The Smart Person’s Guide to Sunscreen

Is there an Elephant in the room? No, it's just sunscreen

Sunscreen is the second most boring conversation right behind the status of your next door neighbor’s grandchildren.

Unfortunately it’s a necessary conversation and if you grew up with Coppertone billboards at every highway exit, and in every magazine, then a it’s one you should not avoid.

Growing up in the 80’s, no one ever talked about sunscreen but even today, it’s not something you bring up at happy hour. But here I am, talking about sunscreen, and I have to tell ya, what I’ve learned has changed my thoughts on sun protection forever.

I don’t even know where to start there’s so much to cover so let’s start with some facts about UV radiation and then discuss how to protect ourselves from them.

Types of UV Rays

uv illustration

There are two types of UV Radiation – I hate the word ‘radiation’ so I’m going to stick with ‘rays’. So there are two types of UV rays to consider when talking about sun protection.

UV (ultra violet) rays aren’t as cut and dry you think they are. And I think that knowing the different types, is important to make sure that you’re properly protected.If I didn’t think it was important to skincare, I wouldn’t be wasting your precious attention span to talk about them, so try and stick with me.

This is the longest article I’ve ever written.

UVA (Ultra Violet A for ‘aging’)

UVA are the rays that give you your golden tan but also give you wrinkles, age spots and have been found to increase the risk of skin cancer. And here’s the kicker, it penetrates through glass!

So, you’re not even safe from UVA when your indoors (agoraphobics aren’t even safe!). Maybe you wanna rethink adding that skylight?

blogging memorial daycropped-compressed

I blog right in front of my window!

Unless you live in a windowless house and work in a windowless office, travel in a windowless car and walk through tunnels, sunscreen should probably be a part of your daily routine.

NOTE: UVA’s can be further broken down into UVA1 and UVA2, but since this is not a science seminar we’ll just consider UVA as a whole.

UVB (Ultra Violet B for ‘burning’)

UVB are the rays that penetrate the outside layers of skin. They’re what gives you a sunburn and are thought to cause most skin cancers. The good news is that UVB rays can’t get through windows, so your safe from UVB when your indoors. Why would I say that, right?

UVC Rays (Ultra Violet C)

There is  also UVC which is the strongest and scariest one. Fortunately they don’t get through our atmosphere. Yet. So let’s not talk about those then, ok?

So, we’ve covered the different UV rays that we’re dealing with – now let’s talk about how we can best protect ourselves.  You’ve heard of SPF right?

About SPF (Sun Protection Factor)

SPF is how we measure the strength of our sunscreen. The way that we do that is based on the assumption that it takes 20 minutes for our skin to start to burn – or tan. And yes, that golden tan counts as a burn because that’s all it is, our skin burning. Like a hamburger.

Kim Ann from BeautyBlackBook roasting on the beach

Kim Ann roasting on the beach

Yup, that’s me man. Scary but true, I’m worshiping the sun like a damned amateur. What a disgrace!

Moving on. The number of SPF on a sunscreen is measured by multiplying it times the 20 mins (if it takes you 10 mins to start burning then just change the multiplier). So, an SPF15 is meant to protect you from burning for 15 times longer than without sunscreen, or 5 hours. SPF 30 would give you (30 x 20) 10 hours.

beautyblackbook heartTIP: SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97% and SPF 50 blocks 98%. And that’s all folks. Soon, all of the SPF over 50 will be labeled SPF 50++ since the difference over that is nominal.The American Cancer Society recommends using SPF30 or more to stay sun-safe.

So let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Let’s talk about the two main types of sunscreen.

Types of Sunscreen

Chemical Absorbers vs Physical Blockers

Chemical Absorbers vs Physical Blockers

There are two main types of sunscreen, chemical absorbers and physical blockers. I want you to be able to simply look on the back of the bottle and know what does what. It’s simple and it’s cool.

Chemical Absorbers

The chemical absorbers absorb the UV rays, but once they are full up (about 2 hours), it’s time to reapply more. You can recognize chemical absorbers in your sunscreen by looking for ingredients ending in the following:  -benzone, -noxate, -imate, or -salate.

The Upside of Chemical Absorbers

Chemical absorbers tend to be lighter on the skin, so they don’t feel thick and heavy. I like to use one in the morning under everything else just to feel extra protected. I think of it as the German Shepard an intruder has to encounter after disabling my ADT.

murad invisiblur perfecting shield spf 30

Murad Invisiblur Perfecting Shield SPF30

I’m currently switching between a few of these but recently I was happy to discover the Murad Invisiblur Perfecting Shield Broad Spectrum SPF 30. I like it because I feel like it works like a primer, smoothing out my skin before I apply my tinted moisturizer. ( I win the 3 ‘likes’ in one sentence contest)

The Downside of Chemical Absorbers

Chemical absorbers don’t last as long as physical blockers so you will find yourself having to reapply every couple of hours. Also, many don’t offer full protection against both UVA and UVB rays.

For a complete list of chemical absorbers to understand which protect you from what, just click here, but an easy way to be sure that you’re covered, is to make sure that the label says ‘broad spectrum’, which means that it protects from both the UVA and the UVB.

