Whether the sky above is a bright blue or steely gray, the sun’s rays are raining down billions of photon particles per second on us. And in addition to the warmth and light we crave, those kaleidoscopic rays contain ultraviolet (UV) radiation, the source of sunburn, premature skin aging, and skin cancer, which more of us get than all other cancers combined.
If you plan to do the prudent thing and slather on Sunscreen before your outdoor activity, then you have some choices. This article covers critical considerations in selecting and applying Sunscreen:
This article will cover:
- Sunscreen ratings
- Ingredient considerations
- Application guidelines
- Tips for total UV protection
Note: Clothing with UPF-rated fabric protects skin more effectively than any sunscreen. So your best strategy is to cover as much as possible with protective clothing and save Sunscreen for the remaining areas of exposed skin.
Understanding Sunscreen Ratings
Sunscreen labels contain essential info that helps you evaluate their effectiveness. All tags must list Sun Protection Factor (SPF), a number that reflects a sunscreen’s ability to protect skin from rays that cause sunburn. In addition, sunscreens that pass the relevant tests might list other protections: broad-spectrum coverage against rays that prematurely age skin and water resistance for a specified time.
What SPF Ratings Mean
SPF is a number that indicates how well a sunscreen shields unprotected skin from damage caused by a particular type of UV radiation: sunburn-causing, skin-cancer-promoting UVB rays. The scale isn’t simple and intuitive, though:
- SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays
- SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays
- SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays
- SPF 100 blocks 99% of UVB rays
Keys to understanding SPF ratings. Keep in mind the following guidelines as you think about what SPF rating you want:
- SPF 15 is the minimum rating dermatologists recommend for any sun exposure.
- SPF ratings above 50 aren’t meaningful. Nothing blocks 100% of UVB rays, and a sunscreen that touts an SPF 100 rating, which sounds impressive, will only block 1% more UVB rays than an SPF 50 sunscreen.
- SPF ratings don’t tell you how long you can wait before reapplying. Though protection time is a factor in SPF testing, the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates sunscreens, recommends that you reapply any sunscreen every two hours, regardless of its SPF rating.
What “Broad Spectrum” Means
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation includes rays of varying wavelengths. In addition to the UVB rays noted above, you need protection from UVA rays, which prematurely age skin and contribute to skin cancer. Rather than a numerical rating, UVA-ray protection is indicated by a specific term: broad spectrum.
Sunscreens labeled broad-spectrum shield skin from both UVB and UVA rays. The FDA says that a broad spectrum’s UVA protection level will be roughly proportional to its UVB protection level (SPF rating).
Water and Sweat Resistance
”Water-resistant” means the Sunscreen is formulated to perform well despite water or sweat. Because no sunscreen lasts indefinitely when you’re swimming or sweating, the FDA bans using “waterproof” or “sweatproof” on product labels. They have a specific test, though, and you should find one of two ratings:
- Water-resistant for 40 minutes
- Water-resistant for 80 minutes
Be aware, though, that toweling off your skin removes Sunscreen. So, regardless of the water-resistance rating and time you think you should have left, you need to reapply Sunscreen immediately after using a towel.
The FDA regulates what ingredients are allowed in sunscreens. The list below highlights some of those key ingredients, including ones that FDA critics are wary about:
Oxybenzone: Because this chemical has been implicated in harming coral-reef ecosystems worldwide, specific nations and the state of Hawaii have banned sunscreens containing this ingredient. Highly effective against UVB rays and widely used in sunscreens, oxybenzone has also caught the eye of health researchers, who have found trace amounts of it in blood samples of people throughout the U.S. Most countries, including the U.S., limit the percentage of oxybenzone in sunscreens.
Octinoxate: This chemical sunscreen ingredient is also banned in Hawaii because of concerns that it has adverse effects on oral health.
(Note: Some sunscreens are labeled as “reef-safe” or “reef-friendly.” These terms do not have agreed-upon definitions, and their use is not regulated by the FDA or managed by a standard-setting organization. Most commonly, these terms are used to identify sunscreens that do not contain oxybenzone and octinoxate. However, other sunscreen ingredients and various environmental factors are suspected of impacting coral health. Climate change and many other variables have been linked to the decline of coral reefs, so it is hard to parse out which factors are of most significant concern.)
