With summer among us, I thought it would be a good time to talk about sunscreen. While sunscreen is important year round, I do feel that this is the time of year people are spending the most time outside and in more direct sunlight.
In this post, I take a deep dive into what I learned from all of the questions and concerns I have had about sunscreen and attempted to condense and simplify this information. Hopefully this sheds some light on all things sunscreen. I have linked some resources at the end of the post if you want to read more in depth on certain topics.
The purpose of sunscreen:
When I was younger, I always associated sunscreen with lake days; days I would be out in the direct sunlight for hours at a time and had a high possibility of burning. When I started learning about skincare, I realized that sunscreen isn’t just something to spray on once before spending the day out in the sun, but instead a very important part of daily skincare, and is likely the most important preventative step in your whole skincare routine.
The basic purposes of sunscreen are to prevent UV rays from penetrating your skin, which can prevent skin cancers, premature lines and wrinkles, loss of skin elasticity, dark spots, and hyperpigmentation.
UVA/UVB Rays: I used to decide whether or not I used sunscreen based on how sunny it was outside. I thought if it was a cloudy day, I wouldn’t be at risk of getting a sunburn, therefore I didn’t need sunscreen, but that’s not how it works. In fact, not only do UV rays cause skin cancer, but the sun is one of the largest contributing factors to aging skin. There are two main types of rays that reach our skin and can cause a lot of damage.
UVB (short wave light) is probably what most people are familiar with. UVB rays cause most of the visible damage (at least in the short term) that you get from being in the sun, like sunburns and hyperpigmentation. Sunscreen, staying in the shade and/or wearing a hat and sunglasses can help protect you from UVB rays.
UVA (long wave light) is the silent culprit of major skin damage, especially over the long term. UVA rays are the cause of skin cancers (although UVB contributes to that as well), as well as wrinkles and loss of elasticity in the skin. Unlike UVB, you can’t escape UVA rays on a cloudy day or when indoors, because UVA is present year round, no matter the weather, and can penetrate glass. To protect your skin from UVA rays, be sure to use a broad spectrum sunscreen year round.
UV index is a way of measuring the strength of UV rays at any given time, 0-2 being low danger and 11+ being extreme risk. A good way to measure UV index is by checking the weather app on your phone.
Fitzpatrick Skin Type (mentioned in my skin type post):
The Fitzpatrick Scale was created in 1975 by dermatologist Thomas B. Fitzpatrick as a way of predicting the effects and risks of UV exposure based on six categories of skin phototypes, ranging from fair skin, lighter hair individuals who are more likely to burn after being in the sun, don’t tan, and are at greater risk for skin cancers, to darker skin, darker hair individuals who have more melanin and are at lower risk for skin cancers and less likely to burn after being in the sun. This is the way dermatologists determine “skin type”, and one of the ways they determine how at risk you are for skin cancer.
Here’s a quiz to find out what your Fitzpatrick skin type is: Skincancer.org quiz
Tanning and Sunburns (ouch!):
I used to be excited to get a tan every summer, until I learned what a tan actually is. Tanning works by increasing the production of melanin (a skin pigment), which is the body’s defense mechanism against damaging UV rays. While that might seem like a good thing, the reason your skin gets darker is because UV rays have already caused damage to the DNA within your skin cells, possibly leading to mutations that can cause skin cancer. Repeated tanning can also lead to premature aging (photoaging). Sunburns are an indication that severe damage has been done by UV exposure and the redness you experience is an inflammatory response. Unfortunately, the main cause of skin cancer is repeated UV exposure, and according to skincancer.org, “1 out of 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by age 70” and “having 5 or more sunburns doubles your risk for melanoma”. Those are some major reasons to switch to spray tans and protect your skin from the sun.
Here are some resources on how to treat a sunburn:
The sun and acne:
I, like many people struggling with acne, have heard the myth that getting a tan or spending more time in the sun could “dry up” my acne and heal my skin. While there is some truth to ultraviolet light being healing, like in the case of psoriasis and uv light therapy, frying yourself in a tanning bed or slathering yourself in tanning oil to try and magically cure your acne is not the same thing as an approved treatment at a dermatologist’s office. You might notice it does help temporarily mask the problem with a tan, but you end up risking long term damage that will be harder to treat down the road.
Sun Protection Factor (SPF): Broad spectrum, PA++++
SPF (AKA sun protection factor) is a way of measuring UV protection. A quote from the Colorescience website says, “If it takes 1 minute for your unprotected skin to start turning red [in the sun], using and SPF 15 sunscreen theoretically prevents reddening 15 times longer.” It also matters how much sunscreen you use. If you use an SPF 15, but only use half the recommended amount, you may only be getting about an SPF of 7, which doesn’t offer much protection.
