Excessive sun exposure causes photoaging—the process through which our skin becomes wrinkled, rough, dry, and discolored with age. Even more concerning is that too much exposure can cause skin cancer. Yet, time in the sun is often part of a healthy and active lifestyle, and our bodies need sun in order to make vitamin D, a vital nutrient. Fortunately, many sunscreen products are available that can help protect your skin when spending time outdoors. Keep the following points in mind as you consider sunscreen products:
Even if you are trying to get a small amount of sun exposure to allow your body to make vitamin D—experts agree that 15 minutes of early morning or late afternoon sun is plenty for most people—minimize or avoid midday sun, when rays are the strongest (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
When in the midday sun, wear a broad-brimmed hat and cover skin with clothing, whenever possible. A plain white t-shirt offers an SPF of about 8 (not much). Darker colors typically offer more protection.
Use a water-resistant sunscreen if swimming or sweating.
Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, or more often, according to activity level and label directions.
If you get no sun, you may want to consider taking a vitamin D supplement to avoid deficiency.
Sunscreens that protect only from ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation have been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.
Sunscreens that block both UVA and UVB radiation and have an SPF of 15 or higher are labeled “broad spectrum.”
Healthcare professionals generally recommend a broad-spectrum SPF of 30 or higher.
SPF—“sun protection factor”—is a measure of the time it would take a person to burn in the sun without sunscreen vs. the time it would take them to burn with sunscreen, but the scale is not linear, and SPF 30 is not twice the protection of SPF 15. A product with SPF 15 blocks about 94% of ultraviolet rays, an SPF 30 blocks 97%, and an SPF 45 product blocks 98% of rays, but only for a couple of hours. After that, all sunscreens, regardless of SPF, must be reapplied for full protection.
What they are: Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that react with the sun’s radiation as it hits your skin, preventing the rays from harming skin.
Why to buy: Chemical sunscreens are found in many water- and sweat-resistant products because they tend to have more “staying power” than other sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens tend to be less expensive and come in easy-to-apply options, such as lotions, gels, sprays, wipes, and sticks.
Things to consider: Some people have allergic reactions to certain chemical sunscreen ingredients. Common offenders include PABA, cinnamates, and salicylates. If you’ve had skin reactions to chemical sunscreens, try a brand that is free of PABA, cinnamates, and/or salicylates. Also try fragrance-free and oil-free products to minimize skin reactions.
What they are: Physical sunscreens form a physical “shield” against the sun’s radiation, and consist of finely ground mineral particles, such as zinc and titanium. The two most common physical sunscreen ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Why to buy: Physical sunscreens are less likely to cause skin irritation and rashes than chemical sunscreens, which makes them an attractive option for young kids and adults with sensitive skin. For consumers who prefer to reduce chemical exposure, many health experts advise using physical sunscreens and many pediatricians recommend them for children under two years.
Things to consider: Physical sunscreens may cost more by volume than chemical versions and may not be as water- or sweat-resistant. Some people find they “sweat off” physical sunscreens easily, which means they have to be reapplied more frequently to ensure protection. Keep in mind that even physical sunscreens can contain fragrance or oils, both of which may irritate skin.
What they are: All-natural sunscreens contain only physical sunblocking ingredients, and may contain herbs and other plant extracts to soothe the skin as well. They do not contain synthetic chemicals, fragrances, or oils.
Why to buy: For those with extremely sensitive skin or very young children, all-natural sunscreens are a good option.
Things to consider: All-natural sunscreens are not as resistant to water and sweat, so they may not be appropriate for long days at the beach or pool. Be sure to reapply them often for full sun protection.
Long-Wear & Water-Resistant Sunscreens
What they are: Long-wear and water- and sweat-resistant sunscreens are designed to offer the best protection in active situations, such as during exercise or when swimming. Product labels will tell you whether they have been rated for 40 or 80 minutes of protection. After that time they must be reapplied for full sun protection.
Why to buy: For active people, long-wear and water-resistant products may be the only type of sunscreen that truly protects against sun damage. If you tend to sweat a lot or like to swim in the ocean, lakes, or pools, these products are a good option.
Things to consider: Many people find long-wear sunscreens feel “sticky” or “greasy” on the skin. While this may be annoying, this is the reason these products can stand up to sweat and water while still offering sun protection. New labeling requirements allow a product to be called water “resistant,” but not “water-proof” or “sweat-proof.”
Sunscreens for Kids
What they are: Sunscreens for kids can contain chemical or physical sun-blocking ingredients, or sometimes a combination of the two. These products are designed to be gentler on the skin to minimize the risk of skin irritation. They often do not contain the chemical ingredients most likely to cause irritation or allergic reactions (PABA, cinnamates, and salicylates).
Why to buy: Try a kid-friendly sunscreen for your family, especially for children younger than 12 years. The most kid-friendly products tend to contain only physical sun-blocking ingredients.
Things to consider: Kid-friendly sunscreens tend to cost more. However, if this saves your child from a rash or skin irritation, it’s less expensive than rash creams or a trip to the doctor to manage a skin problem.