facts about sunscreen

How well do you know your sunscreen? I bet that little tube you’re using every day (because you are using it every day, RIGHT?) has been keeping secrets from you. It probably evaded the question when you asked it what the heck SPF is. And it may have forgotten to mention that not all members of its family are the same. Some are more physical than others, for example. It’s time to have that tough talk with your sunscreen. The talk that sets the record straight about what it is, what it does and how to use it, so you can make the most of it and get your skin the sun protection it deserves. Ready? Let’s all sit down and have a chat then. Here are some little known facts about sunscreen you need to know:

What Is Sunscreen?

Sunscreen is the most important skincare product in your stash. I don’t say that lightly. My clients all want to know what’s the best anti-aging product they can buy at Sephora. Is it a new retinoid serum? A revolutionary peptide serum? A secret herb from Korea? Nah, it’s sunscreen. You use it daily and it’ll prevent up to 80% of wrinkles.

Sunscreen protects your skin from UV rays. It either reflects them off your skin or absorbs them and turns them into a less damaging form of energy (heat). Either way, it prevents those pesky UV rays from ruining your skin. It can come in many forms: lotions, creams, ointments, gels, sticks and sprays. Pick the one you like the most (but NO sprays!) and use it religiously.

Scientific studies shows that UV rays are responsible for up to 80% of the visible signs of aging “in the skin including dry appearance, scalping, wrinkling and impaired pigmentation, and photoaging correlates with cancer risk.” You can use the best anti-aging products in the world, but if you skip sunscreen, it’s all for nothing.

Related: Why You Should Avoid Spray Sunscreens

What Does SPF Mean?

SPF is short for Sun Protection Factor. It’s a number (15, 30, 50) that says how long you can stay in the sun without sunscreen before you start to burn. Not before your skin gets damaged enough by wrinkles or dark spots. Nope, SPF doesn’t care about those “little details”. It’s there only to prevent you from getting a sunburn.

How is it calculated? Easy. By comparing the length of time it takes for your sunscreen-protected skin to get a sunburn with the time it takes unprotected skin to sunburn. To know how long your sunscreen is effective for, simply multiply its SPF factor by the amount of time it takes for you to burn. For example, if you burn after 10 minutes without sunscreen, SPF 15 will keep you safe for 150 minutes. That’s why you need to reapply sunscreen so often, by the way.

FYI, this is true in a lab. IRL, the sun is more intense at noon and less intense at 8:00am, for example. What does this mean? Even with the same SPF, you’ll burn sooner in the early afternoon than the early morning.

Because SPF relates only to sunburns, it’s not uncommon to find sunscreens that protect only from UVB rays (the ones responsible for sunburn). But UVA rays are just as dangerous. They cause wrinkles and cancer, too. If a sunscreen doesn’t protect from both, leave it on the shelf. How can you tell? Look for “broad spectrum” on the label. That covers everything.

Related: Take A Number: How To Choose The Right SPF For You?

mad hippie facial spf 30+ review

What Are The Different Types Of Sunscreen?

Did you know there are different types of sunscreens?

  • Chemical sunscreens: They use synthetic UV filters, like avobenzone and oxybenzone, that turn UV rays into a less dangerous form of energy (heat). They go on clear but can be irritating for sensitive skin.
  • Physical sunscreens: Also called mineral sunscreens, they use mineral pigments, like zinc oxide, that turn UV rays into heat. They also reflect a small part of UV rays off your face. They often leave a white cast behind, but are much gentler on the skin.
  • Hybrid sunscreens: A mixture of the two. For example, they can contain zinc oxide (physical) and mexoryl (chemical). They’re great for people who want the best of both worlds. But, if your skin is sensitive, check the label carefully.

Let me get a little scientific on you. ALL the ingredients used in skincare products, including water are a chemical. A chemical is simply something that’s made of matter and EVERYTHING is made of matter. So chemical sunscreens aren’t worse or more dangerous than physical sunscreens.