Broad spectrum protects from both UVA and UVB rays, so it’s good to look for a sunscreen that has this on the label.
PA++ is another way of measuring protection from UVA rays specifically. The more ++ there are, the more UVA protection there is.
A lot of people will say that any SPF above 30 doesn’t give a noticeable difference in protection, however remember that most people probably don’t apply enough product to get the SPF on the label to begin with, so it might be good for some people to err on the side of caution and look for a higher SPF, especially when spending a lot of time outside.
Mineral/Physical and Chemical Filters (mentioned in my basic skincare routine post):
Physical (mineral) sunscreens with active ingredients, like zinc and titanium dioxide, work by blocking and reflecting UV rays from penetrating your skin. Chemical sunscreens with active ingredients, like avobenzone and octinoxate, work by absorbing the UV rays in your skin and releasing them as heat before they cause damage to your skin. Whether you use a physical or chemical sunscreen is up to you. A lot of people find chemical sunscreen ingredients to be irritating and some chemical filters have been found to be damaging to coral reefs. The downside to mineral sunscreens is that they can leave a chalky white cast on your skin, especially on darker skin tones. There is also a new category of UV filters that are common in Korean sunscreens that have filter ingredients like tinosorb s and octyl triazone. These ingredients haven’t been approved by the FDA to be sold in the states as sunscreen, but there are promising studies that show these filters might be more photostable and less irritating than the chemical filters here in the US.
How much to use and how often to reapply:
It is usually recommended to use about 1/2 tsp of sunscreen for your face and neck and a shot glass full (or about two tablespoons) for your body. The very technical way to measure exactly how much sunscreen to use is two milligrams of sunscreen per square centimeter of skin, but I prefer sticking to the tsp and tbsp measurements. Sunscreen is the last step (usually my only step in the morning) of my skincare routine.
Reapplication of sunscreen is something that is pushed quite heavily (rightfully so) by dermatologists and skin care experts. It is something that overwhelmed me when I first started using it, when I was around 14 years old. I thought I had to reapply every 2 hours on the dot, and I did that for a while, but I think it’s better (and much more realistic) to only reapply as needed. I put on sunscreen when I’m going to be in direct sunlight for more than a few minutes (including when I am driving or sitting in the shade) or when I’m near windows with a bunch of light streaming in. If I apply sunscreen around noon, before I leave the house, then come back home, I won’t reapply until I go outside again, so don’t feel like you have to take the “reapply every 2-3 hours” quite so literally. Also, don’t forget to use sunscreen on the tops of your ears, backs of your hands, exposed chest, back of neck if you have short hair or are wearing your hair up, and tops of feet if wearing open shoes. If you’re reapplying over makeup, I would use a powder or spray sunscreen (as mentioned below). I would be wary when using a spray as your only sunscreen, to avoid missing spots or underapplying, but I do understand the convenience of using a spray for larger areas of skin, especially when reapplying. I do use sunscreen on my body when necessary, but I prefer to rely mostly on protective clothing. I always keep a lightweight cardigan nearby to cover up when I’m out in the sun for short (or extended) periods of time.
While using and reapplying sunscreen throughout the day is important, there are other measures to take into consideration, especially when you are out in direct sunlight for longer periods of time (like when you go to the beach or go on a hike). Staying in the shade as much as possible, wearing a sun hat, sunglasses, and protective clothing are all great additions (not replacements) to sunscreen. I always like to keep a hat around for when I’m driving or outside, and a light cardigan is nice to have because I can throw it on no matter what outfit I’m wearing and take it off when I go indoors.
Sunscreen and makeup:
Makeup products don’t have a very high spf to begin with, so while it’s better than nothing, it’s unlikely you are using enough product to get the SPF protection on the label, and I wouldn’t recommend using a makeup product with spf as a replacement for sunscreen. In terms of reapplying sunscreen over makeup, a good option for that is using powdered sunscreen. I don’t rely on powder or spray sunscreen as my only means of sun protection because I’m much more likely to miss spots of skin and/or not apply enough, but it is a good option for not disrupting your makeup.
Sunscreen and Lips: It took me a while to realize that it is equally important to put sunscreen on your lips as it is your face and the rest of your body. I am still looking for a good (mineral) lip sunscreen. I’ve had bad luck with mineral lip sunscreen in the past because they seem to be pretty drying. I plan on trying some this summer and I will update this post when/if I find a good one.
