We all know how important it is to protect ourselves from sunburns this time of year! After all, skin cancer affects more Americans every year than all other cancers combined. But finding the right sunscreen can be such an ordeal. There are so many out there, and they all seem to be different somehow. If you’ve got questions, we’ve got answers: check out our guide below.
What are the Types of Sunscreen? How do They Work?
There are two types of widely available sunscreens: physical and chemical. They differ in the way that they protect you from the sun’s rays.
Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sunlight and scattering the rays. They contain synthetic active ingredients such as Avobenzone, Octinoxate, Oxybenzone, or Octisalate.
Physical sunscreens work by bouncing the sun’s ray off skin, almost like a mirror. Their active ingredients are usually Titanium Dioxide or Zinc Oxide, which are naturally occurring minerals.
Advantages & Disadvantages
Chemical sunscreens are more widely available and tend to be cheaper than their physical counterparts. They’re formulated more like lotions, so they go on smoother and don’t generally leave behind residue.
However, their active ingredients are more likely to irritate skin and cause acne than physical sunscreens, and some can cause allergic reactions. You also have to wait a while (usually about 20 minutes) for the actives to become effective. Most troubling, however, is the fact that some chemical sunscreen ingredients have been linked to the degradation of coral reefs (more on this later.)
Physical sunscreen active ingredients are much gentler on skin than those in chemical sunscreens. Their active ingredients aren’t generally considered comedogenic (meaning they aren’t known to cause acne.) There’s also no need to wait to go outside after applying — the actives start working right away.
Physical sunscreens tend to be a little thicker than chemical formulas, which makes them slightly more difficult to spread and can leave a white cast.
What is SPF and How is it Measured?
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, and it’s a way of measuring the amount of protection you can expect from UVB rays. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends an SPF of no lower than 30, which blocks 97% of harmful UVB rays.
The numbering system for SPF isn’t exactly….intuitive, though. You’d think SPF 30 is twice as protective as SPF 15, right? Not even close! There’s only about a 4% increase in protection between 15 and 30. The bump from 30 to 50 is only 1%, and anything above that only shows a negligible difference.
What Does Broad Spectrum Mean?
Unfortunately, UVB rays aren’t the only damaging sun rays we have to look out for. There are also UVA rays, which can cause wrinkling and age spots, as well as contribute to skin cancer risk.
Broad spectrum protection refers to sunscreens that protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Most chemical sunscreens and many physical sunscreens provide broad spectrum protection — just make sure to keep your eyes peeled when shopping.
Sun Protection Tips
The best way to avoid sun damage is to simply stay out of the sun. We know this isn’t exactly realistic, though — especially when blue skies and beach days sing their siren songs!
When you just can’t avoid the sun’s lovely rays, a combination of covering up with clothing and sunscreen is your best bet. Try wearing lightweight long sleeves, billowy pants, and a floppy, wide-brimmed hat for maximum protection.
Along the same lines, avoiding sunlight during the sun’s most intense hours helps keep sun damage at bay. UV rays are the strongest between 10 AM and 4 PM.
Most experts agree that you should be using a lot more sunscreen that you might think. The average recommended amount is equivalent to a full shot glass of sunscreen for your whole body. This is true for any sort of format of sunscreen you use, be it cream, stick, or spray.
Reapplication is key! Many people are lured into thinking that because they used a high SPF, they won’t need to reapply sunscreen throughout the day. The truth isn’t that simple, unfortunately. Things like sweat, itching and rubbing, and *especially* exposure to water can cause sunscreen to wear off. You’re better safe than sorry, so aim to reapply at least every two hours.
What Does Reef Safe Mean?
The state of Hawaii has recently been making waves by passing a bill that would ban certain sunscreens from being sold on the island. The reason? A specific ingredient — oxybenzone — being linked to the destruction of coral reefs.
A study conducted in 2008 linked oxybenzone, a common ingredient in chemical sunscreen, to something called coral bleaching. When exposed to the ingredient, coral in the study turned white and experienced harmful mutations caused by damage to their DNA.
An estimated 6,000 to 14,000 tons of sunscreen come into contact with coral reef areas each year. The SPF that tourists visiting areas like Hawaii on resort vacations wear washes off in the water over time spent swimming or splashing. This is the main cause for the concern behind Hawaii’s bill — that major quantities of sunscreen containing oxybenzone could potentially harm the coral reefs in the area.
Are you headed for a vacation somewhere near a coral reef and don’t want to cause any harm to the wildlife? Pack a mineral sunscreen — the gentler ingredients haven’t been linked to any negative effects on coral.
What are Nanoparticles?
Remember the white-nosed lifeguards of yesteryear? In the past, sunscreens left a *very* white cast due to their large light-bouncing particles. As science has progressed over time, sunscreen makers were able to make these particles smaller and smaller. These smaller particles, also known as nanoparticles, make physical sunscreens much less chalky white than in the past.
There has been some concern about nanoparticles being able to penetrate skin and causing damage when exposed to sun. However, according to the Environmental Working Group, nanoparticles can’t cross the skin in significant amounts and don’t cause damage when energized by sunlight.
Would you like to know more about how sunscreens work and which ones are safest? We recommend checking out the EWG’s Sunscreen Guide here, as well as our other sources: