Your Exhausting Guide To Sunscreen

I said what I said.

This will probably be really long and I am probably gonna get really preachy, but you subscribed which means that you pretty literally asked for it and you have only yourself to blame. (What a great way to open, who wouldn’t want to keep reading?!) Get a snack, settle in, pace yourself, here we go.

Sun protection is just a giant topic so I’m going to bottom-line a lot of stuff for you. The ultimate bottom line is that you need to wear SPF - the whole prescribed amount, which is more than you think - and not just when you’re going to the beach or planning to swim/garden/ski/whatever. Even indoors, you need it. Your minimum should be Broad Spectrum SPF30/PA+++. I’ll put some detail about this labeling stuff at the end, if you care, but the short answer is: Broad Spectrum SPF30/PA+++.

What I want everyone to please remember is that when we talk about UV, we are talking about radiation. RADIATION, you guys. Would you walk around Chernobyl every day and be like “Eh, whatever, it’s not THAT strong here and I think my setting powder has some protection in it”? NO YOU WOULD NOT. (and don’t get all science-pedantic with “well actually some radiation is safe in low doses blahblah” I don’t have time for you.)


Fight Me

I am now going to address the most common SPF-denial sentiments out there.

“I am immune to ACTUAL FUCKING RADIATION
- ahem. I mean
“I don’t need sunscreen because…

...I’m black.” (Yes, I’ve gotten this from people who are black and people who are not black, so while I’d like to think y’all are a smart group, I’m not taking the chance.) I don’t care what urban legends and/or your mom have told you, dark skin does burn. In a 2018 JAMA report, 13% of African-Americans (and 30% of Hispanics, fyi) reported experiencing at least one sunburn in the past year. Sun sensitivity is not related to race/ethnicity. More importantly, while black people get melanoma at a far lower rate than caucasians, they are far more likely to die from it. The most common form of melanoma found in people of African descent usually appears in unusual places like the soles of the feet, the palms of the hands, and - most overlooked - under the nails. No matter your skin color, if you see what looks like a bruise under your fingernail or toenail & it doesn't go away, please remember Bob Marley and go to the doctor!

And as far as the cosmetic side of it goes: people with more melanin are more susceptible to hyperpigmentation and uneven skin tone, which can only be prevented/lessened by protecting against UV rays.

...I like being brown.” And I like you being brown! But UV damage is not a skin tone. This is not about lightening your skin, or about making sure you don’t get darker. This is about what is healthy for your largest organ. Unprotected sun exposure is not healthy, not for any color of skin.

...I never go outside.” That’s a bold statement that I think you probably don’t want fact-checked. But let’s say it’s true: do you have windows? Does daylight come in those windows? Congratulations! You have been exposed to UV radiation! Please look at this famous picture.

...I need the Vitamin D.” Oh, for godsakes it’s 2019, take a supplement. Besides, you’d get enough Vitamin D from like 10 minutes of sun a day - is that all you’re gonna get? I sincerely doubt it.

...it's always cloudy where I live.” Well that would matter if UV rays didn't exist on cloudy days but sadly for you, they do. In fact, the UV can be HIGHER on cloudy days. It sucks, I know.

Basically, you only get a pass if sunlight does not exist in your world. If you live exclusively in an underground bunker, congrats - you are exempt! The rest of us are saddled with the need to find a good sunscreen.


An Appeal To Your Vanity

Aside from the whole skin cancer thing (if that wasn’t enough for you), UV radiation is also responsible for creating and/or making SO MANY skin issues worse. These include but are not limited to:

Acne
Dark spots
Wrinkles and fine lines
Sagging and crepey skin
Oil/sebum production
Post-acne marks
Dry skin
Large pores
Redness
Rough texture
Irritation
Dullness
Sensitivity
Conditions like eczema, rosacea, seborrheic & perioral dermatitis

Get the picture? I sincerely cannot think of a single skin “problem” that is not either caused by or made worse by sun exposure. Because radiation is bad for us, you see. 

