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Here's a sobering fact: basal cell carcinoma is the number-one type of cancer in the United States right now. With summer in full swing, it's more important than ever to have sun safety top of mind. We've got you covered when it comes to all things sun and skin here at Byrdie HQ, whether you're curious about the best SPF products on the market or what it's really like to get a skin check.В
Whether scrolling online or scanning the drugstore aisle, there's no question that choosing between sunscreens can be a dizzying ordeal. For starters, there's the chemical-versus-mineral debate; determining the correct SPF for your needs; and ensuring that the lotion's quality matches its price point. Luckily, there's an easy way to streamline the sunscreen selection process: mastering the label.
To help you add to cart with confidence, we enlisted a panel of licensed dermatologists to help us unpack inactive ingredients, environmental concerns, and that nebulous PA+ number, so you can spend less time debating between brands, and more time actually enjoying the sun. Keep scrolling for the ultimate breakdown for how to shop for sunscreen.
First Things First: Check the SPF
Let's start with the basics: SPF stands for sun protection factor. A formula's SPF вЂњgives you the interval time frame in which the sunscreen will prevent you from developing a burn from UVB light,вЂќ explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rita Linkner of Spring Street Dermatology. Translation? Generally speaking, the higher the SPF, the longer you can wait before reapplying. SPF varies by product, ranging from about 15 to over 100-but a higher number doesn't always mean better protection. Linkner recommends a SPF level вЂњat or around SPF 50, as that';s the magical number where you are maximizing your UVB protection while using a formulation that is easy enough to rub in and will promote you to use the right quantity of sunscreen.вЂќ Even if a higher SPF might hypothetically work better, she adds, that number comes with its own downside: вЂњAs SPF levels increase beyond 50, the formulations tend to be thicker and leave a chalkier appearance, and most people will under-compensate that white chalkiness by not utilizing the right amount of sunscreen with each application.вЂќ
Opt For Broad Spectrum
To best protect your skin, you need protection against two types of ray. вЂњUVB rays damage the skin's upper surface and are the main cause of sunburn,вЂќ explains Dr. Fayne Frey, while вЂњUVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and primarily cause the signs of skin aging, wrinkling, pigmentation, and sagging. Both UVA and UVB rays cause skin cancer.вЂќ To safeguard your skin, opt for labels that advertise broad spectrum protection, which fights both UVA and UVB light. Another way to put it, as Linkner says, is that вЂњUVA is responsible for aging the skin. UVB light is responsible for burning the skin. Broad spectrum refers to a sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB light.вЂќ You might also notice one or more + signs next to your SPF grade-that's a PA+ rating, a system used in Asian countries to indicate a product's UVA protection factor. The more plus signs, the better the protection against UVA.
Know the Facts: Chemical versus Mineral
Chemical and mineral sunscreens both work, albeit in different ways. Simply put, chemical sunscreens rely on ingredients that cause chemical reactions to absorb UV rays and release them from the skin. Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, use inorganic compounds, which sit on top of the skin to deflect and scatter rays. Specifically, Frey says, вЂњThe term 'mineral' usually refers to the use of titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or both as the sunscreen filters in the formulation.вЂќ Most drugstore or big brand sunscreens are chemical-based, but more and more brands are offering mineral alternatives, especially as potentially unsafe and environmentally hazardous ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate lead to greater restrictions on chemical usage.
Mineral sunscreens might also be easier on your skin, says Linkner: вЂњMineral or natural sunscreens are less irritating than chemical ones. If you have sensitive skin, look for formulations that contain physical blockers.вЂќ For foolproof protection, Dr. Kristina Goldenberg of Goldenberg Dermatology in NYC suggests opting for formulas that combine the benefits of chemical and mineral protectants. Goldenberg says, вЂњI recommend sunscreen with high SPF, water resistant for outdoor activity, with a physical blocker, like zinc or titanium oxide, and chemical blocker, like avobenzone.вЂќ
While mineral and chemical are both useful terms, Frey warns against trusting labels that advertise sunscreens as вЂњnatural.вЂќ She elaborates, вЂњThe term 'natural' implies where the ingredients come from, a plant flower, oil or root, but says nothing about the safety of the product or ingredient.вЂќAlastin HydraTint Pro Mineral Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 36 $55Shop
Decode "Water-Resistant" Labels
вЂњWater resistant (or sweat-resistant) indicates whether a sunscreen can provide adequate protection for 40 minutes or 80 minutes when a person is swimming or sweating,вЂќ says Frey. She adds, however, that вЂњresistantвЂќ doesn't mean full protection. вЂњSince no sunscreen is fully 'waterproof' or 'sweat-proof,' the FDA does not allow these terms on sunscreen labels.вЂќ So while a sunscreen advertised as water-resistant may be a better choice for swimming, you still need to regularly reapply.
"Dermatologist Tested" versus "Dermatologist Recommended"
These two terms may seem interchangeable, but there is a difference in their meanings, explains Goldenberg. вЂњSome companies ask dermatologists to test the qualities of the products-that's dermatologist tested,вЂќ she says, вЂњwhile other companies ask dermatologists to try a product and say whether or not they'd recommend the product to the patient-that's dermatologist recommended.вЂќ When it comes down to it, though, says Frey, these terms should be taken with a grain of salt: вЂњThere is no federal guideline or industry standard that determines the use of these phrases. Although some manufactures do test their products on a small number of individuals, these phrases are best used for their marketing value.вЂќ
"Face" versus "Body" Sunscreen
вЂњSunscreens for face are formulated differently so as not to clog pores and cause acne breakouts,вЂќ says Goldenberg. вЂњThey typically have less zinc oxide because that's what gives us that pasty look that everyone tries to avoid. So facial sunscreens oftentimes have a combination of zinc oxide with a chemical blocker.вЂќ Another bonus of facial formulas? They're designed to work with makeup and other skincare. Goldenberg explains, вЂњFacial sunscreens are also easier to use with makeup and other skincare products (i.e. more spreadability),вЂќ while вЂњsunscreens for the body tend to be thicker and are often better for parts of the body where sweating is an issue.вЂќ
Don't Ignore Inactive Ingredients
Inactive doesn't mean unimportant. вЂњWhen looking for a sunscreen, choose products that are paraben free, oil-free, and fragrance-free,вЂќ advises Linkner. To avoid irritation, avoid sunscreens that integrate insect repellent. Sunscreen should be applied frequently, every two hours, whereas insect repellent is used much more sparingly than that. Frey says, вЂњLike in all skincare products, consumers should look for ingredients that they may be allergic to, ingredients that may cause breakouts, if they are predisposed to acne, ingredients that may exacerbate eczema, in predisposed individuals or those with sensitive skin, and fragrance, the most common cause of skin allergic reactions.вЂќ (Frey's website has a handy Product Selector tool that allows users to find skincare products devoid of ingredients that may exacerbate conditions like acne, eczema, and more.)
Trust the Research
Of course, the information on the label doesn't mean much if it isn't accurate. When Consumer Reports recently tested an array of sunscreen products for label accuracy, the results were concerning: вЂњOf the 82 lotions, sprays, sticks, and lip balms in CR's ratings this year, 32 tested at less than half their labeled SPF number.вЂќ To avoid unexpected burns due to poor quality products, Frey advises, вЂњI recommend purchasing sunscreens from reputable international and nationally recognized brands. They have the resources to produce affordable, effective, safe, and available sunscreens.вЂќ If researching the efficacy of each potential purchase seems daunting, fear not: we've done our homework, and we've compiled the year's best sunscreens for you.
Next, the 18 most innovative SPF products you need to know about.