Para Amino Benzoic Acid (PABA): Causes allergic and photosensitivity reactions in some people. Products not using it often state “PABA-free” on their labels.
Parabens: These are preservatives (e.g., methylparaben) found in some skincare products, including some sunscreens. Butylparaben has been implicated in coral reef bleaching, and some health questions surround parabens in general. Hence, many brands omit them and promote their sunscreens as “paraben-free.”
Fragrances: Other than not being needed, the concern here is that they can sting your eyes or trigger allergic reactions. So they’re good to avoid for kids and adults who expect to swim or sweat.
Nanoparticles: The ability to make these microscopic particles is relatively new, and their properties are not fully understood yet. They can pass easily through cell membranes, for example, which can be valuable for some purposes but also concerning. No nanoparticle risks have been found in sunscreens, but you might see sunscreens stating that they are “nano-free” or “non-nano.” There is no approved definition of these terms by the FDA, but there are definitions approved in Europe and Australia, and some brands use those definitions to create their products.
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide: Mineral sunscreen ingredients block UVA and UVB rays. Unlike sunscreens that rely on synthetic chemicals to block rays, products that contain these mineral ingredients sometimes market themselves as “natural,” “organic,” or “reef-safe.” Many sunscreens that contain these minerals use nanoparticles, in part, to provide a smoother, clearer application.
Learn more: For a more comprehensive look at ingredients of concern, you can check out information from organizations like the Environmental Working Group (EWG). It’s also worth reminding yourself that the science behind skin-cancer risks and current sunscreens’ ability to reduce those risks is indisputable.
Almost everyone uses too little, and virtually no one puts it on correctly. Embrace the application tips below, and you’ll be one of the few who uses Sunscreen the right way:
- How you apply is far more critical than the Sunscreen you choose. An SPF 50 sunscreen applied haphazardly provides much less protection than an SPF 30 (or SPF 15) sunscreen applied conscientiously.
- Apply 15 minutes before sun exposure. This is true of all sunscreens.
- Use massively more Sunscreen than you think you should. A rule of thumb for a person wearing shorts and a T-shirt is to use at least an ounce (visualize a full shot glass) and ensure you cover every square inch of exposed skin.
- Reapply at least every two hours. Valid for all sunscreens, this is another guideline that many people are lax in following.
- Pack enough for the trip. Though it might sound like a sunscreen sales ploy, dermatologists will tell you that two people on a four-hour hike on a sunny day should use an entire four fl. oz. Tube. To put it another way, if you’re looking at an old tube’s expiration date, you might not be bringing enough (and you likely didn’t apply enough last time you used it).
- Use Sunscreen rated SPF 15 or higher daily. This is a recommendation from the Skin Cancer Foundation. The foundation suggests SPF 30 or higher for extended outdoor activity.
Sunscreen and infants: Use only shade to protect kids under six months of age because their skin can easily absorb Sunscreen.
Spray sunscreens: The FDA recommends against using sprays on kids because of the likelihood of inhalation and respiratory problems like asthma. In addition, fountains encourage the application of too little Sunscreen. Bouquets can be handy for applying over-thinning hair, though a hat is still your best bet there.
Sunscreen expiration dates: A rule of thumb is that Sunscreen is good for up to three years, though the best indicator is the “use by” date on a product. Whenever possible, store Sunscreen in a cool, dry place because heat and humidity hasten its demise.
Total UV Protection
Conscientious UV protection requires a multifaceted approach:
- Wear clothing with UPF-rated fabrics.
- Liberally apply Sunscreen to all remaining exposed areas of skin.
- Wear sunglasses that offer 100 percent UV-ray protection.
- Seek shade whenever possible.
- Monitor—and limit—the amount of time you expose yourself to UV radiation, especially during peak daylight hours—roughly from 9 am to 3 pm.
- Remember that filtered sun can still damage your skin, so protect yourself on cloudy days.
Factors that call for extra vigilance in reducing your UV exposure, including proper use of Sunscreen. Risks from exposure to UV rays significantly increase when any of the following factors come into play:
You have a pale skin tone. If you have dark skin, though, don’t assume you can skip Sunscreen because your skin can still suffer UV damage, though it won’t be as easy to detect.
You’re putting it on your child. Kids have thinner, more sensitive skin. Damage early can also increase their risk of more severe problems later in life.
