Choosing a Sunscreen
Protection from the sun’s damaging and dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays is essential in a good skincare routine. However, sunscreen is only effective when you use it properly and use it regularly! Unfortunately, sunscreen has earned a greasy and smelly reputation (especially among US readers), which makes this skincare product a hard sell. Many people are unaware of the huge selection of sunscreens made specifically for the face that are more cosmetically elegant and less “sunscreen-y” than what you’re probably imagining.
There’s no sense in spending your money on a product that you don’t like and won’t use. This guide will help you choose a sunscreen that’s right for your skin and one that you’ll want to put on in the morning.
We all know that photodamage caused by the sun’s UV radiation can lead to skin cancers like basal cell carcinoma and melanoma.1 But it can also lead to premature aging (fine lines, wrinkles, sun spots), hyperpigmentation, and uneven skin tone.
The signs of photodamage can be immediate or delayed and visible or invisible. The most memorable and immediate form of photodamage is the lovely sunburn (typically caused by UVB rays), which leaves you with a crispy and painful epidermis for several days or weeks. While sunburns are the most visible, they are not the only damage we incur from the sun; UVA rays cause photodamage that accumulates slowly over a lifetime of unprotected time in the sun.
Hint: UVA = aging rays; UVB = burning rays.
This damage happens year-round, not just during a beach trip or a summer pool party. Most photodamage is accumulated as incidental exposure and happens in small doses every day. This means that things like your daily commute, walking to the mailbox, strolling to grab coffee, and any other outside ventures all contribute to photodamage. Here at Skincare Addiction we fully believe that having healthy, beautiful skin includes safe and healthy sun exposure. You don’t need to live in fear of that bright, glowing, ball of gas we call the Sun, you just need the right sunscreen!
If you have acne, unprotected sun exposure worsens hyperpigmentation left behind by blemishes (those annoying dark red marks that take forever to go away). So even those who suffer from acne should wear sunscreen year-round!
Types of Sunscreen
Sunscreens come in three types – inorganic, organic, and a combination of both. Combination sunscreens simply contain a mix of both inorganic and organic sunscreen ingredients. The active ingredients in sunscreens are also referred to as sunscreen filters or sunscreening agents.
Inorganic Sunscreens (aka “physical”)
Inorganic sunscreens, or physical sunscreens, use UV filters that reflect and scatter light away from the surface of the skin.
Inorganic sunscreens are typically better at protecting from UVB damage. Zinc oxide is beneficial for inflamed or irritated skin and may be a good choice if you have acne-prone or sensitive skin.
Because of their large particle size, they can leave a white, chalky residue on the skin after application. Some newer sunscreen formulations contain micronized particles to lessen the “white cast” left behind from inorganic sunscreen filters. Typically the words “micro” or “micronized” will be on the label.
Inorganic sunscreen filters
- Zinc oxide
- Titanium dioxide
Because there are only two approved inorganic sunscreen ingredients, it’s easy to tell the difference between sunscreen types. If the label only contains one or both of the above ingredients, it is an inorganic sunscreen. If it doesn’t include either of those filters, it is an organic sunscreen.
Organic Sunscreens (aka “chemical”)
Organic sunscreens, also known as chemical sunscreens, use sunscreen filters that primarily absorb UV radiation instead of reflecting it away from the skin.
Organic sunscreens are typically better at protecting from UVA damage.2,3 They are cosmetically pleasing because they often dry quickly without leaving a white cast.
Can cause burning or stinging of sensitive skin. Organic (and combo) sunscreens may contain alcohol, so if you have sensitive or dry skin you may want to watch out for those ingredients.
Some popular organic sunscreen filters 4
- Tinosorb (S, M)
- Mexoryl (SX, XL)
Note: These are just a few organic sunscreen filters that are used internationally.
The available organic sunscreen filters are constantly changing and improving as more research is done on UVA radiation and protection. In the US, only a select few organic filters are approved for use in sunscreens. This is not necessarily because they are dangerous, but rather because sunscreens are considered a drug and must go through extensive testing and approval before they’re put on shelves. Many of the most effective organic filters are unavailable in the US, but advocates are making progress towards getting them approved for use!2 Hopefully it won’t be long before we see these highly effective ingredients widely available. Until then, if you’re a big sunscreen nerd (like I am!) and care about great UVA protection, you may want to opt for an imported sunscreen (Europe and parts of Asia are popular options) and purchase online.
Two Must-Haves in a Sunscreen
First, check for an SPF between 30 – 50. Both the American Academy of Dermatology 6 and the American Cancer Society 7recommend sunscreens with at least an SPF 30. Most cosmetics with added sunscreen, like foundation and moisturizers, fall below this recommendation. However, if your moisturizer does meet this requirement it’s fine to use it as your sunscreen as long as you’re using the proper amount.
Second, look for the words broad-spectrum on the label. This indicates that it protects against both UVB and UVA radiation and is a better option for preventing photodamage.8
Sunscreen should be applied approximately 30 minutes before going outside, which gives it time to distribute evenly across the skin and absorb as much as possible, leading to better protection.
For the Face
Apply at least ¼ of a teaspoon of sunscreen in the morning, after cleansing and moisturizing, and before applying any makeup. Until you get the hang of eyeballing ¼ teaspoons of sunscreen, I highly recommend heading down to your kitchen to grab a measuring spoon. It’s always more product than people expect, but it’s a necessary amount if you want your sunscreen to actually do its job. When sunscreens are tested in the lab, they have to be applied at a certain thickness. When using sunscreen at home, you want to apply them at that thickness to get the labeled SPF. For the average-sized face, applying ¼ tsp will provide that amount of coverage.
For the Body
Apply a generous amount to any exposed areas of skin. Don’t forget the tops of your feet during warmer months! Sunscreen will prevent those annoying flip-flop tan lines that always show up by the end of summer. Most people prefer to buy a separate sunscreen for the body because facial sunscreens are sold in small amounts. An average rule of thumb is that a full shot glass of sunscreen is adequate for covering your entire body6 – think day at the beach or pool party. If you’re just trying to protect sections of your arms and legs, you’ll need much less than 1 ounce (the shot glass measurement) for adequate protection.
Always reapply sunscreen after 2 hours of cumulative sun exposure. Depending on your daily amount of sun exposure (walking to lunch; long commutes; etc.) you may find it necessary to apply throughout the day. If in doubt, always reapply!
Depending on your skin type, knowing the differences between sunscreen formulas is important. For example, those with dry or sensitive skin may want to avoid organic sunscreen filters if they sting or burn with application. For specific product recommendations, check out our routines pages.