How to Choose Sunscreen: The Definitive Guide

The experts claim that the sun is not always fun, and without proper protection, the damage from repeated sun exposure slowly accumulates over time. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a known cause of premature aging, eye issues, and skin cancer (the most common form of cancer in the US). The good news is that most of us are aware of the importance of wearing sunscreen regularly. But, when we come to the store trying to find the one, we tend to get confused by incomprehensible numbers and meanings on the packages. Read on to learn how to understand SPF numbers, PA+ meanings, and distinguish between chemical and physical sunscreens.

Why Should I Use Sunscreen?

Though sunscreen doesn’t improve your skin, it protects you from UV radiation. There are three types of UV rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC.

  • UVA has the longest waves that can affect the deepest layers of the skin, destroying cells’ DNA and accelerating skin aging.
  • UVB can only reach the top skin layer making you tan or causing redness and burns.
  • UVC doesn’t harm us because it is blocked by the ozone layer in the atmosphere and can’t reach the earth’s surface.

The fact is that both UVA and UVB may cause skin cancer. For this reason, it is highly recommended to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that absorbs both kinds of rays. If you want to have better protection, make sure the product (even broad-spectrum) contains zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

What is PA+?

First off, PA stands for the protection grade of UVA rays. This measurement is based on the Persistent Pigment Darkening (PPD) reaction and ranking as PA+, PA++, and PA+++. To put it simply, a more plus sign means more protection from UVA rays:

  • PA+ means the sunscreen can provide UVA protection for between two to four hours.
  • PA++ means the sunscreen can provide UVA protection between four to eight hours.
  • PA+++ means the sunscreen can provide UVA protection for more than eight hours.

What is SPF?

SPF is measured by two factors – time and efficacy. Generally speaking, the levels of SPF show how much UVB rays will be absorbed by the sunscreen and how long it would take to burn your skin.

Time: An average person starts burning after 10 minutes under direct sunlight. By applying the SPF 15 product, we can provide 15 times the protection of no sunscreen. That means you have 2,5 hours (10 min x SPF-15 = 150 minutes)  before your skin turns red.

Efficacy: The higher SPF, the more UV rays it filters, and you can stay in the sun longer without risk of sunburn. For example, SPF 15 absorbs 93 to 95% of UVB rays; SPF 30 absorbs 97% of UVB rays; SPF 50 absorbs 98%.

In 2019, the FDA stated that the SPF level increase from 50+ to 60+ to provide the best protection. They also require that all sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher must have broad-spectrum protection.

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What SPF Should I Use?

There are 3 factors you should take into consideration when choosing a sunscreen with the right SPF: skin complexion, season, and your skincare routine.

SPF and Skin Complexion

  • Extremely fair skin always burns quickly, getting a minimal tan or no tanning at all. Use sunscreen with SPF 30 or SPF 50.
  • Fair skin burns moderately but tans eventually. Use sunscreen with SPF 15 or SPF 30.
  • Medium and olive skin burns minimally and always tans well. Use sunscreen with SPF 15 or SPF 6.
  • Dark and very dark skin rarely or never burns and tans easily. Use sunscreen with SPF 6 or SPF 2.

SPF and Season

Cold winter days are not usually filled with sunlight, but you still can get the harmful effects from UV rays. For those who have a pale to light complexion, the experts recommend wearing at least SPF 15 from October through April. People with medium, dark, and very dark skin should use SPF 2 or SPF 6. From May to April, when the sun gives off its strongest light, you should use sunscreen with SPF based on your complexion (see classification above).

SPF and Skin Care Routine

Retinol, vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, and chemical exfoliants can make your skin more sensitive to UV light. That means you may get sunburned more easily. If you use one of these powerful ingredients, it would be highly recommended to wear sunscreen with an SPF of no less than 30+.

Physical vs Chemical Sunscreen

Each option has its own positive and negative properties. By knowing the difference, you will feel more confident in your product choice.

Physical Sunscreen

  • It lasts up to 40 minutes in water
  • It takes effect as soon as you apply it
  • It contains titanium dioxide and zinc oxide
  • It creates a barrier on the skin surface, protecting it from UVA and UVB rays
  • It is safe and can be used by people with sensitive skin, pregnant, and kids
  • It has a thick consistency, so it is hard to spread on the skin

Chemical Sunscreen

  • It lasts up to 80 minutes in water
  • It takes effect 15-20 minutes after you apply it
  • It contains avobenzone, octinoxate and oxybenzone
  • It absorbs UV rays and transforms them into a small amount of heat. There’s no proof that those chemicals are dangerous for health!
  • It can be irritated extremely sensitive skin because it includes many ingredients to protect against UVA and UVB rays
  • It has a thin consistency and easily spreads on the skin like a lotion

Wrap It Up

I hope this article was helpful and you found all the necessary information on how to read a sunscreen label. Remember you have to choose the product marked as “broad-spectrum protection,” which can reflect both UVA and UVB rays. The SPF of your sun cream should be based on your skin tone, season, and skincare regimen. If you don’t trust chemical sunscreens, you can try the safest alternative – products with mineral ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Finally, even if you wear the right sunscreen, it doesn’t guarantee you full protection. Staying out of the sun is still the best way to avoid the harmful effect of UV radiation.