An important note: If you are using retinol, AHAs (glycolic, lactic, mandelic, etc acids), or various other actives, your skin is automatically more photosensitive and you have got to be serious about protecting it. Aside from increasing the risk to your skin, failing to protect it from the sun is completely wasting these (often expensive!) products - they are undoing sun damage at the same time as you are causing exponentially more of it.  (When I began using retinol, I stepped it up from daily SPF30 to SPF50.)


Tips! Or: Mistakes People Make

Adequate application is A Problem and most people don't use enough. To get the amount of protection promised on the label, you have to use at least 1/4 teaspoon for your face. That’s A LOT MORE than most people realize. I for one am not pulling out a measuring spoon every day. Instead, I use the 2-finger method (please feel free to titter at that): I squeeze a line of sunscreen the length of my index and middle fingers, and that’s my minimum. I’ve actually scraped this amount off my fingers and into a measuring spoon to check and it’s 1/4 tsp. I invite you to do the same, as our fingers are different lengths and our sunscreens different viscosities.


Then I apply it with the opposite 3 fingertips - I do not spread it on my palms and then onto my face, because I want it on my face, not my hands. (In the summer when my neck is exposed, I squeeze out another finger’s worth for my neck. I cover my chest & arms & whatnot with a non-facial sunscreen.)

The first place I apply, very carefully and conscientiously, is around the eyes. One of the most common places skin cancer turns up is on the sides of the nose by the eyes, that little corner there, because people tend to miss that spot. So I make sure to do that first, and gently pat-pat the product on my so-delicate undereye and eyelids. Then I move on to the rest of the face and neck. Also I try to remember my ears, which are shockingly easy to forget.

Helpful Tip: For many people, this feels like A LOT and like you’re slathering on an oppressive amount of product. If you divide it up and do two thin layers instead of one big gloppy one, it’s so much better!

ATTENTION ATTENTION aWOOgah aWOOgah!!! Are you thinking you are all good to go and you don’t have to worry about any of this because you wear a foundation or powder or bb cream with SPF? My friend, we need to have a talk. Seriously.

There are two main problems with makeup with SPF:
1. It’s almost never broad spectrum (and rarely more than SPF 20); and
2. You are never, ever, ever going to put the adequate amount to get the actual protection promised. Measure out 1/4 tsp of your foundation and tell me with a straight face you’re going to put every drop of that on your face every day. Unless you are an actual, literal clown, your makeup is not going to save you.

Okay, other things…

  • Sunscreen is the last step in your skincare routine. You can put makeup over it, but don’t put lotions or serums or a face mask over it.

  • Let it sit for 15 minutes before putting makeup over it (or going outside.) This is because sunscreen works by forming a uniform film over your skin, and that film needs time to set. Rearrange your morning routine as necessary.

  • Mixing other products with your sunscreen is not a good idea. Don’t stir a serum into your sunscreen, or your sunscreen into your moisturizer, and think you’re coming up with a superior product. It might feel great on your skin, but you're fucking with the chemistry of the product the and distribution of the protection. You have many great qualities and competencies, you gorgeous thing, but you are not a chemist. (I mean unless you actually are a cosmetic chemist, in which case please be my friend I have so many questions.) It's only marginally less risky to blend two different sunscreens together, so don't do that either.

Hot tip #1: If sunscreen makes you break out, it obviously could be that your skin doesn’t like a particular product(s) but it could ALSO be that you need to be more diligent about cleansing. This is a very common thing! Maybe use an oil cleanser to better break up the sunscreen remnants (some sunscreens are really tenacious), and be sure you’re lathering for longer than 10 seconds before rinsing.

Hot tip #2: You need to be extra vigilant if you’re getting on an airplane. The UV is stronger up there and the ozone layer is thinner, and it’s really, really easy to forget that fact because you’re sitting in this wee claustrophia-inducing, extra indoorsy-feeling space. But please do try to remember, especially if you’re a frequent flyer, because you probably don’t want your face to match your luggage.


