August 16, 2022
Most people know how important it is to lather up with sunscreen before spending time outdoors in the sun. But beyond choosing a bottle based on the SPF number on the label, you may not know what to look for when selecting one from the endless sea of options available in the sunscreen aisle. Here’s where to start:
SPF stands for “sun protection factor.” An SPF rating measures how much exposure to the sun is required to cause sunburn. Dermatologists generally recommend using a sunscreen that is at least SPF 30 or higher. SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of the sun’s rays. Higher SPF products offer only slightly more protection and tend to be thick and sticky.
There are two types of ultraviolet (UV) light that sunscreen protects you from: A and B. UVB causes sunburn, but UVA damages your skin beneath the surface. Any sunscreen you purchase should be labeled as “broad spectrum,” “multi-spectrum,” or otherwise indicate it protects against both types of rays.
No matter what SPF number you use, you’ll need to re-apply your sunscreen about every two hours or whenever you’re finished swimming. Sunscreens are available in sprays, lotions, sticks, and powders. Sprays provide a quick way to apply sunscreen to your body – just be sure to rub them in once they’re applied. Lotions ensure the best coverage on your skin and your face, gels can help cover hairy areas like your scalp, and sticks are convenient for sensitive areas like around your eyes. For those who wear makeup or prefer a less greasy product, powder sunscreens are a convenient option. However, dermatologists recommend using powders only for reapplying sunscreen – not for the initial application.
When you’re in the sunscreen aisle, you’ll notice that some products are “mineral” and others are “chemical.” Mineral sunscreens — also referred to as “physical” sunscreens — contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and absorb the sun’s rays before they hit your skin. Chemical sunscreens are absorbed by your skin and cause a reaction that converts light into heat. Both types of sunscreens work equally well, but mineral ones often leave behind a white cast on your skin. Read the ingredient lists for both types of sunscreens carefully, as they may contain other ingredients.
Mineral sunscreens are less likely to cause reactions in those with sensitive skin, including babies. If you have sensitive skin, you may want to choose a hypoallergenic mineral product. The same goes for places such as your face: while any type of sunscreen is suitable, you may want to select one that is less greasy or in stick form for safe application.
Wearing sunscreen daily is easier than ever. There are many products that integrate SPF protection with other features, such as moisturizers intended for daily wear that include sunscreen. Cooling sunscreens produce a cold sensation when applied to the skin, which can make reapplication on a hot summer day something to look forward to. Ingredients such as aloe vera can help repair damaged skin and even offer extra protection for long stretches in the sun. There’s even special sunscreen for your scalp!
Taking each of these factors into consideration will help you stay protected whenever you’re outside in the sun. But there’s one other factor you may want to think about — the environmental impact of your decision. Oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are ingredients found in some sunscreens, may contribute to coral reef bleaching — so check the ingredient label and avoid them if possible. But rest assured, all sunscreens sold in the United States are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so any product you choose is safe to apply on your skin.