Sunscreen 101

Greetings from Belize! Actually, at the moment, I'm still in the States because this is a pre-scheduled post but on the day that this post goes live, I'll be in Belize.

I thought that because it's summer and because I'm on a tropical getaway, it would be prudent to do a post about sunscreen and skincare. My skin is actually quite sensitive to the sun; I sunburn rather easily and if I am in extreme sunlight (re: outside in the summer sun) without any SPF protection, my skin breaks out into a rash, which I've self-diagnosed as photoallergy (thanks, WebMD for turning everyday people into medical experts and hypochondriacs). So, that is a huge motivation for me to slather on SPF, even in the autumn and winter months, as UV light still affects your skin in the falling leaves and the snow.

Let's start with the basics: what is SPF? You'd think that the higher the SPF, the more sun protection you're receiving, but that's not exactly true. It has more to do with time. Sun Protection Factor is a number that tells you the amount of UV radiation it would take to sunburn your skin with sunscreen vs. without sunscreen. Wait, what?

I'll give you an example to make it a bit easier to understand: let's say Jane's skin burns within 5 minutes of being in the sun without sunscreen. If Jane uses a sunscreen with SPF 30, she'd theoretically be able to stay out in the sun for 150 minutes before her skin starts to burn. If Jane uses an SPF 45 lotion, she'd theoretically be able to stay out in the sun for 225 minutes before she burns. Does that make sense? Knowing this, you can glean that two different people using the same SPF protection may experience sunburn at different times, depending on the "resilience" of their skin. Also, layering sunscreens won't necessarily up the SPF factor, e.g. slathering yourself in two layers of SPF 30 won't give you SPF 60 protection; it just doesn't work that way; there isn't any sunscreen out there that will offer 100% protection against UVB rays. SPF 15 offers about 94%, SPF 30 offers about 97%, SPF 45 offers about 98%, etc. The difference between the protection that SPF 55 provides and that 100+ provides is minimal.

The Rules:
  • Use a sunscreen that blocks against UVA and UVB rays with a minimum of SPF 30. If you want to go with something higher, like SPF 100+ (which I often do just for mental pleasure), that's your call.
  • Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before you head out into the sun and apply generously. I like to use around 2 tablespoons for my body - 1 tbsp for torso and 1 tbsp for legs - and 1/2 a teaspoon for my face. And don't forget to get your feet, ears, back of the neck, and even your "bathing suit area," as you can still burn through your suit. And don't forget your lips! Get a lip balm with SPF and coat those lips.
  • Reapply! It's really important to reapply your sunscreen throughout the day, especially if you are doing water sports or an activity where you are sweating. A conservative rule of thumb: take your SPF #, divide it by two, and reapply your sunscreen after that many minutes. So if you're wearing SPF 40, you should reapply your sunscreen every 20 minutes. At the very least, reapply your sunscreen every 90 minutes.
  • If you plan on wearing makeup, use sunscreen prior to using foundation. You want the SPF to be right on your skin, not on top of your makeup.
  • Check the expiration date on your sunscreen because the active ingredients do lose their potency, especially when exposed to high temperatures (which often happens with bottles of sunscreen that are taken to the beach and left in the hot sand). However, it's my firm belief that you should be applying and reapplying generously so you shouldn't really have too many leftover bottles from year to year.
Here are some of my favorite products:
SPF 101

Hawaiian Tropic makes a great sunscreen for tanners. It's super moisturizing and smells really delicious. It also has swirls of bronzing lotion in it so you look tan even before you start sunning.

Neutrogena's Ultra Sheer Mist sunscreen is one of my favorites for active days. It's easy to apply, dries quickly, and doesn't feel sticky.

For my face, I prefer a whole separate product. Neutrogena has a dry-touch non-comedogenic (i.e. doesn't clog pores) sunscreen meant specifically for the face. It's smooth, unscented, and doesn't break me out.

After baking in the sun, I like to use some sort of after sun lotion with aloe. Hawaiian Tropic makes an awesome after sun lotion that smells like papaya and really soothes the skin and restores a lot of the moisture that was lost during the day outside spent in the sun.

If you're not really a lotion person, pure aloe is a perfect product. Aloe is really moisturizing, which is great for your skin in general and especially after a long day outdoors. And if you happened to get a bit of sunburn, aloe will help to heal it quicker.

A cool water spray also feels amazing on sun-baked skin. Usually, I like to take a cool shower after I've sunbathed just to stop the "cooking" process but if I can't shower for a while, I like to use Evian's Mineral Water Spray as a quick (and temporary) substitute.

For everyday use, like if I'm just headed to work or running errands, I just use this Aveeno moisturizer with SPF. It goes on nicely, like a regular lotion, and doesn't have that sunscreen-ish smell.

And, an honorable mention for the shades, cover up, and hat for some extra sun protection. Hats and sunglasses are especially useful since, unless you are bald, it's hard to get sunscreen on your scalp and of course, you can't slather sunscreen on your eyes either. Choose a pair of shades with polarized lenses that offer UV protection.

All year long, don't forget to protect your skin against sunburn, sun damage, skin cancer, wrinkles, sunspots, and all that terrible jazz.