When the weather is beautiful, spending relaxed time outdoors feels like paradise. Enjoying the late afternoon sun at a café’s outdoor table, strolling from errand to errand, driving with the windows down and the wind in your hair, doing yoga in the park—it’s like time slows down and we could just soak up those sunny days forever.
But in order to safely enjoy these warm weather pleasures, we all need a little sunscreen for that extra protection when basking in the sun’s delicious glow. No matter how pale or dark your skin tone, you need to be on point with your sunscreen habits if you want to enjoy a lifetime of outdoor time without damaging your skin, or worse—ending up with skin disease. (Not-so-fun fact: What we think of as “premature aging” is often free radical and photo damage from UV light exposure. The good news is, that means a lot of skin concerns are preventable or can be slowed down with sunscreen.)
How does light damage the skin?
There are three spectrums of light that impact your skin’s health:
- ultraviolet A (UVA)
- ultraviolet B (UVB)
- environmentally-occurring infrared (IR)
IR’s long-term effects on the skin are not yet well-understood in dermatology, but it’s thought to break down collagen in the skin more quickly and contribute to inflammation. (Note: The infrared rays in spa and salon treatments are manmade and different than the ones that occur in sunlight.)
Exposure to UVA penetrates to the deepest layers of the skin, causes photo-aging like wrinkling and sagging, and may initiate skin cancer. Not to be the bearer of bad news, but that gorgeous tan you got during that free-spirited trip to the beach was actually your skin trying to defend itself against the cellular DNA damage and mutations created by UVA rays. UVB affects the outermost layers of the skin and is the cause of your sunburn and a contributor to photoaging, as well as being a major factor in skin cancer.
So, how does sunscreen work, exactly…?
First of all, take note of the word itself: sunscreen. These products filter out most harmful rays, but no sunscreen product keeps all of them from penetrating your skin. That’s why, ultimately, sunscreen products won’t cut it; you need shade, clothing, hats, and above all a limit to your time outdoors in order to do as much as you can to keep your skin healthy when it comes to harmful rays and sunlight.
Sunscreens handle light in one of two ways. Physical screens like zinc and titanium scatter and reflect light through tiny particles that sit on your skin, so that the rays bounce off and can’t penetrate. Carbon screens (also often called “organic” because they’re carbon-based) absorb the rays themselves, convert them to heat, and release them. Most sunscreens contain a mixture of ingredients of both types.
The sunscreen’s emulsion is the formula in which these ingredients are suspended, and it’s what’s responsible for the texture, weight, and durability of the product. This is what determines how water-resistant it is and how it feels on your skin when using sunscreen.
Some sunscreens also contain antioxidants to offer protection against the free radical damage caused by sunlight exposure and the environment, moisturizers to help prevent water loss and boost the skin’s barrier functions, or other nourishing ingredients.
Okay, so what is SPF? Where does that come from?
Choose your SPF sunscreen wisely. Technically, it’s just a rating of the percentage of UVB light that the product allows through. For example, SPF 50 allows 1/50th or 2% of UVB rays to reach your skin. That’s why everyone thinks of it as how long you can stay in the sun without burning— if your skin would burn in 10 minutes if 100% of UVB reached it, then with SPF 50 it would take 500 minutes for that 2% of rays to cause a burn.
But that doesn’t mean that your sunscreen will last that long! Being in water, rubbing or scratching your skin, sweating, and other actions wear sunscreen away, and any organic screen ingredients are slowly breaking down themselves in order to convert UV rays to heat and release them. It’s better to think of it in terms of percentages:
- SPF 15 blocks about 93% of UVB rays
- SPF 30 blocks about 97%
- SPF 50 blocks about 98%
So then…how long will sunscreen last, really? And how much do I need in the first place?
Regardless of the strength of your SPF, you should factor in applying sunscreen every two hours, starting a half hour before you go outside in order for it to be completely “set” and have protection. After that first half hour, apply a second coat to maximize protection and get any spots you might have missed. You should also re-apply sunscreen after a swim or an intense sweat for more protection, even if it’s less than two hours from your last application.
Don’t skimp—most people get much less protection than they think they have because they’re applying sunscreen far too sparingly. You should be using about a full ounce for limbs, back, neck, and face every time you apply, and a whole day outside should use up as much as a quarter of a bottle of sunscreen. Also, just because you’re “only” taking a leisurely walk in the park or sitting in your backyard doesn’t mean you have protection and can skip re-applying sunscreen. For truly healthy skin, we need to master the art of application to get full protection.
What do I need to look for in a quality sunscreen?
Developing beautiful skin takes time, and with so many sunscreens on the market, how do you know which one is right for you? Here’s a few tips on how to choose the right one to fit into your skin care regimen.
- First of all, choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen, meaning that it’s effective against both the UVA and UVB spectrums of light. Many high-quality sunscreens also protect against environmental IR light.
- Choose an SPF no lower than 30, and go for 50 if you’ll be out in the sun for a long time.
- If your skin is sensitive, you’ll want to stick to physical sunscreens with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide as the main ingredients. Sensitive skin can be irritated and left without protection by organic sunscreens (sometimes also referred to as “chemical” sunscreens). Look for ones labeled “PABA-free” or formulated for sensitive skin, like SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50.
- Lotions or creams are overall a little better than aerosol sprays, because air currents can carry droplets away, wasting your product and possibly not getting enough on your skin. However, a spray generously applied is better than not using sunscreen!
- Is an expensive sunscreen worth the extra money? Yes and no. The FDA regulates it and broad spectrum testing, so SPF 50 provides the same percentage of UVB protection no matter what you spend. But other factors, like PABA-free formulas, antioxidants, skin repair or nourishing ingredients, noncomedogenic formulas, and high-quality emulsions that spread and absorb better may make higher-end sunscreen products well worth the investment.
Take a look at our sun protection collection and you’ll be sure to find a high-quality sunscreen that not only has a gentle formula that works for most skin types, but also offers nourishing ingredients for aging skin like vitamin C to brighten your complexion and give you that perfect beach beauty glow!