Is There Any Wiggle Room?

First, as someone who barely leaves my apartment and spends most of the day in a corner of it that is not in direct sunlight, I absolutely recognize the desire to be flexible on sunscreen application. And you can be flexible, IF you’re willing to really pay attention to it all the time! But most people have enough to think about, so that’s why it’s just easier and safer to take full precaution every day and not think too hard about it. Life is exhausting enough without adding tailored SPF calculations into your morning routine, okay, just slap it on and forget about it.

But if you have the time and inclination, then: when you have a day (as I often do) where you just would rather put on less, or none, then my advice is to check the UV index where you live. It’s listed with the weather, on the app or site of your choice. You might think that you’re fine because it’s not so sunny out, but then you might look and see the UV forecast shows it’ll be moderately high today. Or maybe you live somewhere it never gets below 10, or never above 4. Maybe you’ll be inside all day and the UV won’t get above 5, so you go with the SPF 30 moisturizer instead of the sweat-proof SPF 50. Like that. It’s a judgement call, and it requires constant monitoring. If you have the energy/time for it, there ya go.

Handy tip: UV is generally highest in most places between 10am and 2pm so that's when you want to be most mindful. The rule is: if your shadow is shorter than you, the sun is at its strongest.

For most people who work an office job, a proper layer of sunscreen in the morning is more than half the battle. Touching it up mid-day (if your workplace has windows or you go outside for lunch) and again before you leave at the end of the day is enough (assuming it’s still daylight - shout-out to my fellow dwellers in the Land Of Perpetual Winter Darkness, where it’s night by 5pm in winter.) If you work outdoors, obviously you need to be much more vigilant because in addition to actually being outside, you're probably sweating off your sunscreen at regular intervals either from physical labor or from just existing where it’s hot.


Re-application

It’s THE WORST, and these fucking dermatologists are all “you have to reapply every two hours or DOOM DEATH CANCER” and yet they never seem to give a shit about how that just does not WORK for most people/situations and they pooh-pooh every single solution we come up with as being Not Good Enough. (I often want to throat-punch the average dermatologist, sorry.) (Not sorry.) But it’s true that all sunscreens break down with exposure to light/air/moisture, so - except in very specific circumstances - you have to reapply throughout the day.

Ugh. Barf. Sigh. WHY IS EVERYTHING SO HARD.

Okay, let’s talk viable options for reapplication:

  • Don’t wear any makeup, and just smear on more sunscreen. 

  • Wear minimal makeup (I only wear concealer around my nose and under my eyes, for instance) that is easy/quick to touch up after smearing on a fresh layer of sunscreen.

  • Reapply a layer over makeup: the only way I’ve seen that looks plausible is Evy sunscreen (see below) or a DIY cushion. See here: 

  • Use a BB/CC cream or cushion compact with SPF: These CANNOT be used as your sole protection, but if you’ve done a really solid base layer of sunscreen in the morning under the makeup, then makeup with SPF is fantastic for touch-up protection. Just be sure to do an even layer all over.

  • Powder or setting spray with SPF: Like liquid makeup with SPF, but less reliable because you’re not likely to put on a good, even coat.

  • Supergoop Glow Stick: I love this thing, but it’s a dry oil that takes a while to sink in and if you’re oily-skinned, you’ll probably hate it. If you’re dry-skinned you might adore it. Some people say they can put it over makeup, but I was not so successful with that. (I am often unsuccessful with anything makeup-related.) It’s clear and it glides right on and is perfect for travel.

  • Evy: This a mousse that can allegedly go on over makeup OH MY GOD I want to try it so bad. It’s in Europe (though I could get some here if I was willing to splurge) so if you are in Europe too, grab some and report back! 

Truly, though, the absolute best thing you can do is do a very, very good job on your initial morning application - a.k.a. lay a good base. That makes the reapplication a little less fraught with a sense of inadequacy.

