It’s no secret that good sunscreen is a healthy skin essential all year long, but there’s a lot of information to keep track of when buying sunscreen. Sunscreen is not a one-size-fits-all, and there are so many kinds of sunscreen out there because different people may have different sunscreen needs. Some people may just need it for everyday wear, while others are looking for water-resistant or sweat-proof protection. Your skin type may also help to determine the best option.
Here’s how to ensure you find your next favorite sunscreen so you can get a safer dose of the sun.
Both UVA and UVB rays can lead to skin cancer, plus UVA rays cause wrinkles and speed up signs of aging, and UVB rays cause sunburns. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends a minimum of SPF 30, which protects against 97% of the sun’s UVB rays. Higher SPFs are better for the fair skinned or those who burn easily, but keep in mind that improvements are minimal—SPF 15 provides 93% protection, so it’s not like 30 is “twice” as effective. The AAD recommends SPF 50 for the fair skinned or those who burn easily, but don’t insist upon maxing out your SPF. Why? “No sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun’s rays,” according to the Academy, and there’s actually no evidence that SPFs higher than 50 protect any better.
A quick look through the ingredients list can help ensure you have the quality and coverage you need. You’ll want to ensure you have both UVA and UVB protection, so look for the term “broad spectrum” in the label. Mineral (or physical) sunscreen works by using natural minerals zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to reflect the sun’s rays from your skin. On the other hand, chemical sunscreens use chemical compounds like bemotrizinol, avobenzone and biscotizole—all of which provide broad-spectrum protection.
You may also want to avoid certain ingredients like oxybenzone, which, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), can cause allergic skin reactions and may disrupt hormones. The preservative methylisothiazolinone can also cause issues.
Many sunscreens are made to specifically help those with dry, oily or sensitive skin. Board-certified dermatologist and skin-cancer surgeon Michael Shapiro has shared with us that people with dry skin should look for ingredients like glycerin, lanolin, oils, silicones (like dimethicone) and aloe, and avoid sunscreen sprays or gels with alcohol.
For oily skin, lightweight or gel lotions with ingredients like silica or isododecane are best.
For sensitive skin, hypoallergenic and fragrance-free are good bets, as are mineral sunscreens with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Alcohols and preservatives should also be avoided.
People with rosacea or acne may need to take alcohol—a common sunscreen ingredient—into consideration, especially when using other skin treatments. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that people who have rosacea or are prone to allergies should avoid sunscreens with alcohol, but that “patients with acne, however, may find gel formulas, which usually contain alcohol, less likely to aggravate acne.” These can work better for acne-prone people than greasy, cream-based sunscreens. Another anti-acne tip? “The UVB filter ensulizole has a lighter, less oily consistency than most other chemical sunscreens,” according to the Foundation. Finally, though, be sure to listen to your skin. For example, if you’re using an acne medication cream or treatment, a light cream can help balance out the drying effects of the acne medication.
You won’t be able to get all the protection your sunscreen can offer if you don’t apply enough, or re-apply at the right time. Sunscreen should be applied every two hours, at minimum, and AAD tell us, most people need to apply “at least one ounce of sunscreen, about the amount you can hold in your palm,” to get enough coverage. Sunscreen expires after two to three years, so when buying, try to plan out how much you might use. If you spend a lot of time outside, you might need to buy a larger supply.
A great way to stick to a healthy sunscreen habit is to build it into your morning routine. There are plenty of foundations with SPF, but according to makeup artist Kim Jundt, “just using foundation as your daily SPF would be a mistake.” She suggests always applying sunscreen under your makeup—either with a protective moisturizer or after your moisturizer. Her technique: “I apply a thin coat of sunscreen, about a quarter size for the face, neck, and don’t forget the ears. Let the sunscreen soak in and use a tissue for any leftover residue. Before applying any makeup, wash the sunscreen off your hands.”
What about reapplying sunscreen later in the day, over makeup? Jundt says, “Most ideally you would wash your face and start over but most of us don’t have time for that.” Instead, she says, you can use a makeup setting spray with SPF and “spray throughout the day as it resets makeup while adding SPF.”
Choose a sunscreen that you like to wear, because it increases your chances of actually using it to protect your skin. Having a sunscreen that checks all the boxes but is unpleasant to wear isn’t worth it. Some sunscreens may have some nice perks (like shimmer, tint or fruit extracts) that could make you excited about reapplying. Sometimes, that might make all the difference.
No sunscreen protects you from 100% of the sun’s rays, so it’s important to plan your clothing, hats and other barriers carefully. As the Skin Cancer Foundation suggests, “more is more.” More clothing coverage means more protection from the sun’s rays. The material of the clothing is important, too. Woven fabrics still contain tiny holes between the threads. The Foundation advises that “synthetic fibers such as polyester, lycra, nylon, and acrylic are more protective than bleached cottons, and shiny or lustrous semi-synthetic fabrics like rayon reflect more UV than do matte ones, such as linen.”
Remember, that the sun may feel great on your skin when you first go out, but carries risks beyond the occasional sunburn. Stay protected, and you’ll thank yourself later!