Kids sunscreen: Because I don’t have kids, this isn’t something I have researched a lot, but I am going to link some videos for you to watch if you do have kids and want to make sure they are properly protected from the sun. It is particularly important to prevent sunburns because a lot of skin issues that we struggle with as an adult are actually a result of childhood sun damage.
Here are some resources of sun protection for kids:
What I look for in a sunscreen: Non-irritating, non-drying, comfortable on the skin, easy to apply (spreadable), little or no white cast, fragrance free, and no niacinamide (a great ingredient, but my skin doesn’t seem to tolerate it well and it causes irritation).
Cotz: This is the sunscreen I wear most often on my face and it works well! It spreads evenly and has no white cast. It is tinted, but does not offer any coverage, the tint is more to mask the white cast. The only thing that I don’t like about this is the texture. It is very silicone heavy, so if you’re not a fan of that, I would skip this one. However, I started using this in the winter months and actually liked that it provided a protective barrier on my skin, which I think helped to prevent chapped skin that I am prone to that time of year. This is also the sunscreen I use when I’m wearing makeup and it works like a primer. I don’t wear a lot of foundation, so I can’t say that it would hold up under a full face of makeup, but I noticed that it helped my concealer wear longer and kept it from breaking up around my t zone. It has a pretty matte finish and doesn’t make my skin oily throughout the day, and is easy to reapply.
Biossance: This is my newest sunscreen purchase and I’m really enjoying it so far! It is a more traditional sunscreen cream texture, but not super thick. It spreads really well, but does go on a bit white, although it seems to disappear completely when it dries down for a couple of minutes. It has a dewy finish, gives my skin a nice glow, leaves my skin feeling hydrated, and is really easy to reapply. I was a bit oily at the end of the day, which doesn’t bother me, however I would be aware of that if you do have a true oily skin type.
Beet Shield: This is a game changer for me, in terms of what I thought a sunscreen could be. It has everything I like about chemical sunscreens, no white cast, thinner texture, easily spreadable and doesn’t disrupt makeup or make my skin greasy, but without the irritation. I still usually reach for my mineral sunscreens, but this has become one of my absolute favorites! I think this is the best option if you are someone who doesn’t like the look or feel of sunscreen.
Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Face Dry-Touch Broad Spectrum SPF 50, 2oz for $11.99 M: This is the sunscreen I would reach for on a long day outside, since it is a higher SPF than my other products. I bought this product because it is supposed to be safe for sensitive skin and that is true (for me at least). It has a pretty thick texture and takes longer to work in than the other sunscreens I mentioned. I also found it has a bit of a white cast and does dry out my skin a little. I am adding this to my favorites because I do think it’s a good option for very full sun days, but it definitely has some downsides.
Sunscreen for darker skin tones:
I wanted to include this in its own section because I think it’s important to acknowledge that there is a serious lack of diversity and inclusion in the skincare and cosmetics industry. A lot of people focus on the poor shade ranges that makeup brands have, but sunscreen is something that is greatly lacking in that (formulation) department as well. Growing up, I don’t remember ever really seeing sunscreen being advertised for POC, which is a shame (to say the least) considering that, although overall less likely in darker skin tones, skin cancer is more likely to be caught at a later stage for a POC, and according to a study cited on skincancer.org, “an average five year melanoma survival rate of 65% in black people versus 91 percent in white people.” That is an astronomical and ridiculously unnecessary difference. With all of that said, because I am white and have pale skin, I obviously can’t say for sure whether a product will work on darker skin tones just by trying it on myself, so I watched lots of videos and found some great options! I’ve linked the videos below so you can watch them yourself, if you want to see a more in depth review/demo of the products.
Products Recommended for Dark Skin Tones (M=mineral, C=chemical, CM=combination of mineral and chemical filters, != cruelty free):
More popular sunscreens recommended by other skin care enthusiasts and experts (some of these are repeats from above)
*(M= mineral, C= chemical, CM=combination of mineral and chemical filters, != cruelty free):
Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun, 2oz for $30.90 C! (on sale for $12.36)
Elta MD UV Clear Broad Spectrum SPF 46, 1.7oz for $36 CM: I have tried this and really liked it, however it does have niacinamide which I found out I am sensitive to.
Josie Maran Argan Daily Moisturizer SPF 47, 2oz for $34 M!: My mom has dry skin and loves this product! I wouldn’t recommend it for oily skin.
More Review Videos:
Skincancer.org recommends seeing a dermatologist annually (or more often if higher risk) for a professional skin cancer check. Also, remember to check yourself often, using this skin cancer ABCDE tool.
National Ocean Service (sunscreen and coral reefs)
*Disclaimer: This post is not intended to diagnose, treat, or replace medical advice.