Some of us are painfully more prone to sunburns than others, but are we using the right amount of SPF to avoid burned buns? And what does SPF actually mean, anyway?
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, or the theoretical amount of time you could spend in the sun without getting burned. So hypothetically, a sunscreen with SPF 15 would allow you to stay in the sun 15 times longer than you would be able to without any coverage at all. A higher SPF blocks more photons from entering the skin (SPF 15 blocks about 93 percent of harmful UVB – it does nothing for UVA – rays, while SPF 30 blocks around 97 percent), but the advantages start to peter out once you hit the big 5-0.
Why, you may ask? Well, sunscreens with an SPF higher than 50 have substantially more hardcore chemicals in them, making it so that the cons start to outweigh the pros. “The higher SPFs contain higher amounts of chemical ingredients like oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octinoxate, which for some people can cause skin irritation,” says Ellen Burkhalter, a Dermatology Physician Assistant. “These ingredients tend to rub in better, but can cause stinging and burning in some cases. For people with sensitive skin, it’s better to stick with sunscreens that have titanium dioxide or zinc oxide which are physical [barriers to the sun].”
Some of these chemicals (oxybenzone and octinoxate, to be exact) were even recently banned in Hawaii for causing damage to coral reefs. They’re still approved by the FDA for human use, but we’re not loving those less-than-earth-friendly side effects.
Bumming it on the beach isn’t the only time you need protection, either. “If you’re going to be indoors most of the day, use a moisturizer with sunscreen with an SPF of 30-50,” says Burkhalter. “You can still pick up harmful UV rays through windows and reflective light.”
The thing is, no sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun’s rays, and the percentage difference in photon coverage above 50 SPF is pretty negligible. So what’s the best way to keep your skin safe?
Burkhalter has a good rule of thumb: “To be honest, I recommend trying many different sunscreens to find one that each individual likes. If you don’t like it, you won’t wear it, and if you don’t wear it, it won’t work.”
See below for Burkhalter’s favorite sunscreen recs.
For day-to-day moisturizers
Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer
CeraVe Facial Moisturizing Lotion
For days spent outside
Neutrogena Clear Face Liquid Lotion
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Sunscreen Body Mist
Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen