If you type in “best sunscreen for body” on google you get 86+ million hits, try putting in “best sunscreen for face” and it jumps to 138 million hits. So finding the right sunscreen for you is a little intimidating. Plus, it’s time consuming, and expensive most of the time, which is why most people just run to the drugstore on the way to the beach or grab the cheapest option at Target or CVS.
There are also so many to choose from; there are different levels of SPF, waterproof and water-resistant, sport or active, sensitive skin, baby, and even DOG sunscreen. I’m going to decode these choices and let you know what conversations are being had about the ingredients in them and which one you should use.
You may have heard that your sunscreen is also giving you cancer. I quickly searched google to see what I would find if I looked up skincare ingredients to avoid. There were so many articles titled, “scary sunscreen ingredients,” “the trouble with sunscreen ingredients,” or “ingredients to avoid”. I’ve heard reasons including that they are carcinogens, or that your body absorbs toxic chemicals instead of it just sitting on your skin and protecting it leading to hormone changes, allergic reactions, irritations, and thyroid problems. I wanted to take the time to research and find my own answers. Let me just say I feel duped.
Let’s first go over some common terms so you’re not completely lost. Some terms are: SPF, broad spectrum, physical broad spectrum, sunscreen vs. sunblock, or waterproof vs water-resistant. So. Many. Words.
WHAT IS SPF?
The FDA and AAD (American Academy of Dermatology) state, SPF means how much solar energy is needed to make you burn. For example: SPF 15 translates to protecting you from 93% of the sun’s UVB rays, whereas SPF 30 protects you from 97% UVB rays. So something like SPF 50 will, “protect the skin until it is exposed to 50 times more UVB radiation than that is required to burn the unprotected skin” (Latha et al 18). I say UVB and not UVA because it’s harder to measure UVA because it’s year-round and consistent. However, there is no way to protect your skin from 100% of the suns rays, that’s called staying at home in the dark forever. SPF 100 is not a thing so don’t be duped by it, don’t waste your time on anything above 50.
The FDA also reminds you that one hour in the sun in the morning can be equal to 15 minutes in the sun during the highest point of the sun from 10am-4pm depending on which time zone you’re in. This is when the UVB rays are the strongest, whereas the UVA rays stay pretty consistent throughout the day according to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in March 2017. Below is “Fitzpatrick’s skin typing: Application in dermatology” chart by Silonie Sachdeca in Resident’s Page, which measures the amount of exposure before sunburn occurs in different skin colors based on genetic disposition and sun exposure habits.
SUNSCREEN VS SUNBLOCK / WATERPROOF VS WATER-RESISTANT
Sunscreen and sunblock are often used interchangeably, and I’m completely guilty of this. Sunscreen refers to protection against UVA, while sunblock focuses on the protection against UVB. Good news is that majority of the time they’re going to be mixed what is called a broad spectrum sunscreen. So technically if it’s broad spectrum you can use the term interchangeably.
As far as waterproof goes, sunscreens are no longer allowed to market as “waterproof” because it implies that you are completely protected and don’t need to re-apply after being in the water. Whereas water-resistant, or very water-resistant mean you need to re-apply as stated on the bottle, but the at least 50% of the product will stay applied for a certain time period depending on SPF levels (Young, Claveau, and Rossi S104).
WHAT DO THEY MEAN BY BROAD SPECTRUM OR PHYSICAL BROAD SPECTRUM?
Broad spectrum as I said means your skin is being protected against both UVA and UVB. You need broad spectrum, don’t get a sunscreen without protection against both. UVA rays penetrate the skin deeply and are what causes photopigmentation, wrinkles, as well as cancer. UVB rays are what cause sunburns and one of the reasons why doctors suggest getting your moles checked routinely.
If you care about the deep details of coverage – the FDA says there needs to be a critical wavelength of 370nm or greater to have a sunscreen labeled broad spectrum (Young, Claveau, and Rossi S103). The EPA states that UVR, or ultraviolet radiation, is usually measured between 280-314nm for UVB and 315-400nm for UVA, so 370nm has got you almost completely covered. Physical broad spectrum just means it has physical sun blocking ingredients vs chemical, but we’ll get into that. Physical sunscreen is typically better for people with sensitive skin, babies, or dogs because it’s not absorbed into the skin.
Now that we understand SPF strength we can look at ingredients. This is where I feel like most people give up, believe me I get it. You just want to get to the beach, or pool, or wherever there is a spot for you, a drink, and a book in the sun. Wow, why am I writing this in fall? That sounds amazing. But, really you should be wearing sunscreen every. single. day. I’m not saying lather up the back of your knees just to go sit in an office all day, but protect yo’ face and neck and any other exposed areas! Pro tip: get a moisturizer, serum, setting spray, or foundation with SPF added and you’ll never forget (just be careful if you’re taking flash photography).
IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS – GOOD VS BAD INGREDIENTS
Here’s a list of ingredients in some popular body and face sunscreens and their active ingredients.
Hawaiian Tropic – Avobenzone, Homosalate, Octisalate, Octocrylene.
Banana Boat Sport – Avobenzone, Homosalate, Octocrylene.
Up & Up (Target brand,) Sunbum, Neutrogena Ultra Sheer, Coppertone WaterBabies, Palmer’s, Aveeno – Avobenzone, Homosalate, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Oxybenzone.
FACE (Not tinted moisturizers, cc/bb, or foundations)
Glossier Invisible Shield – Avobenzone, Homosalate, Octisalate.
Supergoop! Unseen – Avobenzone, Homosalate, Octinoxate, Octisalate.
Tatcha Silken Pore – Zinc Oxide and Octisalate.
Farmacy Green Screen, Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer – Zinc Oxide, Titanium Dioxide.
COOLA sport – Avobenzone, Octisalate, Otocrylene, Octinoxate.
Shiseido Urban Environment – Zinc Oxide, Octinoxate, Octocrylene.
La Mer The Broad Spectrum, Kiehl’s Super Fluid Daily – Avobenzone, Homosalate, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Oxybenzone.
Lancôme – Homosalate, Oxybenzone, Octocrylene, Octisalate.
Suntegrity – Zinc Oxide
I’m going to start with ingredients to stay away from because I feel like it’s easier to narrow down your options this way: there have been a lot of people saying to stay away from oxybenzone because of it’s effect on hormones and it’s presence in women’s breast milk. Oxybenzone and octinoxate have also been said to be killing and bleaching the coral reef according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) which is the reason I’d like to stay away from it.
Options for kids? There are certain chemical blockers that are absorbed into the skin and within a certain amount of time are turned into a water-soluble that it turned to waste. We can see that it’s exiting the body, but don’t know how much is left in our liver on the way out so it’s safer for children to use physical sunscreens like zinc oxide, and titanium dioxide (Latha et al 20).
I went into this research thinking I would come out with a clear answers of which sunscreen brands to buy and which to definitely stay away from, but it seems from little shops by the beach to high-end sunscreens you’re essentially getting the same active ingredients. Of course face sunscreens are different than body and because physical sunscreens can clog pores you need chemical ingredients to help you out. Avobenzone for example needs a stabilizer. Good news is that most sunscreens that you just grab at CVS or target are pretty similar to some higher end sunscreens so you should feel good about that. I’d say stay away from oxybenzone and octinoxate so we’re not also killing the world when we swim in the ocean, but also if you’re pregnant because there are already high levels of oxybenzone in a lot of people.
Our regulations in the U.S. are a lot different than the EU, Australia, India, Korea or Japan. The FDA still won’t allow new sunscreens. For example: in Australia sunscreen is labeled “therapeutic goods,” and in Europe as a “cosmetic ingredient,” while in the U.S. it’s an “over-the-counter” drug. This means regulations are different all over the world.
What is your favorite suncare product? Do you like an spa-included makeup or skincare item or just a normal SPF at the end of your routine? Let me know in the comments, or come start a conversation on my Instagram page @thekcorinne.