun this summer, you should keep a few things in mind:

-Always wear sunscreen! Even though it doesn’t provide perfect protection, it does help to some degree.

-Adults should have a dermatology exam periodically. If skin cancer runs in your family, or if you have very fair skin, you should see a dermatologist more frequently.

Being outdoors is one of the greatest joys of summer. Just take the proper steps to protect yourself from those dangerous UV rays! Have a great summer!