Everything you ever wanted to know about sunblock—but didn’t know who to ask.
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What makes a sunscreen a physical blocker? Do new-wave formulations like clear gels or oils actually work? What exactly does broad spectrum mean? A few of the many questions running through our collective minds as we’re faced with the litany of protection options presented to us nowadays. Before you exercise your purchasing power, may we suggest familiarizing yourself with some essential sunblock vocabulary? Consider this your handy guide to navigating the ever-growing sun care offerings.
SPF, UVA, UVB
AKA, the most used sunblock acronyms. “UVB rays are responsible for causing sunburns and play a major role in skin cancers,” explains New York dermatologist Dr. Francesca Fusco. “UVA rays also play a role in skin cancer, but they are known more for being one of the greatest factors in premature aging of the skin.” SPF is a sunblock’s sun protection factor, or the measure of how well you’re protected from those aforementioned ultraviolet B (UVB) rays.
Broad spectrum is the kind of sun protection we should all be seeking out. “SPF only refers to UVB while with broad spectrum you’re talking about also having protection against both UVA, the longer ultraviolet wavelength, and UVB rays,” says Santa Monica-based dermatologist and co-host of The Doctors, Dr. Sonia Batra.
PHYSICAL VS. CHEMICAL
“The difference is a mineral block is a physical shield made up of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are particles that sit on top of your skin and just block UV rays, versus chemical sunscreens which work by absorbing the sun’s UV rays and converting it into heat,” explains Batra. While chemical sunscreens have been widely favored for years because their silkier, sheerer consistency usually makes them more blendable, physical (or mineral) formulas have come a long way. “Now, more so than even five years ago, you can get very cosmetically elegant physical sunscreens, that are micronized or tinted, that work really well,” adds Batra. And many dermatologists tend to recommend the latter because they are more friendly for sensitive skin types.
15, 30, 50 AND BEYOND
When it comes to SPF numbers, is higher always better? Many dermatologists don’t necessarily think so: the standard recommendation is 30 for every day and 50 for those spending extended periods of time outdoors. But, as Batra, who routinely recommends a 30 to patients in her L.A.-based practice, points out, in terms of protection sunblocks can start to level off as the number rises. “An SPF 15 protects against 94% of rays, an SPF 30 is a 97% block, and an SPF 50 is a 98% block so for most of us the benefits start to plateau,” says Batra.
THE SHOTGLASS METAPHOR
What matters far more than the chosen number is using a heavy hand with application. “Most of us are applying only 25% the amount of sunblock that we should be,” says Miami dermatologist Dr. Leslie Baumann. Less is not more when it comes to sunblock and it’s that fact that can lead to a number of issues. “When I see the failures of sunscreen in my practice it’s rarely because of the SPF number and more often that they’re not applying an adequate amount,” adds Batra. Traditional skin care wisdom suggests a half teaspoon for the face and a shotglass amount for the body but for most of us those numbers can be hard to picture, not to mention our bodies come in many shapes and sizes. “I always tell people to apply how much sunscreen they think they need then go back and do it all over again,” suggests Batra.
“Reapplying is also very important so finding the right products to help you feel like your routine is a luxurious experience is key,” says Holly Thaggard, founder of cultish sunblock brand Supergoop!. “Another way to think about re-application is layering.” Thaggard likens it to a sunscreen wardrobe; she usually has three to four SPF products in her regular facial beauty routine (from serum to CC cream). Batra also encourages her patients to find a moisturizer with sunscreen they love so it becomes a part of their normal routine. And when applying remember to hit all visible stretches of skin. The most overlooked parts in Batra’s practice are the tops of ears, feet and hands, while Thaggard points to the vulnerability of eyes and lips because of their thinner skin. “This is where we spot the first signs of aging so it makes sense and in many cases lip glosses and shimmery shadows can actually magnify the sun’s rays,” she says. “Look for an eye cream that’s been opthamologist tested and eye and lip products with high broad spectrum protection.”
ENZONES ET AL
The EWG (Environmental Working Group) lists ingredients (oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, retinyl palmitate) commonly found in chemical sunscreens that they recommend skipping because of the possibility that they may be hormone disruptors. “There’s a lot of debate as to whether the EWG’s recommendations are accurate, but to be safe and completely avoid the controversy I encourage my patients to go mineral,” says Batra. “More than anything I want my patients to use sunscreen and if there’s any question mark hanging over it, they may be less likely to.” Two other common ingredients you’re likely to see on your sunscreen label are avobenzone, an oil-soluble ingredient that protects against both UVA and UVB rays, and octocrylene. “Avobenzone is actually only effective for about 30 minutes so often times octocyrlene is added to stabilize it, increase its durability and efficacy, and, because of its moisturizing properties, make it a bit easier to apply,” explains Batra. And zinc oxide, regular or micronized (a smaller particle size) is the most common ingredient in mineral sunscreens. “It provides broad-spectrum sun protection, protection from skin cancer and aids in the recovery of burns,” says Fusco. “Because it’s not absorbed into the skin, it’s also non-irritating, non-allergic, and non-comedogenic which makes it beneficial for various skin types.”
OILS, MISTS, AND MORE
From oils and mists, to setting powders and clear gels, there is a growing wave of newfangled sunscreen formulations. Their modernized feel and seamless appearance (the invisible formulas are especially favorable for darker skin tones as they sidestep the usual chalky finish) are big selling points, and if they have an adequate level of SPF, their efficacy is entirely comparable to their traditional counterparts. “I could actually make a case for saying they are even more effective as consumers are more likely to embrace them because of the beautiful textures and unique delivery systems,” adds Throop. “When you make the application feel luxurious a regular routine is more likely to occur.”
Can a sunblock actually be completely water resistant? Yes, says Dr. Baumann, of the formulas that have to pass intense water immersion testing prior to their SPF testing. But pay close attention to the clock as re-application is even more critical with water-resistant products. “If you’re immersed in water you should really be applying every hour, even if it claims to be resistant up to eighty minutes,” says Batra.
SUN PROTECTIVE CLOTHING
Your sunscreen is not an island—which is why dermatologists agree that an adequate protection arsenal should extend to clothing. “No SPF is totally perfect and because application can vary so much, hats and clothing offer an added barrier,” says Baumann. And, adds Fusco, for individuals with very sun-sensitive skin or diseases like lupus or porphyria, protective clothing is even more important. “Plus, a hat is easier than greasing up your hair and part with sunblock and it offers extra protection for the face, ears and eyes as well,” says Fusco. “And since eyes can be super sensitive to sunscreen sunglasses are critical too.”
Erno Laszlo $110
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iS Clinical $78
Eau Thermale Avène $37