Sunscreen buying guide: Choosing the best sun protection for your skin

“Don’t forget the sunscreen!”

You’ve heard it enough that most of the time you remember to bring sunscreen to the beach or pool. If not, you make a pit stop on the way. But do you know what you’re buying? Why are some sun protection products called "sunscreen" and others "sunblock?" Why do some sunblocks leave a white haze no matter how much you rub them in?

We’ve got the answers just in time for the start of beach and BBQ season this Memorial Day weekend.

The basics: Your skin needs protection from two types of sun rays: ultraviolet (UVA) long-wave and short-wave ultraviolet (UVB) rays.

Since UVA rays can cause the most harm to the skin, sun protection factor (SPF) in sunscreens refers to the amount of shielding from UVA rays. UVA rays penetrate deep into the epidermis where they can cause long-term skin damage such as premature aging, skin cancer, and hyperpigmentation, among other issues. UVB rays affect the outer layer of the skin. Signs of overexposure to UVB rays can be seen immediately. UVB rays cause sunburn, darken skin (hyperpigmentation) and can cause sunspots or freckles. Just because UVB rays are not absorbed deep into the skin doesn’t mean they don’t cause sun damage.

Both UVA and UVB rays can cause skin cancer. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), everyone needs sunscreen. An estimated one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.

If you haven't always been perfect about applying sunscreen and have sun damage and sun spots, you want to learn about hydroquinone. Hydroquinone 4% strength is a prescription skin product that lightens skin. It's FDA-approved to treat melasma, dark skin patches on the cheekbones and upper lip caused by hormone fluctuations, especially during pregnancy. Melasma is also called "pregnancy mask." 

Obagi Nu-Derm Sunfader is a 2-in-1 product that containers the skin lightener hydroquinone and SPF 15. Add an Obagi anti-aging and skin brightening Vitamin C treatment and you're off to a strong start to reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation and fine lines and wrinkles. 

To be sure you have protection from both UVA and UVB rays, choose broad spectrum sunblock. The ADA recommends an SPF of 30 for most everyone and SPF 50 for fair complexions that burn easily.

How is SPF calculated?

SPF represents the amount of time it will take you to burn in the sun when you are using that specific sunscreen.

For example, an SPF 50 rating enables someone who normally burns in the sun after 20 minutes of exposure without any sun protection to stay in the sun for 600 minutes with the SPF 50 without burning.

To understand how the sun protection you choose can prevent you from burning, use this equation:

Multiple the number of minutes (M) you can stay in the sun without burning without any sunscreen by the SPF rating of the sunscreen. Added together they = time you can stay in the sun with that sun protection lotion without burning.

M x SPF = the time you can spend in the sun 

This formula is a general guide. It's up to you to care for your skin. Watch how your skin reacts to the sun and the skin sun protection you are using. Additionally, just because you aren't getting sunburned, it doesn't mean you're safe. No sunscreen is 100% effective. For smarter protection, choose water-resistant sunscreens even if you don't go in the water, especially if you will be exerting yourself. Perspiration can reduce the effectiveness of regular sunscreen. SPF does not account for UVB protection. Choose a broad-spectrum sunblock to ensure you have protection from both UVA and UVB rays.  

For the best possible sun protection, follow these tips:

  • Always use a skin sun protection product
  • Limit your time in the sun, especially between 10 am and 2 pm
  • Reapply your sunscreen as directed
  • Protect your head, face, and neck with a hat
  • Protect your eyes with sunglasses
  • Wear protective clothing
  • Use water-resistant sunscreen 

The lingo: Sunblock and sunscreen are often used interchangeably. Lotion that has an SPF of 50 or higher are more likely labeled "sunblock." Products with an SPF lower than 15 are often called suntan or tanning lotions.

Does sunscreen expire?

Yes, sunscreens do not last forever. After 3 years whether your sunscreen has an expiration date or not, you should toss it.

Why doesn’t my sunscreen have an expiration date?

The FDA mandates that sun protection lotions remain useful for three years. If a product has demonstrated to the FDA that it will provide the full sun protection as claimed for three years, then an expiration date is not required. Since you may not know when the sunscreen was created, it’s best to stick with sunscreens that have a printed expiration date.

How do I choose a sunscreen for my face?

For many reasons, a special sunscreen for your face is a wise decision. Facial sunscreens are usually made to be non-comedogenic, hypoallergenic, and ideally, dermatologist tested.

They should not make your face feel greasy and be free of irritating ingredients. A cream that also moisturizes is a good choice. If you don’t like the white sheen that standard mineral lotions create, opt for tinted mineral sunscreen or one with a translucent, sheer finish. Overall, take the time to read the label to be safe. 

Tinted formula with hydrating algae extract

What are the best ingredients for face sunscreens?

Special ingredients to look for in sunblock for the face:

  • Vitamin E – Skin repair and antioxidant protection
  • Vitamin C – Skin repair and antioxidant protection. Skin brightener
  • Coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinone) - Antioxidant protection
  • Algae Extract – Hydration
  • Squalene – Moisturizer

SPF 50 with antioxidant protection from Vitamins C and E and Coenzyme Q10

To reduce the chance of skin irritation look for sun protection products for the face and body as well that are fragrance-free and PABA-free.

Mineral vs chemical sunscreen

Mineral sunscreens, also called physical sunblock, create a barrier on your skin and reflect the sun rays away from your body. Chemical sunscreens turn sun rays into heat and then release the heat from your skin.

Mineral/physical sunscreen active ingredients:

  • Zinc oxide
  • Titanium dioxide

Chemical sunscreen active ingredients:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Avobenzone
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • Octinoxate

Is PABA bad for the skin?

Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) is approved by the FDA for use in sunscreen lotions. It is effective in blocking UVA rays. PABA has been shown to irritate some skin types and can interact with certain medications.1. If you choose a sunscreen with PABA, be sure to read the label and speak to your doctor first if you are on any medications that are listed as possibly contraindicated.



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