In the Sunshine State, skincare and protection from the sun’s UVA and UVB rays is a big deal. But choosing the right sunscreen can be a daunting task. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreen provide broad-spectrum protection, a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher, and water resistance to “help protect your skin from sunburn, [premature] aging, and skin cancer.” Here’s our ultimate guide to choosing the right sunscreen to block those harmful rays.
Chemical vs. Physical
There are two basic types of sunscreen, using two different active ingredients to protect your skin: Chemical and physical/mineral.
Mineral (physical) sunscreens,using active ingredients titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide are naturally broad spectrum, protecting against both UVA and UVB rays. These sunscreens work by sitting atop the skin, blocking the sun’s rays before making it to the skin. As a rule, these sunscreens are more annoying to apply—they are quite thick and seem to take longer to rub into the skin; they also tend to rub off more easily, so it is key to reapply as directed, especially if sweating or going in the water.
Chemical sunscreens are far more common on the market, popular for their ability to seemingly disappear into the skin, giving the sunscreen a more lotion-like texture and feel. These sunscreens usually use a combination of two to six active ingredients (oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate) to equal the same broad spectrum coverage of their mineral counterparts. Chemical sunscreens actually penetrate the skin, absorbing the sun’s rays, which for people with sensitive skin can result in skin irritation.
The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental and public health advocacy group, has become a leading voice in promoting safe skincare. The organization tests and rates sunscreens across the market, rating them for effectiveness, as well as the ingredients they use—EWG is not a fan of chemical sunscreens—producing a Sunscreen Guide each year. In 2015—the ninth annual edition—EWG found that “fully 80 percent of 1,700 products we examined this year offer inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone and vitamin A.”
Luckily, the other 20 percent received high praise from the EWG, staying far away from the organization’s Sunscreen Hall of Shame, a group of products that not only fail in their promise, but seem to do so haphazardly.
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Sun Protection Factor
More commonly known as SPF, this is the number that indicates how effective a sunscreen is when applied properly. The number is indicative to how long it would take to get sunburnt while using sunscreen compared to not using it. In other words, if you’re using a SPF 30 sunscreen, it would take 30 times longer to get a sunburn than if you were using no sunscreen at all when sunscreen is at its peak effectiveness.
While no sunscreen on the market can block 100 percent of the sun’s rays, some come close, with SPF 30 blocking roughly 97 percent of rays. And while many products boast SPFs of 50 or more, there is no scientific evidence that a product rated higher than SPF 50 protects any better.
These numbers can also act as a false sense of security. Sunscreen effectiveness lasts the same amount of time, regardless of the SPF number. So SPF 50 might be great blocking UVA and UVB rays, but if you don’t reapply every two hours, you are susceptible to burn.
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UVA & UVB
When choosing a sunscreen, it’s important to select a broad-spectrum product that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. But what exactly are these rays?
Ultraviolet A (UVA) is long-wave ultraviolet radiation that’s also known as the tanning ray. The most prevalent form of UV radiation, UVA is less intense than UVB, though penetrates the skin more deeply and has an equal intensity throughout the day, regardless of season, and penetrates clouds with ease. Long known to play a primary role in skin aging and wrinkling, recent studies have revealed that UVA damages skin cells called keratinocytes, leading some researchers to believe that UVA not only contributes, but may initiate the development of skin cancer.
UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply, causing tanning (cumulative damage to the skin), while UVB rays affect the more superficial layers of the skin, causing sunburn.
As for sunburn, that reddening, peeling skin is caused mainly by Ultraviolet B (UVB) waves. The shortwave ultraviolet radiation, when compared to UVA, is much more intense, yet that intensity varies based on time of day, season, and location, and primarily affects superficial layers of the skin.
When damaging skin’s cellular DNA, UV radiation can produce genetic mutations that can lead to skin cancer. Identified as a known carcinogen by both U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization, UV radiation is considered the main cause of non-melanoma skin cancer.
One popular chemical-free sunscreen to consider is Badger’s Unscented Sport Sunscreen Cream SPF 35, which received the EWG’s top rating for sunscreen—green or No. 1 out of 10—on the 2015 Sunscreen Guide.
The pluses: Water resistant for up to 80 minutes, the mineral-based sunscreen’s active ingredient is non-nano uncoated zinc oxide, is 100 percent certified natural, 94 percent certified organic, and is scent-free. Bottom line: It works.
The downside: It is thick, so you’ll have a little bit of a chalky sheen and it is slightly greasy, which can feel slippery during water sports..
While the thickness and slick texture are not ideal, the pros certainly outweigh the cons.
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While the application process of aerosol spray may seem easier, especially with children, think twice before spraying away. The FDA cautions against aerosol sprays, not only because they may not be effective—there is a lack of data proving sprays are thick enough to provide adequate coverage—but because they can also be harmful. Aerosolized droplets could pass into the lungs, irritating lung tissue leading to asthma flare-ups and allergic reactions, and passing into the bloodstream. Though easier to use with kids, the negatives of this application are just not worth it.
Kids vs. Adults
While many sunscreens are labeled for kids, the FDA does not make any distinction between sunscreens for kids and adults, nor does it hold sunscreen to a higher safety standard for children. Look at the ingredient labels of both adult and children formulas from the same brand; more often than not, they contain the same active ingredients in the same concentrations. While some may include a kid-friendly fragrance, there is often little to no difference between the actual products, besides the price of course.
Bug Spray/Sunscreen Combinations
While your outdoor activity may take you into sunny patches swarming with bugs (it is Florida after all), the AAD recommends avoiding sunscreen and bug repellant combination products. As a matter of practice, sunscreen should be applied, and reapplied liberally when in the sun. Conversely, insect repellant should be used sparingly. When combined with sunscreen that should be slathered on, often, you’ll unwittingly be adding far too much of those anti-bug chemicals.