Choosing a sunscreen used to be a pretty straight forward process; grab a bottle of Banana Boat in a high SPF, slap it on, and proceed to run slow-mo down the beach, Baywatch-style. Things are a little more complicated now, so here’s what you need to know to keep your buns safe in the suns.
UVA, UVB, SPF...WTF?
Before you slather on the ‘screen, it’s a bright idea (sun pun) to shed some light (sun puns for days) on what these terms actually mean. Sunscreen protects your skin from the damaging effects of UV (ultraviolet) sun rays.
Remember that time you fell asleep on the beach and woke up a dark shade of lobster?
That’s the work of UVB rays burning the superficial (top) layers of your skin. The SPF (sun protection factor) measures how effectively a sunscreen protects your skin from the UVB rays that cause sunburns. UVA rays don’t cause sunburns, but they are responsible for wrinkles, dark spots and the aging effects of sun damage. UVA rays penetrate deeper into your skin, depleting the collagen in your cells. Both UVA and UVB can cause skin cancer, so you need to make sure you’re using a broad spectrum sunscreen to protect your skin from both rays.
The SPF number refers to the amount of time it will take for UVB rays to redden your skin while wearing sunscreen. An SPF of 15 means it will take 15 times longer to redden your skin than wearing nothing. If you burn after 1 hour unprotected in the sun, it would take you 15 hours to burn under a layer of SPF 15 sunscreen. If you burn after 1 minute in the sun, it would take you 15 minutes to burn under a layer of SPF 15 sunscreen...also you are definitely a vampire, so it’s a hard no on beach volleyball, and back your coffin for a sunless eternity. #summerbummer4vamps
For all of our non-vampire readers, keep in mind that SPF only refers to UVB rays, not UVA rays. If you’re not using a broad spectrum product, you’re not protecting every layer of your skin. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends SPF 30 for everyday exposure, and coffins for vampires.
Chemical vs. Physical?
There are two different formulations you’ll come across when comparing sunscreens.
Chemical sunscreens contain, you guessed it, chemicals...but so does literally everything, even physical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens absorb harmful UV rays, and convert them into heat that you skin can release.
Pros: No white, chalky cast, tends to be thinner and more wearable for daily use. The majority of sunscreens on the market are chemical, so they’re easier to find and cheaper to buy.
Cons: Higher SPF may irritate sensitive skin, requires more frequent application, and may have some ingredients that you’ll want to avoid (more on that later).
Physical sunscreens use active mineral ingredients to reflect UV rays, creating a protective barrier between your skin and the sun. Instead of penetrating into the layers of your skin, this type of sunscreen sits on the surface, acting like a shield to block UV rays from getting into your body. Mineral sunscreens are made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, ingredients with a low toxicity rating and safer on skin, our largest organ (did you know that adults carry about 8 lbs and 22 square feet of SKIN?? Just working on my lines for the inevitable Jerry Maguire reboot, now with less workplace sexual harassment, and more cute facts about human anatomy! #topicalmoviereference)
Pros: Naturally broad spectrum, protects as soon as you apply so no waiting, less likely to cause irritation, less likely to clog your pores, longer shelf life
Cons: The mineral ingredients give a thick, white cast that can look chalky, can wear off more quickly, harder to rub into your skin, you have to use more product, can be harder to find at stores
How Much, How Often?
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, for sunscreen to work effectively, you should apply a shotglass worth of product (1 ounce) to exposed areas 15 minutes before going outside, and reapply every two hours. Every two hours? Umm, not I’m not ruining my 20 minute smokey eye to reapply sunscreen every two hours. If you’ve got a liberal shellac of SPF 30 broad spectrum ‘screen, a hat, and not roasting like a rotisserie chicken in direct sunlight, you’re probably be okay. However, if you’re on the beach, sweating, swimming, and frolicking like a water nymph, go ahead and reapply that business.
The EWG (Environmental Working Group) have singled out these shadey mofos as sunscreen no-nos: Oxybenzone, Octinoxate Homosalate, Octocrylene, Octisalate, and Parabens.
Oxybenzone is the worst offender, getting the highest hazard score from the EWG; it’s linked to skin irritation, allergies, and even possible hormone disruption. This irritant isn’t just bad for your skin, it can also damage the environment. An estimated 60 million bottles worth of sunscreen chemicals wash off into coral reefs every year, and are proven to cause significant damage to their delicate ecosystems. Some sunscreens are even labeled as “reef safe” to ensure they’ll protect your skin without being toxic to aquatic environments. Hawaii recently approved a bill to ban the use of products containing Oxybenzone and Octinoxate, the toxic ingredients included in products from big brands like Banana Boat, Coppertone and Hawaiian Tropic. In the meantime, those of us not lucky enough to live in Maui will just have to read sunscreen labels a little more carefully. Unsure if your product is safe to use? The EWG has an app for that!
Okay, But Just Tell Me What to Slap on The Ol’ 8 Lbs Skin Sack:
Use the sunscreen best suited to your activity and level of sun exposure. Working as a yacht model in that part of Australia where there’s literally no ozone layer left? Mineral sunscreen for you! Exposed to limited amounts of sun, not swimming or sweating profusely while working a non-yacht model job? You’re probably fine using a chemical sunscreen. Just make sure it’s broad spectrum, at least SPF 30, and doesn’t contain any of the ingredients listed in Agent Arnold Toht’s famous “Raiders of the Lost Ark Face Melting Serum, Now with Extra Oxybenzone!” (#evenmoretopicalmoviereference).
Safe Skin, Safe Ocean
If your summer days include time in ocean, it’s important to think about the environmental impact your sunscreen chemicals may have. Chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate aren’t just bad for your skin, they’re also responsible for bleaching the already fragile coral reefs. According to the National Park Service, 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter coral reefs every year. Hawaii has banned the sale of sunscreens containing these harmful ingredients in an effort to protect the ocean’s ecosystem. It’s just another reason why reading the ingredient list on the back of the bottle is so important. We’ve already done the research for you with our Safe SPF Roundup!
Everyday Facial Moisturizer with SPF
Everyday Oil Free Sunscreen
Sport Sunscreens (water resistant)
(There aren't any spray sunscreens with an EWG score above 2, but this one was close)