Oh, and here is a wonderful little practical example of how one of my favorite skincare people, Michelle, a.k.a. Lab Muffin, deals with it:


Sun Protection Ratings Huh What So Confusing

Feel free to skip this nerdery if you’re not interested.

So very quickly and super-simplified, about deciphering the labels and rating system: “Broad Spectrum” is important because it means it’s been tested to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. (Handy guide: UVBurns, UVAges - both cause cancer.)

As for SPF, it’s a rating system based on how long it takes your skin to burn. Look: it’s a lot, just know that SPF15 blocks 93% of UVB rays and SPF30 blocks 97% and that is actually a really big difference. The reason to go even higher, to SPF50 (my preferred) is because it’s very easy to not apply or reapply enough product, and a higher SPF is extra insurance against human error.

The PA rating system (it’s the standard in Asian countries) is based on UVA rays, not UVB, and tests against “persistent pigmentation.” Wait, you may wonder - does that mean “broad spectrum” doesn’t test for protection against UVA? Answer: kind of, sometimes. (see what i mean it is complicated omg) Basically, from what I can tell, it’s a matter of focus/emphasis. Here, read this. Anyway, back to the PA system: there are 4 levels, indicated by plus symbols. This is how I have translated them in my head: 

+ flimsy af
++  kinda-moderate protection
+++ perfectly adequate!
++++ you're gold, ponyboy

Fun Fact: The US, Australian, and the Asian rating systems are all problematic in some way, and it turns out that the EU actually has the most comprehensive and strict testing requirements for sunscreens. (That I know of, I haven’t looked into regulations in like Kyrgyzstan and Chile, sorry.) If you just want to be as safe as humanly possible without thinking too hard about your sunscreen and chemistry, pick up a European brand, or a product sold in the EU that’s been subjected to their testing system.

Not So Fun Fact: The FDA in the US hasn’t approved any new sunscreen filters in about an eon, because politics + capitalism = a buncha fucking bullshit, so that’s why a lot of US sunscreens just feel like crap compared to non-US ones. Don’t get it twisted: the difference is NOT in effectiveness. US sunscreen will absolutely protect your skin - maybe not as perfectly as you’d prefer (because the rating system only tests for certain things) but it is protected. It’s just that chemists are restricted in the ingredients they can use in the US, and that’s why so many non-US sunscreens are more cosmetically elegant, as they say.

END OF NERDERY.


Recommendations 

Hooboy, home stretch, kids, here we go.

We generally divide sunscreens into two broad categories: mineral and non-mineral (scientifically problematic terminology, but let’s just go with it, I can’t reinvent the wheel, y’all.) You may also hear physical/chemical or organic/non-organic. One is not inherently better or worse than another, they just both have pros and cons, so I’ll lay out what I know.

Mineral
These are usually titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. 

Pro: Better for sensitive skin (and sensitive eyes.) Also have been around longest, and tested the most. I also think of them as generally more durable because they tend to be thick and/or tenacious. Like, if I’m spending the day on the beach or doing yard work, I’m probably wearing one of these.

Con: Most leave a white cast on the skin, can feel heavy/greasy, bad for photography (you get flashback)

Recommendations: Elta MD Clear (technically not 100% mineral, but it is predominantly zinc oxide and it is SO BELOVED), Supergoop 100% Mineral, Purito Comfy Block, La Roche Posay (lots of the Anthelios line), Australian Gold SPF 50, Ocean Potion, Clinique Pep-Start


Non-Mineral
There are something like 27 (??) “chemical” UV filters in use around the world, so it gets complicated. If you find a sunscreen irritates your skin, it’s a good idea to note the active ingredient and see if you can, with some trial and error, identify the troublemaker. Common troublemaker UV filters are avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate. Everyone is different and just about everyone’s skin seems to be super finicky about sunscreen, so while avobenzone makes MY face itch when I sweat, it could be just dreamy for you.

Pro: So! Much! Variety! Also: less chance of white cast, often feels better on the skin - just overall, a MUCH higher percentage of nice formulations

Con: So! Much! Variety! And more likely to cause irritation

Recommendations: Klairs Airy UV Essence (my all-time favorite), Canmake Mermaid Gel, Paula's Choice Youth-Extending Fluid, Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen, Purito Centella Unscented, Biore UV Watery Essence (full disclosure: I loathe it, but other people would punch an old lady who tried to take it from them, it’s a classic YMMV situation), as well as all of the moisturizer/SPF combos I list next. 

Moisturizers with SPF
Please note that many sunscreens can function as a moisturizer even if they’re not labeled that way
. Also, be sure to measure out the proper amount - people tend to only put on as much moisturizer as makes their skin feel good. But when you’re using it as your sunscreen, you won’t get the full UV protection if you don’t put on the full 2-finger amount.

Recommendations (these are all pretty much non-mineral): La Roche Posay Toleriane Double Repair UV, CeraVe Ultra Light Face Lotion with SPF, Cetaphil Oil Absorbing Moisturizer SPF 50, Elizabeth Arden Great Eight with SPF, Eucerin Daily Protection Face Lotion SPF 30

Some General Brand Recommendations

  • Evy: the mousse mentioned above. It’s like Swedish or something? I hear all the products are great.

  • Heliocare: UK brand, I think? Again, I hear all of it is great. Except I think they maybe also sell “sun protection supplements” (?) which is nonsense and quackery, just go for the actual sunscreens.

  • Supergoop: American brand, get samples at Sephora, they make so much good stuff.


Objections Overruled

Look, I’m not one to focus on recommending reef-safe sunscreen because it’s largely a bullshit concern, as I will let LabMuffin expertly explain. You can also miss me with the whole “particles in the bloodstream” hysteria (I can’t help linking her, Michelle is really good at this), as well as the endocrine-disruptor scare-mongering (relevant fact from that link: it would take 277 years using a sunscreen at the recommended dose to cause an actual problem.)

Again with the bottom line: the negative effects of UV radiation are well-established and should concern you far more than inconclusive studies and click-bait headlines.


OMG Is It Over Yet?

I think so? What’s important to remember is that for most people, it’s REALLY hard to find a sunscreen that works, and the process is filled with disappointments and frustrations - but it’s very worth doing. Just anticipate a lot of trial and error.

And keep in mind that one person’s true love sunscreen is another person’s nightmare. This goes for just about every skincare product, but seems to be extra true of SPF. Even if we have EXACTLY same skin types and preferences, we can have wildly different experiences with the same product. My perfect SPF can feel like silk to me but like sludge to you; your perfect product sinks into your skin immediately but sits on top of mine in a layer of scum that makes me want to claw my face off. Et cetera. This is normal. It sucks, but it’s normal. Like a lot of things.

Oh! And sunscreen expires! If it’s not clearly written on the bottle, get a Sharpie and do it yourself. If you don’t see an expiry date anywhere, the rule is that it’s good for two years and then you chuck it.

I’m a little obsessed with trying out SPFs, and I write up reviews of the ones I try at Instagram. Here’s the instastory - each slide links to the individual post on the product. Just remember these are my impressions, and I am but one woman.

Also: I buy my Asian sunscreens (along with a lot of other stuff) on YesStyle. If you use code BWAUAF when you check out, you get a tiny percentage off your order and I get a tiny credit to my account, allowing me to buy yet more skincare products I don’t really need. For you own delight, be sure to check out the insanely cute stickers.


Later I will do an open thread - which is apparently a thing I can do here at Substack, you’ll get an email when I put it up - so everyone can throw out their own suggestions and experiences of various SPFs for discussion, and ask questions if you need to. I have no idea if any of youse really want to discuss at length about SPF Experience, but I really want you to tell me what you’ve tried and loved and hated, because this shit is extremely my jam.

Okay! The end! I’m exhausted! You’re exhausted! Let’s take a nap! Next time: cleansers and cleaning your face, huzzah!

Eternally Epidermally Yours,
EK