With so many sunscreens on the market, it is really hard to select one from all the masses to be “your” sunscreen. There are a lot of factors to take into account such as chemical vs physical ingredients, SPF, UVA protection, formulation, the list goes on and on! It’s completely overwhelming. Today we’ll look at a lot of the factors that go into picking the right sunscreen, and then I’ll share my secret for picking the right sunscreen for you!
Physical vs Chemical Sunscreen
• Physical sunscreens reflect light away from the skin while chemical sunscreens undergo a chemical reaction or change in structure to absorb the light.
• Chemical sunscreens absorb UV radiation rather than reflecting it away from skin. The light can be used in a chemical reaction, slightly altering the chemical structure of the sunscreen itself, or be released as a different UV wavelength.
Physical sunscreens are associated with less irritation and allergic reactions, but can feel much heavier on your skin and impart a white cast to skin. Chemical sunscreens have been found to absorb into skin, and have been found in urine samples.
So, which ingredients are which? The physical sunscreens are Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide. Everything else is a chemical sunscreen.
UV Range Covered
One would hope that this is pretty obvious, but you would be better served by a sunscreen that has full spectrum UV coverage, especially if you are planning to wear the product for high sun exposure.
I created a graphic based on the FDA’s sunscreen guidelines. Note that the wavelengths considered by the FDA are divided into three main groups, UVB, UVA I and UVA II. I realize that some of these active ingredients may actually a slightly wider UV range than what I have included here. However, it is much easier to just think of 3 ranges that need to be covered, and the FDA has broken it all down for us.
Taking into account what the FDA considers each approved sunscreen ingredient to cover, I created a graphic that I’ve been using for a year or so in sunscreen reviews. I specialize it for each review that I post, but if you are curious about the UV range covered by a product I haven’t reviewed, simply check the label and compare to this chart. Keep in mind that there are some alternative names for these ingredients. If there is a sunscreen listed under “Active Ingredients” (where all the sunscreens are listed) that you don’t recognize, just Google it and you’ll find out what it’s other name is.
What SPF Do You Need?
While it’s a personal choice, I strongly encourage you to use at least SPF 15 everyday. You get a lot of UV exposure every day, even if it’s just driving your car or sitting near a window on occasion. This all adds up, and studies have found photoaging (particularly thickening of the epidermis) with repeated UVA exposures. It doesn’t need to be big exposures like a trip to the beach. If you use SPF 15 you need to make sure you use it properly to get the full protection offered.
Unfortunately many of us don’t use our sunscreen properly, and we’re actually getting a much lower effective SPF than we think we are. To help combat this you should use the highest SPF you can stand to use, especially for days with a lot of sun exposure. Think of it this way: If you’re misusing SPF 15 you might be lucky to get SPF 8. Misuse a SPF 85 and you are probably up in the SPF 45 range.
The final thing to think about when choosing your overall SPF is your skin tone. While I don’t think this should allow you to ever decrease your SPF (the above recommendations for SPF minimum hold for everyone regardless of skin tone), it might be a reason to increase your SPF. If you have a family history of skin cancers or happen to be pale like me, you should especially consider increasing your minimum SPF.
Lotions & Creams
These are the most typical formulations. Creams tend to be preferred by those with dry skin as they are more hydrating. Lotions are less thick, spread more easily and are less greasy. They typically are better for those with oily to combination skin.
This might be a good alternative if you have oily skin. Be careful if you want to use a gel during exercise though, alcohol based gels might cause burning/stinging in your eyes. There are water based gel options, check the label.
I love stick sunscreens. They are perfect for applying in a small area like the bridge of the nose that is very prominent. Because the sticks are usually based in wax or petroleum they tend to last longer and have fewer issues with prolonged water exposure.
I couldn’t find any information about how much sunscreen you need to use to get the right SPF if you have a spray formulation. But, it does seem pretty reasonable that they’ve formulated it to pretty much correlate
There are a lot of powders and other makeup products that have SPF listed. In order to actually get the SPF listed on the product you have to use a lot more product than most women would ever use (for example, you’ll need a full 17g of powder on your face, which is more than half of a 30g translucent powder). I wouldn’t depend upon these products for all of my sun protection, but in combination with a lotion underneath…. the extra sunscreen is always a bonus!
Well, if you buy a tube of sunscreen at a store that is labelled “Waterproof” you need to take it back. The FDA no longer allows sunscreens to be labelled waterproof, so that’s either an old tube, or something not quite legal. I found it very interesting to read about the FDA requirements for a sunscreen to be labelled with varying amounts of water resistance.
Basically, there’s a system to the method of testing. Human volunteers apply the product to areas of skin that aren’t sun exposed for testing (basically, I think that means their butt?), they swim in an indoor pool for 20 minutes and then air dry. This is repeated multiple times. The SPF that the product tests at after the water exposure is what gets put on the label. A water resistant product had a total of 40 minutes water exposure, very water resistant products underwent 80 minutes of water exposure.
The Secret to Picking the Right Sunscreen
In an ideal world, all sunscreens would be SPF 30 or above with full UVA/UVB coverage. They would be water resistant. The sunscreen would have no smell and be so light that I would have no clue it was on my skin. It wouldn’t make me greasy looking or clog my pores. It would be stable for use all day without reapplication. In fact, it wouldn’t be a separate product, it would be part of my morning moisturizer. You get the idea.
Unfortunately, this product does not exist.
So, what we all need to do is prioritize and make compromises when picking our daily sunscreen product. For me, it is more important that the product be part of my morning routine (in my moisturizer, I’m not going to apply that much foundation or powder), I want it to be smell free and I don’t want to be able to tell that it is in the product. It can’t interfere with my makeup application. If any of those weren’t true I would not wear it each day. I’d end up making excuses like “Oh, I’m just going to work… I’ll wear the moisturizer without SPF.”
So, for my daily moisturizer (the one I use in between product testings, or each morning if I’m only testing new night products at that time) what I use is a moisturizer with SPF that is very gentle but does not cause me to break out. It is SPF 30 with UVB and UVA I coverage (I’ve compromised to not have UVA II coverage, I haven’t found a product yet that covers it and I like enough to be my go-to daily product). It’s a product that I can not tell the sunscreen is in it, so I just buy it in the SPF version.
I think most of us approach our “pool” sunscreens differently than our daily moisturizer. For longer sun exposure I prioritize UV range coverage and SPF much higher. I really want full UV coverage. I want at least SPF 45, the higher I can tolerate the better to help compensate in case I don’t apply enough sunscreen. I want it water resistant or very water resistant for swimming in my pool. I would prefer a lotion, though I do use stick sunscreens for areas like my nose. I’m willing to put up with sunscreen smell, and I’ll put up with it leaving a bit of residue behind so I can tell it’s on there, but I don’t want it to be heavy or make my skin itchy.
I reference the UV Range image above when I’m shopping for sunscreen, I actually have it saved to my phone!
The secret to picking the right sunscreen is to compromise on the right things so that you select a sunscreen that will protect your skin and that you’ll actually want to use!
Find more information about how sunscreens work, application tips and product reviews in my sunscreen guide