I can still remember the days when lying out in the sun was a thing my friends and I used to do every summer without hesitation. Sometimes with straight up baby oil, sometimes with nothing, and occasionally (after I was already red as a lobster) with a weak SPF sunscreen. Needless to say, we know better now.
The simple fact is sunscreen protects us from harmful UV rays. What isn’t so simple is figuring out what sunscreen you should be using, and how to use it properly. As the days get longer and we head outside more often, it’s something we need to think about.
Knowing what SPF we need, what form is best, how to apply it, and how we can protect the environment from sunscreen chemicals are all covered in this article. It’s your guide to staying safe under the sun, whether you’re frolicking in your backyard or vacationing at the beach all summer long.
There are two basic types of sunscreen: chemical-blocking and physical-blocking. Chemical sunscreens absorb into your skin, capture the UV rays, and release them from your body. Ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, and nanoparticles are used in these sunscreens, but this raises concerns about our health and the environment (more about the problem with these in the next section).
The physical type, sunscreens that deflect UV rays, are made with the minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These minerals sit on top of the skin and stop the rays from being absorbed. They usually appear white on your skin.
When we buy sunscreen, the first thing most of us look for is the level of protection, or SPF. You’ll find options from less than 15 up to 100. But is more better? Technically, yes it is. But the truth is, you’re only going to get slightly better results once you go above SPF 30, which provides 97% protection. A level of 50 blocks 98%, and 100 blocks 99%, so the difference is minimal.
One more thing to know is whether your sunscreen protects you from both UVA and UVB rays. If it’s labeled “broad spectrum,” then it does. SPF refers mainly to UVB rays, which are the type that cause skin burning and possibly skin cancer. UVA rays, however, contribute to skin aging and to skin cancer too. If it’s not “broad spectrum,” you can only be sure you’re protected from UVB rays.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends wearing at least SPF 15 every day, and at least SPF 30 if you’ll be outdoors. Doing this will decrease your risk of melanoma by 50%, and will help prevent wrinkles, sagging and age spots.
You might remember last year’s aerosol recall by a few major sunscreen brands after reports of the harm caused by benzene, a chemical that increases your risk of leukemia and other blood diseases. This set off more concern than ever over the chemicals in sunscreens. The benzene was not a listed ingredient in those products. However, you should be on the lookout for these listed ones:
Oxybenzone (most common) – Endocrine disruptor, toxic to organs, and allergies.
Avobenzone – Endocrine disruptor, possible carcinogen
Octinoxate – Endocrine disruptor, reproductive toxicity.
Homosalate – Endocrine disruptor, enhances absorption of pesticides.
Octycrylene – Endocrine disruptor, reproductive toxicity.
Nanoparticles – Possible health concerns due to tiny size.
Other concerns are skin sensitivities or other skin issues like acne. You want to be extra careful to avoid any ingredients that could flare up these problems, such as added fragrances or comedogenic ingredients that will clog pores. Look for “non-comedogenic” on the label.
What is “Reef Safe”?
The chemicals in sunscreen aren’t only harmful to us humans, but they’re also damaging to our oceans. Imagine the number of people who go into the water to swim or snorkel with chemical sunscreen on. It’s estimated that 4,000 to 6,000 tons of it ends up in the ocean every year.
If you’re heading out for a beautiful beach vacation, carefully consider what sunscreen you use. The above chemicals cause significant damage to coral reefs. Why should we care? Coral reefs are a biodiverse ecosystem that the health of our oceans - and ourselves - depends on. Chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate are known to “bleach” the color from coral, and other ingredients in sunscreen contribute to this effect. They’re also toxic to aquatic wildlife and cause reproductive problems.
Look for “reef-friendly” or “reef-safe” options, but also be sure to read the ingredients. The use of this term is not regulated or managed, so the more research you can do, the better. Hawaii, Palau, Aruba, Bonaire, the Florida Keys and the Virgin Islands have all banned the sale of sunscreen that has oxybenzone and octinoxate to protect their reefs.
Spray vs. Lotion vs. Sticks
Experts agree that lotion is the best form of sunscreen to use for most people. This is because it’s much harder to cover every exposed spot if you use a spray or a stick. Sprays and sticks can be used for reapplication to certain spots, but you should always start with a lotion.
Sunscreens used to be able to claim they were waterproof, but the FDA has changed this since realizing no sunscreen is truly waterproof. They’re now rated either water-resistant up to 40 minutes or 80 minutes. This goes for sweat-resistant too. You should reapply sunscreen every 2 hours or so to be safe. Non-water-resistant sunscreen should always be reapplied after swimming or sweating. And keep in mind that higher SPFs don’t last any longer than lower ones.
Using this guide, you can be better prepared and ready for some fun in the sun. When it’s possible, staying out of the sun is the safest bet. But enjoying all the outdoor activities the warm weather allows can be done safely and responsibly with the right sun protection.