The nostalgic scent of sunscreen is synonymous with summer, hot sand between your toes, beach lounging and sun-kissed adventures. Just one whiff of the cocoa butter-infused lotion with hints of coconut and orange blossom and most people are ready to grab their swimsuit and hit the beach for an undetermined amount of time. But if you have fair skin, auburn hair, and freckles like me, your memories also include painful, sometimes spotty burns from too much sun exposure and not enough protection. Blistering burns and itchy skin may reflect my dire need for sunscreen, but the truth is that all skin types are at risk of unwanted burns, photoaging, and skin cancer due to UVA damage.
Incorporating sunscreen into your skincare routine is vital to your health and wellbeing. The caveat is that many of the sunscreens on the U.S. market do a shabby job of preventing against UVA rays that penetrate deeper into your skin and cause skin cancer, skin aging, and immune system suppression. This is troubling given the rates of new melanoma cases that have been rising for both men and women by 1.7 and 1.4 percent, respectively, every year, according to the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For these reasons, one phrase continues to ring true and that is: all sunscreens are not created equal. These 10 tips are sure to enhance your sunscreen safety routine so that you can enjoy that beach vacation you’ve been looking forward to!
1. Know The Two Types Of Sunscreen
To determine the effectiveness of a sunscreen, it's important to get familiar with its two general types. Either the product is a physical, mineral-based sunscreen that reflects sunlight by forming a physical barrier between your skin and the sun or it's made with a chemical filter that absorbs the sun’s rays via a chemical reaction on your skin that produces heat. Since mineral sunscreens act as physical barriers they tend to be thicker on your skin and work immediately upon application. Physical sunscreens are typically composed of the ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, offer natural broad spectrum coverage, and wash off quickly with sweat or water. In contrast, chemical sunscreens take about 20 minutes to absorb into your skin before sun exposure and apply seamlessly yet they can irritate sensitive skin and can contain chemical-based active ingredients that can be harmful to human health.
2. Get Educated About Toxic Ingredients
The jaw-dropping fact is that the majority of the chemical sunscreens on the market in the U.S. are manufactured using active ingredients with high toxicity concerns. According to the 2018 annual sunscreen report from Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization dedicated to breakthrough research and education, two-thirds of the approximately 650 U.S sunscreens tested offer inferior sun protection and many contain questionable ingredients that are harmful to human health as well as our environment. The most worrisome is the chemical filter, oxybenzone. Shockingly, this chemical was found in nearly 65% of non-mineral sunscreens despite causing high rates of skin allergies, acting as a hormone disruptor, steadily increasing environmental hazards like coral bleaching, and posing a lethal threat to other marine life.
3. Stock Up On Your Supply
The idea is that if you’re applying sunscreen correctly, then you’re applying it generously and for every two hours that you’re in the sun. Even if you decide you want to make your own natural sunscreen at home, you want to make enough to last a couple months or stock up on your favorite brand so that you don’t run out and fall back into poor sun protection habits. These days online distributors make it easier than ever before to send the products you need right to your door. Check out EWG’s list of the best beach and sport sunscreens to choose a sunscreen with a higher safety rating and stock up for summer and the rest of the year, too.
4. Protect Your Skin Off The Beach, Too
Your mom may have let you in on this tip, but it’s wise to remember that excessive sun exposure can happen anywhere and anytime during peak hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., even on overcast and cloudy days. Everyday exposure can age your skin faster while steadily increasing your risk of skin cancer. The rate of new melanoma cases has tripled since the 1970s with approximately 100,000 new cases expected in 2019, according to population statistics conducted by the National Cancer Institute. While there are risk factors like having a family history of skin cancer, using harmful tanning beds, or having fair skin and freckles, there’s plenty you can do to protect your skin throughout the day. Apart from wearing your favorite sunscreen, you can seek shade during peak hours, pack a large brimmed hat, and sport sun-protective swimwear and sunglasses for greater coverage.