Physical or mineral sunscreens derive their name by the use of their mineral UV filters. So everything else that uses different UV filters falls under the term chemical sunscreen. That’s all. Don’t make it mean anything bad about it.

Related: Chemical VS Physical Sunscreen: Which One Should You Use?

How Do You Apply Sunscreen The Right Way?

This is trickier than you think. Sunscreen ain’t like other skincare products. If you don’t apply it properly, you simply won’t have adequate sun protection and expose your skin to premature wrinkles and all the damage UV rays cause. So how do you apply sunscreen the right way? Here’s all you need to know:

  • Always apply sunscreen half and hour before going outside. This gives it time to form an even layer on your skin.
  • Reapply every two hours, especially in the summer and if you’re staying outdoors for a long while. “Reapplication is recommended every two hours, or every 80 minutes if sweating or swimming, regardless of the SPF,” says Elizabeth Kream, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “Even if you’re applying SPF 100, you must re-apply every two hours. This is simply because no matter how well a sunscreen is blocking the UV radiation, it wears off after a few hours.” Your sunscreen will get brushed off or removed by sweating, touching your face, water, etc, leaving your skin unprotected.
  • Apply liberally! At least 1/3 of a teaspoon for the face and neck. If you’re going to the beach, you need roughly 35 ml to cover every inch of skin. That’s the equivalent of a shot glass.
  • Apply sunscreen to every part of your body that might be exposed to sunlight – yes, even your ears!

Related: How Much Sunscreen Do You Really Need?

badger balm zinc oxide sunscreen cream spf 30

Is Sunscreen Necessary In Winter?

YES! Just because the sun is hiding behind thick, black clouds, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Those pesky UV rays can penetrate through clouds and even get reflected on snow. So, rain or shine, put your sunscreen on.

“UVB rays may be less intense in the winter, but they are present year-round, and can be especially harmful in the winter because they reflect off of the ice and snowy surfaces onto your skin. The reflection of the rays actually causes them to hit you twice, once directly and once indirectly. This increases the chance of sunburn, premature aging, and skin cancer,” says board-certified dermatologist Jeannette Graf.

Dermatologist Sandra Lee, a.k.a. Pimple Popper, has another reason why you should be wearing sunscreen in winter: “During the winter months, our skin barrier is more vulnerable to environmental changes, so it’s already working harder to stay balanced and healthy. Wearing sunscreen during the day means your skin cells have less damage to try to repair overnight, which can help protect you from premature aging (not to mention skin cancer).” 

Not sure the sunscreen you’re eyeing is up to the job? Click on the image below to subscribe to my newsletter and download the “Sunscreen Audit” to find out:

Best Sunscreen Picks

  • Dr Dennis Gross All-Physical Ultimate Defense Broad Spectrum Suncreen SPF 50 PA++++ ($42.00): A zinc oxide sunscreen with soothing agents to protect skin from UV rays and soothe inflammation. Available at Cult BeautyDermstoreNordstromSephora, and SpaceNK.
  • EltaMD UV Pure BroadSpectrum SPF 47 ($25.00): A wonderful, lightweight formula for oily skin that provides broad-spectrum protection without leaving a greasy, white mess. Available at Dermstore and Walmart
  • La Roche Posay Anthelios Clear Skin Dry Touch Face Sunscreen SPF 60 ($19.99): Ideal for oily skin, this lightweight sunscreen provides broad spectrum protection and absorbs excess oil for a matte finish. Available at BootsDermstoreLa Roche Posay, and Ulta.
  • Murad City Skin Age Defense Broad Spectrum SPF 50 / PA++++ ($69.00): A mineral sunscreen enriched with natural oils, soothing agents, and antioxidants to provide broad-spectrum protection, prevent wrinkles, and soothe inflammation. It rubs in well and isn’t greasy. Available at Cult BeautyLook FantasticMuradSephoraSpaceNK and Ulta.

The Bottom Line

Now you know the main facts about your sunscreen, you can use it the right way and protect your skin from premature aging and all the extra damage UV rays cause daily.