Chemical absorbers have to be applied 20 minutes before going into the sun so that it has time to absorb into your skin, otherwise it will not work. If you wait until you’re all tricked out beachside then you’ve kind of defeated the purpose since you’re unprotected for at least the first 20 mins.

And get this, UV rays can harm your skin for up to 3 hours AFTER they first penetrate your skin! The nerve!

Supergoop Defense Refresh Setting Mist SPF50

Supergoop Defense Refresh Setting Mist SPF50

If you’re currently using a chemical absorber and you don’t want to part with it, you have GOT to check out the Supergoop Defense Refresh Setting Mist SPF50 ! I keep one in my car and even on my desk! It actually sets my makeup in the morning and it refreshes my skin during the day.

Eau Thermale Avene Hydrating Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50+

Eau Thermale Avene Hydrating Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50+

Also, you may want to consider a water-resistant choice, the Eau Thermale Avene Hydrating Sunscreen Lotion SPF50. Even though you have to reapply every 2 hours, you can feel safe during the summer when you sweat more.

Did I mention that sweat breaks down sunscreen? Consider that when deciding the right to reapply.

beautyblackbook heartThere is no such thing as ‘waterproof’ or ‘sweat-proof’ sunscreen. The FDA has called for all packaging to say water-resistant, which means that it will stay on for a certain amount of time under during water activities, or exercising, before you have to reapply. Water-resistant sunscreen’s are to soon be categorized as 40 mins or 80 mins.

Physical Blockers

Also referred to as mineral-based, the physical blockers protect the skin by reflecting, as opposed to absorbing, the UV rays . These ingredients end in -oxide like zinc-oxide or titanium-dioxide.

Think of them as an extra layer of skin and you don’t have to reapply them as often (every 4 hours).

beautyblackbook heartZinc-oxide protects against UVA and UVB rays, however titanium dioxide protects from UVB, but not all of the UVA rays. If you’re truly in love with a sunscreen with only titanium dioxide, then just make sure it is Broad Spectrum, which means it protects you from both UVA and UVB rays (because they have added in a chemical absorber)

The Upside of Physical Blockers

Physical blockers afford you more protection since they last longer and let’s face it, who really keeps track of the 2 hour mark for reapplication? Who has the time? Every 4 hours seems much more manageable.

The Downside of Physical Blockers

They are usually thick and for those who are prone to breakouts, that’s not always the best choice. The key is to find one that’s noncomedogenic (won’t clog your pores). I have a tendency to break out if I’m not super careful but I have a product that I can use without any issues.

elta md uv clear spf46

The EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF46 actually combines Zinc Oxide (physical blocker) with Octinoxate (chemical absorber) to cover all bases. Plus it has Niacinamide (vitamin B3)  in it which helps to keep the skin hydrated, and is being used in products for skin lightening, acne scars, and rosacea. We’ll talk more about that another time.

Let’s take a small break and then I’ll breakdown what we’ve learned and a few more tidbits in a short bullet point list. I love this guy:

Breaking it Down

  •  Don’t forget your eyes, ears and scalp! I use SkinCeuticals Physical Eye UV Defense SPF50 for my eyes and ears. For my scalp I just prefer to wear a hat with a UPF (ultraprotection factor) of 50 or more. Regular hats and clothing, only provide SPF6. Check out UPF clothing at J Crew, AthletaMott 50, and Coolibar.(I lost my Coolibar UPF hat to the ocean in Mexico and had to replace it with a tightly woven super expensive one at the hotel gift shop. I may as well not have been wearing anything at all.)
  • You can use the same sunscreen on your face that you use on your body. Just make sure that it’s noncomedogenic, non-acnegenic, or oil free, to avoid breakouts.
  • Clear Sprays are as effective as lotions. Just make sure that it has a chance to dry before sun exposure. Other than that, use the same rules as with lotion.
  • Mineral-based (physical blockers) last 4 hours before you have to reapply. Everything else just two.
  • Apply a nickel sized portion of sunscreen on the face. A quarter size for each part of your body. There’s a shot glass rule but if I used my shot glass I would be rubbing it in for hours.
  • Sunglasses are cool but not nearly cool enough to block all those rays. Unless you’re filming a remake of ‘A Clockwork Orange‘, you’re probably not wearing pilot goggles, so the sun will come in on the top and the sides anyway. Can you say CROW’s FEET?

I totally recommend the SkinCeuticals Physical Eye UV Defense SPF50. But in general, just make sure that your sunscreen is labeled as ‘non-slip’, which means it won’t wander over into your eyeballs.

  • Make sure that your sunscreen is broad spectrum which means that it covers you from UVA and UVB rays.
  • Consider reparation after a long day in the sun. It’s hard to keep track of sunscreen after 3 vodka tonics so I like to use Dermalogica After Sun Repair that has all kind of happy stuff like algae, cucumber, aloe, rose flower, etc that feels super good, whether it does anything or not!.

Oh my GAWD, this was a LONG article, but after writing it I feel a lot more sun conscious so I hope it has that affect on you as well.

I feel like I wrote a pretty in depth guide to sunscreen. Today I went to the dentist and saw this overly tanned lady and I swear I wanted to wrestle her to the ground and rub her down with sunscreen but my ankle is sprained so that wasn’t an option.


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