5. Your Makeup Is Not Enough SPF Coverage
Your foundation might read as SPF 15 or SPF 30 but unless you’re applying half the bottle to your face, ears, and neck you’re most likely not applying enough for adequate protection. Makeup with SPF also tends to only prevent UVB radiation, leaving you rather exposed to the detrimental effects of UVA radiation. Instead, look for a facial sunscreen with broad spectrum protection that works well with your skin type and incorporate it into your daily skincare routine before applying your foundation and makeup.
6. Look For UVA & UVB Broad Spectrum Protection
The difference between the two ultraviolet (UV) rays that make up our sunlight is more significant than you may think. Specifically, UVB rays refers to the short, high-energy wavelengths that hit the surface layer of your skin, also known as your epidermis. These UVB rays are to blame for our pesky sunburns due to overexposure. UVA, on the other hand, refers to rays that penetrate much deeper into your skin and cause long-term damaging effects like age spots, changes in skin pigmentation, and freckles. If left unprotected, UVA rays can wreak havoc on the DNA of your skin cells’ deepest layer, your dermis. All of these rather cautionary facts make up the backbone to some solid advice—don’t settle for anything less than broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection.
7. Be Wary Of Misleading Marketing Phrases
In 2011, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) released a new set of rules to better regulate sunscreen. It banned misleading labels like “waterproof,” “sunproof,” and “sweatproof” because these claims were simply deemed impossible. Sunscreens may be labelled as having “water-resistant” protection, although this should always be qualified within a certain time frame of anywhere from 40 minutes to 80 minutes, otherwise the claim is questionable at best. The FDA also stated that in order for a sunscreen to be labelled as “broad spectrum,” it must offer protection against both UVA and UVB rays. The lesson here is to shop mindfully and read labels carefully.
8. Apply Your Sunscreen Thoroughly
This tip can’t be emphasized enough! To ensure that you’re getting the SPF protection that’s labelled on your sunscreen, you want to apply at least 1 ounce (i.e., a shot glass worth) to your exposed skin for every two hours you’re in the sun. This may include your neck, face, ears, the top of your feet, and the backs of your arms and legs, as well as those hard to reach areas on your back. So don’t be shy about asking your partner or traveling buddy for help. If you’re using a chemical spray sunscreen, you’re still going to want to rub the product into your skin to ensure you’re getting full coverage.
9. Grab SPF 30 Or Above
SPF stands for sun protection factor. It relates to a rating of how well a given sunscreen protects your skin from the sun—assuming that you have applied it well. A sunscreen with SPF 30, for example, blocks 97% of the sun’s UVB rays while an SPF 50 blocks approximately 98% of rays. It’s important to recognize that this rating system does reflect a duration of time. That’s because all sunscreens regardless of the SPF number require reapplication after approximately 2 hours. Therefore, choose a sunscreen that has at least SPF 30 but be cautious of anything over SPF 50 because the effectiveness of the rating system begins to plateau.
10. Check The Expiration Date
Your average sunscreen lasts approximately three years from your purchase date. While the FDA requires sunscreen products to be stamped with expiration dates, products proven to last at least three years may not have one. If you’re unsure if last season’s sunscreen is going to cut it, it’s best to use common sense. Test it out, smell it, and if anything seems different from when you bought it, it’s wise to throw it out and label your new sunscreen with your purchase date so you know how long it will last for future use.
- EWG’s Sunscreen Guide: Welcome to EWG’s 12th Annual Sunscreen Guide. Retrieved April 19, 2019, from: https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/executive-summary/
- Howlander, M et al. SEER Cancer Statistics Review. (1975-2016). National Cancer Institute. https://seer.cancer.gov/csr/1975_2016/, based on November 2018 SEER data submission, posted to the SEER web site, April 2019.
- Van der Pols, J. et al. (2006). Prolonged Prevention of Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Skin by Regular Sunscreen Use. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, 15(12), 2546-2548. doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.