You’re taking certain medications: Sun sensitivity is increased by drugs such as acne treatments, antihistamines, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and herbal supplements. Double-check all medications for caution about the sun.
It’s summertime. Light is more intense in summer than it is in winter.
You’ll be outside at midday. Light is more intense at noon than in the morning or afternoon.
You’ll be at a high altitude. The higher you climb, the more intense the sunlight.
You’ll be in a tropical or a polar region. Sunlight is less intense at other latitudes.
You’ll be where there’s water or snow. You can also get burned purely by reflective light, so you should wear Sunscreen even when you’ll be in full shade and on (or near) water or snow.
You’re in a high Ultraviolet Index (UVI) area: The UVI is a rating scale—0-2 (low) to 11+ (extreme)—which indicates the daily amount of UV rays reaching the Earth’s surface in a given location. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers UVI forecasts by ZIP code.
You’re applying Sunscreen to vulnerable areas. The nose, ears, and backs of hands and neck tend to get more sun exposure than other areas of your body.
How, When, and Where to Use Sunscreen
For Sunscreen to do its job, it must be used correctly:
- Apply Sunscreen whenever your kids are in the sun. For best results, apply it about 15 to 30 minutes before kids go outside.
- Don’t forget about the ears, hands, feet, shoulders, and behind the neck. Lift bathing suit straps and apply Sunscreen underneath them (if the straps shift as a child moves). Protect lips with an SPF 30 lip balm.
- Apply Sunscreen generously. Dermatologists recommend using 1 ounce (enough to fill a shot glass or plastic medicine cup) to cover the exposed areas of the body. Another trick is to use the “teaspoon rule.” Use nine teaspoons of Sunscreen for the whole body: 1 teaspoon for the face and neck, one teaspoon for the front of the torso, 1 for the back of the torso, one teaspoon for each arm, and two teaspoons for each leg.
- Reapply Sunscreen often, about every 2 hours. Reapply after a child has been sweating or swimming.
- Apply a water-resistant sunscreen if kids will be around water or swimming. Water reflects and intensifies the sun’s rays, so kids need lasting protection. Water-resistant sunscreens may last up to 80 minutes in the water, and some are also sweat-resistant. But regardless of the water-resistant label, be sure to reapply Sunscreen when kids come out of the water.
Don’t worry about making a bottle of Sunscreen last. Stock up, and throw out any sunscreen past its expiration date or that you have had for three years or longer.
Who Needs Sunscreen?
Every child needs sun protection. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that all kids — regardless of skin tone — wear Sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Although dark skin has more protective melanin and tans more quickly than burns, tanning is a sign of sun damage. Dark-skinned kids also can get painful sunburns.
Keep babies younger than six months old out of the sun. When going outside, dress your baby in lightweight clothes that cover arms and legs — and don’t forget a hat with a brim. If you can’t avoid the sun, you can use a small amount of Sunscreen on your baby’s exposed skin, like the hands and face.
Be a good role model too. Consistently wearing Sunscreen with SPF 30 or greater and limiting sun exposure will reduce your risk of skin damage and teach your kids good sun sense.
Other ways to stay sun-safe
In addition to choosing the right Sunscreen and using it correctly, follow these steps to help protect your skin from sun damage that can cause premature aging and skin cancer:
- Cover up. Wear clothing and a wide-brimmed hat to protect as much skin as possible when you are out in the sun. Protect your eyes with sunglasses that block at least 99% UV light.
- Seek shade. Limit direct exposure to the sun, especially between 10 am and 4 pm when UV rays are strongest.
- Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps. Both can cause severe long-term skin damage and contribute to skin cancer.
Which Sunscreen should you choose?
Dermatologists recommend using an SPF of at least 30, which Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, MD, a dermatologist practicing in New York, calls “the magic number.” SPF 15 blocks about 93 percent of UVB rays, while SPF 30 blocks about 97 percent of UVB rays. The ADA recommends an SPF of 30 or higher.
Which is better, SPF 30 or SPF 50?
We recommend using any sunscreen labeled broad-spectrum, water-resistant, and SPF30 or above. Interestingly, SPF50+ offers only marginally better protection from Ultra Violet (UV) radiation than SPF30+, filtering out 98 percent of UV radiation compared to 96.7 percent blocked by SPF30.
Can I skip moisturizer and use Sunscreen?
