I didn’t start wearing sunscreen until a few years ago. As a kid, no one told me I had to wear it on a daily basis. My mom slathered me in it when we would go to the lake or to a summer baseball game, but I didn’t know it was something I needed to wear all the time. I thought that because I have tan skin already and don’t burn that the sun wasn’t causing significant damage.
Turns out, you do need to wear sunscreen every single day, even if it’s cloudy or rainy. The thing about sunscreen, though, is that it’s often sticky, greasy and leaves a white cast. In the pursuit of skin health, and with summer approaching, here’s everything to know about sunscreen — plus some of my favorite non-gross options.
Why we need it
Consistently going out in the sun without sunscreen can lead to premature aging, wrinkles and, worst of all, skin cancer. Sunscreen is the best anti-aging product out there, says board-certified dermatologist Rebecca Baxt. The sun emits two kinds of rays: UVA, which penetrate deep into the skin’s thickest layer, and UVB, which burn the superficial layers of the skin. (Indoor tanning beds and sun lamps can damage that can lead to skin cancer.)
“UVA in particular causes loss of collagen, which causes lines and wrinkles. UVA also causes hyperpigmentation,” she says. “UVA doesn’t usually burn people, so the effects creep up on you over time.”
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. More than 9,000 people are expected to die from it this year, according to the American Cancer Society. Studies have shown that the sun causes 90 percent of all nonmelanoma skin cancers and about 65 percent of all melanomas. Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer.
The good news: When used properly, sunscreen absorbs or blocks sun rays, reducing your risk of skin cancer.
Sunscreens are typically either physical or chemical. Physical sunscreens, also called mineral, block UVA and UVB rays, and include active ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Chemical sunscreens, which feature active ingredients like oxybenzone, avobenzone and PABA, absorb and reduce UV rays’ ability to penetrate the skin. Many sunscreens also use both physical and chemical actives.
“Both mineral and chemical work,” Baxt says. And they’re both perfectly safe and effective.
There are pros and cons to each. For example, physical sunscreens tend to leave a white residue (aka lifeguard nose) and they run off easier, but there is no wait time between application and safely going outdoors. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, are generally colorless and less thick feeling, but can cause irritation or stinging and take about 20 minutes to start working.
What SPF means
SPF stands for sun protective factor, and the number refers to the amount of time you can stay in the sun without getting burned.
“An SPF of 30 means it will take you 30 times as long to burn as if you had not used sunscreen,” says Baxt. “It’s related to the UVB protection and not the UVA.” To put it another way, SPF 15 filters out about 93 percent of all incoming UVB rays, SPF 30 keeps out 97 percent and SPF 50 keeps out 98 percent.
Check the weather before leaving the house, says Lindsay C. Strowd, assistant professor of dermatology at Wake Forest Baptist Health. “Most weather apps have a UV index guide, which rates the strength of the UV radiation that day from a scale of 1-10, 10 being the most intense radiation,” she says. This can help you decide how strong of an SPF you might need on any given day.
What to look for in a sunscreen
Start with the basics for everyday use. “Look for at least SPF 30 or above and the words ‘broad spectrum,’” Baxt says. A broad-spectrum sunscreen protects you from both kinds of UV rays.
After that, think about your needs. If you’re working out or playing sports, find a water-resistant sunscreen. If you wear makeup every day, you might want a chemical sunscreen.
There are also sprays, powders, cushion compacts and moisturizers with SPF, but “I do not recommend sprays generally speaking,” says Baxt. Powders are good for limited use on the face, for example, but are not usually enough for long-term use or if you’re outside on a windy day at the beach.
Strowd recommends not relying on makeup, moisturizer or primer with SPF as your only sun protection, especially if you plan on being outdoors for more than one hour. “One has to be careful with makeup that advertises SPF. Oftentimes, people do not apply the product in thick enough amounts to get the actual level of advertised protection,” she says.
She also advises that you look for products designed for the face or that advertise “micronized” sunscreen ingredients, which tend to be less greasy and less likely to leave a white cast.
How to properly apply it
Don’t be shy with your sunscreen application. “Sunscreen should be used liberally and generously. Lots and lots of it,” Baxt says. This is important because sunscreen earns its SPF by being tested with a thicker application than most people apply, Strowd says.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying at least one ounce of liquid sunscreen, or about one shot-glass full, to the exposed areas of your body, and a nickel-sized amount to your face. When applying, make sure the sunscreen covers the entire surface of the skin.
“We must use sunblock on all sun-exposed surfaces, including ears, back of neck, chest, tops of shoulders and tops of feet,” Baxt says. “Those areas commonly get forgotten and burned.”
For sprays, use liberally once over exposed skin, and then spray a second time to ensure all skin is covered, Strowd says.
Sunscreen needs to be reapplied every one to two hours to work effectively and should be reapplied immediately after swimming or sweating.
It’s a lot easier to wear sunscreen daily when you have products that you like to use.
For everyday, I love Dr. Jart+ Every Sun Day UV Sun Fluid Broad Spectrum SPF 30. It’s affordable ($34 for 3.4 ounces) and goes on clear. If you have oily skin, this formula might make your skin a little dewy, but it’s nothing a bit of powder won’t fix. My weekday morning routine also includes Lubriderm lotion with SPF 15 for my body.
For the most undetectable sunscreen, Japanese brands are the best. Biore Aqua Rich Watery Essence SPF 50+ and Shiseido Senka Mineral UV Gel are my favorites. They work well under makeup, go on clear and don’t get greasy. You can get these for about $10 on Amazon if you don’t mind the wait, but they’re one-ounce bottles, so stock up. A disclaimer: These tend to contain alcohol, so if you have extremely sensitive skin, you might want to skip this category.
Reapplication can be tricky, especially when wearing makeup. For touch-ups during the day, I rely onuse Mineral Fusion Mineral SPF 30 Brush-On Sun Defense, a colorless powder with a brush on one end. I don’t use this as my primary sunscreen, though, since I’m never sure if I’m applying the powder evenly. Peter Thomas Roth, Supergoop! and Colorescience also make powder sunscreens.
For days when I’m biking, camping or running, I slather La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Face & Body Melt-In Sunscreen Milk all over my face and body, and reapply with that or with Missha Around Safe Block Fresh Sun Stick SPF 50+ (Neutrogena also makes a stick that works well). I also always keep Banana Boat Sport Sunscreen Spray on hand for these situations.
I’m a stickler for sun protection now, and I’m constantly on the lookout for new-to-me formulas.
Remember that sunscreen is only one tool for sun protection, Strowd says. “Other sun protection tools include sun protective clothing such as long- sleeve shirts, wide-brimmed hats and long pants. Sunglasses are an important tool for protecting our eyes from UV radiation, which can lead to cataracts.”
What are your favorite sunscreens? What’s your best tip for reapplication?
Collages by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.