Sun Protection Demystified

by | May 12, 2016 | Blog


Sun protection is a topic near and dear to my heart. My skin tone falls somewhere between “Twilight vampire” and “ghost haunting an abandoned subway station,” so if I don’t wear sunscreen I get a farmer’s tan while walking from my front door to my mailbox. Any prolonged sun exposure results in a burn unless I’m diligent about protecting my skin. But, even for a pale-skinned sunscreen aficionado like myself, the dizzying array of products available can be confusing, and complicated terms and ingredients can be difficult to decipher. Summer is just around the corner, so it’s the perfect time to start looking out for your skin. For military spouses, summer doesn’t just mean the usual trips to the pool, the beach, and family barbecues. It’s also PCS season! The last thing you want to worry about when you’re moving is a painful sunburn. Plus summer is a great time to explore what your current duty station has to offer. Maybe the military has you on the beach in Hawaii this year, or sightseeing in Seoul, or enjoying a cappuccino at an outdoor cafe in Italy. Whatever your plans are, I’m here to guide you through the stressful process of choosing your sun protection this season.

Obviously sunscreens are products that protect you from the sun, but how exactly does that happen? There are three general types of sunscreens: chemical, physical, and hybrids. Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that absorb or scatter the sun’s rays to protect your skin. Some of the most common of these ingredients are oxybenzone, avobenzone, meroxyl, octinoxate, octisalate, and octocrylene. Physical sunscreens, which are sometimes called sunblock or mineral sunscreens, create a barrier that blocks your skin from harmful rays. The most common physical sun blockers are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Hybrid sunscreens, as the name suggests, use a combination of physical and chemical sun protection ingredients.

Aside from the active ingredients, you’ll always see “SPF” followed by a number on sunscreens and skin care products containing sunscreen. SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, and it is supposed to indicate the level of protection against the sun, with higher numbers meaning more protection. The slightly confusing thing about SPF is that there isn’t a whole lot of difference in the protection offered at different numbers. According to the American Melanoma Foundation, an SPF of 15 (which is generally agreed upon to be the lowest SPF to safely use) offers protection from about 93% of ultraviolet radiation, while an SPF 34 offers about 97%. A product with SPF 50 does not, in fact, offer twice the amount of protection as a product with SPF 25. I personally like to hang out somewhere around an SPF 30 or 35. I find that that affords me the protection I need for my blinding paleness without irritating my skin with too high levels of active ingredients. Another important term with sunscreen is “broad spectrum.” This just means that a product protects against both UVA and UVB light. Since both these types of UV light cause damage to your skin (ranging from sunburns to wrinkles to cancer!) you definitely want to use a broad spectrum product.

Now that we know all of our important sun protection vocabulary, who needs to wear sunscreen, and when? EVERYONE, ALL THE TIME. Yes, I’m being serious. Well, mostly. If you’re going to be out in the sun for more than about twenty minutes, you need to have sun protection. Even if you have dark skin. Even if you “never burn.” Even if you’re only being exposed during your commute in your car. Small amounts of sun exposure damage your skin over time, and while fair skinned people are more susceptible to this damage, it happens to everyone.

Once you’ve accepted what the pasty among us already know (that you really have to protect yourself from the sun), it’s time to choose a sunscreen. There are literally thousands of products with SPF on the market, so choosing one can be incredibly daunting. First you have to figure out your needs. What parts of my body need to be protected? What will I be doing? How will the product affect my skin?

Unless you are a professional beach volleyball player, you probably don’t need to cover your whole body with sunscreen every day. A good facial sunscreen is a must for most of us, however. La Roche Posay’s Anthelios line makes a wide range of sunscreens for different skin types that are wonderful, and I have noticed that the brand is now available at my local Target. Always make sure to check your options with the Environmental Working Group’s Tips for Choosing a Good Sunscreen, as some sunscreens may be full of toxic chemicals that can cause more harm than good. 

Another option to protect your face from the sun is to use a moisturizer with SPF. This can save you time, money, and will keep you from forgetting your sun protection if moisturizing is already part of your skincare routine. I like The Body Shop’s Vitamin E SPF 15 Moisture lotion and their Aloe Vera Soothing Moisture Lotion (also SPF 15). I’m also a fan of the Clinique Superdefense line of moisturizers.

If you don’t want to use a separate facial sunscreen, but you love your SPF free moisturizer, you can still protect your face using makeup. There are a lot of great foundations and BB/CC creams that offer sun protection. BB and CC creams are designed to be multi-taskers, so they often have higher SPFs than foundation. Some of my favorites include Boscia BB Creams, Clinique Super City Block (I find this product works well as a primer under foundation if I want both extra protection and extra coverage), Dr. Jart Premium Beauty Balm, Coola Mineral Face SPF 30, and Shiseido UV Protective Liquid Foundation.

For those times when you really are playing beach volleyball (or swimming, or hiking, or anytime you might be getting more than your usual sun exposure) you need a good all over sunscreen. I would again recommend a product from the Anthelios range. I also really like Babyganics Mineral Based Sunscreen lotion, which I borrowed from my toddler last summer when I realized my own sunblock was expired. It turned out to be moisturizing but not sticky, absorbed quickly, and didn’t irritate my somewhat sensitive skin. Whatever you use, remember that water resistant formulas are great but they aren’t waterproof. You need to reapply them after swimming, sweating, or toweling off.

But how do I wear sunscreen? This feels like a silly question, but I think a lot of people are wondering exactly where sunscreen fits into their skincare routine. The answer is: it fits in last. So after you’ve cleansed, toned, moisturized, etc. then you put on sunscreen. (If you put sunscreen on before your moisturizer, it will still work, but your moisturizer won’t absorb as well). And don’t forget to reapply every few hours. At the end of the day, don’t forget to take your sunscreen off. One of the main reasons people tell me they don’t wear sunscreen is that it makes them break out. This is probably because they aren’t removing it properly. Sunscreen is tough to remove, so make sure you’re cleansing your skin thoroughly. Since I wear SPF every day, I like to double cleanse my face at night, and use a washcloth the first time around, just to make sure I’m getting all that lovely sunscreen off.

No sunscreen is going to offer you complete protection from the sun, so always be mindful about your exposure. Cover up, wear hats and sunglasses, or (my favorite) stay indoors during the hottest parts of the day. If you’re me, you may even wear hats and sunglasses indoors, because you’re committed to both sun protection and being mysterious.

I’m always on the lookout for new products and tips for taking care of my skin. So what’s your favorite sun protection strategy?

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