You don’t have to put on moisturizer before Sunscreen. However, you really should if you care about the health of your skin and keeping signs of aging at bay. Suppose you use moisturizer and Sunscreen in your skincare routine; putting it on before your mineral sunscreen is best.
Do you need Sunscreen after 5 pm?
To protect against damage from the sun’s rays, it is essential to avoid the sun between 10 am and 4 pm when the sun’s rays are strongest, wear protective clothing, and use a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher.
Is SPF 50 sunscreen good?
”SPF 15 blocks 94% UVB rays, whereas SPF 30 blocks 97% UVB and SPF 50 blocks 98% UVB. Therefore, opting for SPF 50 even daily is a good idea. But not more than that as SPF higher than it can only block an additional 2% of UVB radiation.” Even dermatologist Dr.
Can I use Sunscreen directly on my face?
As a rule of thumb, you need a nickel-sized dollop for your face. Cover your neck and upper chest as well. A common mistake is applying Sunscreen to the forehead, cheeks, nose, and chin but forgetting other sensitive areas.
Should you wear Sunscreen every day?
The bottom line. Ultraviolet rays increase your risk for skin cancer and aging, and you are exposed to them daily. Over time, this sun damage starts to add up. Using Sunscreen every day can help protect you from skin cancer and changes.
Can Sunscreen make you darker?
If the Sunscreen you wear stresses your skin (some chemical sunscreens can do this), it may cause skin darkening. Secondly, using Sunscreen with hormonally-active ingredients (like oxybenzone) can cause hormonal skin darkening.
Does Sunscreen whiten your skin?
Sunblock uses physics to reflect UV radiation. It does not whiten the skin, which is a chemical process.
What time can you stop applying Sunscreen?
Always Wear Sunscreen. Apply it to your skin every day. Make it a habit, as you do with brushing your teeth. Avoid sun in the middle of the day, from 10 am to 3 pm. The ultraviolet rays, which cause sunburn, are strongest during this time.
Can I apply powder after Sunscreen?
You can use regular face powder after applying Sunscreen. Sunscreen should be the last step of your skincare routine, and after this, you can apply makeup or compact powder.
Can I apply Sunscreen after aloe vera gel?
Yes, it is entirely okay if you apply Sunscreen after applying aloe vera on your face because aloe vera will work as a moisturizer and keep your skin hydrated, rejuvenated, and glowing all day long.
Does Sunscreen remove tan?
Does Sunscreen reduce tan? There are several tan removal treatments and medications. Yes, Sunscreen is a vital part of pigmentation, but only Sunscreen cannot help you reduce pigmentation. You have to use drugs and some treatments according to your skin type.
Does Sunscreen make you look younger?
Wear Sunscreen, A New Study Says. Wearing Sunscreen daily can help you look way younger. With the summer months approaching, we’re thinking about Sunscreen — and we have a new reason to stock up on SPF. A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine says that Sunscreen decreases skin aging by 24 percent.
Do you need Sunscreen after 4?
Garshick explains that UV rays are at their strongest between 10 am to 4 pm. This is why experts generally recommend avoiding sun exposure during these peak times. But the potential for sunburn at 5 pm and after still exists. “There are still some UV rays being emitted from the sun after 4 pm,” she says.
Should I wash my face before applying Sunscreen?
It’s recommended to wash the skin before applying Sunscreen as the lotion can clog up any dirt that’s left inside your pores; however, if you are in a place where washing your face with the necessary tools is not possible, then it is OK to apply the sunscreen to the front. Sun protection is much more crucial.
Should I wear sunscreen every day?
The bottom line. Ultraviolet rays increase your risk for skin cancer and aging, and you are exposed to them daily. Over time, this sun damage starts to add up. Using sunscreen every day can help protect you from skin cancer and changes.
Are you supposed to rub Sunscreen in?
According to Dr. Engelman, Chemical Sunscreen, which is absorbed into the skin, needs to be applied 30 minutes before going outdoors to let the ingredients fully bind to the skin. Physical sunscreens take effect immediately and can be used right before sun exposure. “And rub it in until you can’t see the product!” she says.
Is there a natural sunscreen?
Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide Are the Only Natural Sunscreen Active Ingredients. As we mentioned, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the only ingredients approved by the FDA to give your Sunscreen a natural SPF. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are minerals naturally found on the Earth.