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How to choose the right sunscreen for Texas summers

12 different sunscreens, in tubes and sticks, are pictures on a blue beach towel alongside a straw hat and sunglasses
Gabrielle Muñoz
Texas Standard

Even though it’s officially been summer for only a few days, the Texas summer sun has been blazing for a while now, and good sun protection is on plenty of folks’ minds.

That protection comes in many forms: Hats, UV blocking long-sleeved shirts, sunglasses and good ol’ sunscreen.

But how to choose a sunscreen? There are many types, and differences go beyond SPF ratings. Trisha Calvo, deputy editor for health and food at Consumer Reports, joined the Standard to help us parse out all our sunscreen questions.

How do SPF ratings work? What’s the difference in protection between, for example, an SPF 50 and an SPF 100?

SPF – sun protection factor – is a measure of how well a sunscreen measures against one type of the sun’s rays: UVB rays, which are primarily responsible for sunburn and can contribute to cancer risk.

The higher the number, the more protection, Calvo says – but it may not be as much protection as you think.

“An SPF 30, for example, doesn’t block twice as many rays as an SPF 15,” she said. “An SPF 15 blocks 93% of the UVB rays, and an SPF 30 blocks 97%. So after that, the percentage increases are much smaller, and not even an SPF 100 blocks all the UVB rays.”

When choosing SPF, it’s important to remember that most people don’t use sunscreen perfectly, Calvo said.

“When you’re talking about these levels of protection, it’s under like what it should be under lab conditions,” she said. “So how much you apply and how often you reapply can reduce the SPF.”

Consumer Reports suggests using at least an SPF 30, preferably an SPF 50, “which will help account for some of lack of application skills maybe some people have,” she said.

Calvo also recommends choosing sunscreen labeled “broad spectrum,” which protects against not just UVB rays but also UVA rays that contribute to skin cancer and skin aging.

» MORE: How to keep your pets cool during the dog days of summer

What’s the difference between mineral sunscreens and chemical sunscreens?

Mineral sunscreens contain only titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both as the active ingredient, Calvo said. They work by sitting on top of your skin and deflecting the sun’s rays.

Chemical sunscreens contain active ingredients like avobenzone, homosalate and octocrylene. They work by absorbing the sun’s energy and converting it to heat, and then the heat is dissipated, Calvo said.

“But in Consumer Reports’ tests over the years, we’ve never found a mineral sunscreen that came in at the top of our ratings, meaning that we’ve never found one that has really good protection against either UVA or UVB rays,” she said. “Some protect well against one type rather than another type.”

What’s the latest guidance on the safety of using chemical sunscreen that gets absorbed into the skin?

Calvo stressed that using sunscreen on exposed skin is the best way to prevent skin cancer.

“That being said, the FDA a couple of years ago asked sunscreen manufacturers for more information on the safety of the chemical sunscreens. That’s still in flux, and there are some unanswered questions,” she said. “They can be absorbed through the skin and the bloodstream, but it’s really important to know that the FDA, the American Academy of Dermatology, and many, many researchers and doctors say that this does not mean the chemical ingredients are unsafe, nor does it mean that you should stop using them.

“The known benefits of sunscreen in protecting your skin and reducing the risk of skin cancer outweigh theoretical risks of chemicals or other ingredients.”

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Sunscreen lotion, stick or spray – what’s the best choice?

Overall, Calvo recommends using the form you like best, “because that means that you’re going to use the sunscreen, which is really the most important thing.”

That being said, it can be hard to see how much coverage you’re getting with a spray, and a lot can blow away on a windy day, she said. There’s also a potential for inhalation, especially with children – so Consumer Reports recommends lotion for kids.

“If you must use a spray, have the child turn their head, close their eyes, and hold their breath for a few seconds while you apply it, and no one should spray their face,” she said.

Calvo noted that sticks are good for touch-up areas, particularly those that are often skipped – like ears, the tops of cheekbones, and hair parts – but not the best for covering big areas.

“All in all, you know, if you don’t mind or don’t care which type you use, a lotion is probably going to give you better protection,” she said.

What should shoppers keep in mind when looking for facial sunscreens?

Facial sunscreens use the same UV filtering ingredients as other sunscreens, and are subject to the same FDA requirements, Calvo said. The difference is that facial sunscreens tend to be formulated to be lightweight and to absorb quickly.

Some are designed for different skin types – like oily or sensitive skin, for example – but that varies by brand or specific product.

“You really just need to try them out and find the one that feels best for you,” Calvo said. “But you don’t have to use a face sunscreen on your face. You can use a body sunscreen on your face. Many are lightweight, too. So it really is just a matter of personal preference.”

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Kristen Cabrera is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, where she saw snow for the first time and walked a mile through a blizzard. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, she graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American (now UTRGV) and is a former KUT News intern. She has been working as a freelance audio producer, writer and podcaster. Email her: