The Ultimate Guide to Sun Protection

With the sunnier days of summer in full effect, I thought it was the perfect time for a good ole lesson on sun protection and my clean SPF recommendations! I get asked all the time what are the best anti-aging products and honestly, the answer is SUNSCREEN. 90% of skin aging is contributed to UV exposure from the sun or tanning beds. Plus, the much bigger and scarier risk of skin cancer. 

UVA and UVB Rays

Ultra Violet Aging - UVA rays cause premature aging, wrinkles, sun spots/freckles and can pass through window glass. Ever notice that your left arm is tanner than your right? Those UVA rays pass right through car glass window.

Ultra Violet Burning - with UVB rays you are more aware you are receiving them, as they are responsible for a sunburn and are blocked by window glass.

Also, a common misconception is not feeling it's necessary to wear sunscreen on a cloudy day. UVB and UVA rays still pass through clouds so you still may receive a burn and skin damage.

What is a Tan and Sunburn?

A tan is the result of the skin's defenses kicking in. When UV light hits the skin, it damages the DNA of skin cells causing them to produce melanin to protect the cells. That basically means if the skin is tanned the DNA and the skin are already damaged. This is also why people with darker and olive skin types tan versus burn - it's because they naturally have more melanin in their skin compared to fairer skin tones.

Now a sunburn, on the other hand, is more extreme skin damage. It's from the overexposure of the sun and/or the reaction people with less melanin and fairer skin tones experience. Peeling skin from a sunburn is the body's way of getting rid damaged skin cells that are at risk for potentially becoming cancerous. While red and peeling skin is looked at as aesthetically annoying, it's actually your skin protecting itself!

Aging + Skin Cancer

Most importantly an overexposure to UV rays causes cell DNA mutations which can lead to skin cancer. UV damage isn't only skin deep, it affects the dermis layer of the skin and as we age our bodies naturally produce more melanin, this is what gives our hair, eyes and skin color. That means freckles, sun spots and "age spots" will come out of the skin from sun damage we may have encountered back as a child or teenager. Also, UV damage breaks down the collagen and elastin resulting in sagging skin tone and wrinkles. In all my years as an esthetician, I can't tell you a number of times I have seen people look significantly older than their age because of sun damage. 

Darker skin toned? Though melanin can give some protection, it can't protect you from everything! Sure lighter skin tones have a higher incidence of getting skin cancer. But darker skin tones can and do get skin cancer. Particularly vulnerable areas include under the fingernails and toenails, on the palms of the hands and on the soles of the feet. Bob Marley died after a four year battle with melanoma skin cancer that started on his toe.

Want to see something pretty crazy? This is a photo of a Wood's lamp, it's used to measure sebum, dehydration, certain skin conditions and pigmentation in dermatology or by estheticians. This person looks to have pretty normal looking skin with some freckles in the regular side of the photo, but under the Wood's lamp, you can see significantly more sun damage. 

Wood's Lamp

Medications/Topical Products + photosensitivity

There are several medications and topical products that can make your skin more sensitive to sun exposure. Many people are unaware of this, but it's something to consider if you happen to be using any of these.

+ Skin care products - Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide in most acne products. Any AHA product - glycolic, lactic etc. 

+ Essential Oils - Angelica, Lavender, bergamot and any citrus - grapefruit, lemon, lime, orange/wild orange and tangerine.

+ Antibiotics - Tetracyclines (minocycline, doxycycline, tetracycline) or Fluoroquinolones (ciprofloxacin, ofloxacin, norfloxacin)

+ Pain Relievers - Ibuprofen (Advil) and Naproxen (Aleve or Midol) (Surprising I know!)

+ Retinoids - Topical creams typically used for acne and anti-aging like Retinol, Tretinoin, Retin-A and Differin. Accutane taken in oral form.

+ Depression Medications -  like Elavil (amitriptyline) and Sinequan (doxepin)

+ Diuretics/Water pills - Lasix (furosemide)

Types of Sunscreen

Physical or Mineral sunscreens

These types of sunscreen are my personal favorite and what I recommend for several reasons. They are not made of harmful chemicals, they are often more gentle for sensitive skin types, good for acne and better for ocean coral. Physical sunscreens are typically made of natural mineral ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Physical sunscreens protect your skin from the sun by blocking or deflecting the sun's rays and start working immediately upon application. It's essentially a shield of protection.

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens are made up of just that. They work by absorbing or scattering the sun's rays, this is why it's recommended to apply 15-30 minutes for it to be activated. Depending on the person they may cause acne/clogged pores or irritation to the skin. Some people are allergic to zinc or titanium and have to use these types of sunscreens.

There are new studies on sunscreen happening all the time and it's a lot to sort out. Over and over again the two most common chemical sunscreen offenders are oxybenzone and retinal palmitate. Oxybenzone has been linked to mimic estrogen and alter reproductive hormones.  It's been increasingly linked to early puberty in girls, low sperm count, and male infertility. A study showed when retinal palmitate when exposed to UV light, it chemically produces free radicals which are linked to cancer development. Uh, then why is it in a product specifically made to go in the sun?! Something to also keep in mind is that many chemical sunscreens contain fragrance to cover up the chemical sunscreen smell and parabens to keep those chemicals stable and from going bad. Both are hormone disruptors and fragrance is irritating to the skin.

Picking the right type of sunscreen for you is a personal choice. Some feel they have better broad range protection with a chemical sunscreen and some prefer to go the natural route or have reactions to certain ingredients. I can recommend to you my choices as a green beauty believing esthetician, but ultimately I would rather you have all the correct information for you to make an informed decision. Plus, the benefits of sunscreen far outweigh the possible problems as the sun is proven time and time again to be the most harmful.

Spray Sunscreens

As for aerosol spray sunscreens, there are some things to keep in mind. In order to get a good even coating, you will need a good 3-4 applications for it to be effective. Spots are often missed if there is a breeze the spray drifts into the air and doesn't stick to the skin. I can attest to this as I live at the beach and my desk is near a window and at least once a day I smell sunscreen. Crazy right? Also, if it's a chemical SPF which most spray sunscreens are, can we talk about inhaling those lovely chemicals? Mmm, no thanks! 

Coconut Oil as Sunscreen

We have all heard how coconut oil and other oils can be natural sunscreens. Unfortunately, this information has been spread around the internet by misinformed people that don't know the science and facts behind it. Don't get me wrong natural ingredients are awesome, but the problem with natural oils as sunscreen is they don't contain suitable UV blocking ingredients. They do not absorb UV rays at the right wavelengths. Plus, they range from an SPF 1 to at best an SPF 7, which is pretty insignificant when you are talking about actually protecting your skin. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends an SPF 30 to be adequate and if you want natural there are plenty of options out there!

SPF Number

Some shocking news - that number on the sunscreen bottle isn't the level or protection you will receive. The sun protection factor number on the bottle is the minutes you can be in the sun without getting burned.

10 minutes without any protection on your skin to burn X SPF 30 = 300 minutes of protection. Remember to take into consideration sweating and swimming for reapplication!

The use of a higher SPF number will only give you slightly more rays blocked and last longer. And when I say slightly, I mean 1-5% more, for example going from an SPF 50 to a 100 only gives you 1% more rays filtered. That is nothing and dermatologists recommend an SPF 30-50.

SPF 15 = 93% of rays filtered
SPF 30 = 97% 
SPF 50 = 98%
SPF 100 = 99%

Proper Application

If you are planning a day outdoors I recommend applying sunscreen at your home/hotel and apply while naked! The reason I say this is if you already have your swimsuit or tank top on chances are you will miss spots. Also, if you are planning on using a chemical sunscreen it takes 15-30 minutes to absorb into the skin. 

No sunscreen regardless of strength should be expected to stay on longer than 2 hours without reapplication. Those 300 minutes I mentioned above are significantly shortened by activities such as swimming or sweating.

Sunscreen in Makeup

Many cosmetic companies advertise SPF in their foundation as a selling point. However, most foundations do not have enough SPF to give you protection if you are planning a day outdoors and often contain only block UVB rays. It's best to use a sunscreen moisturizer or separate sunscreen before foundation. Also, wearing sparkly or super shiny lip glosses you are basically attracting the sun to your lips. It is best to wear a sunscreen lip balm under your gloss. (I can personally attest to this as I have several freckles on my lips!)

Another thing to consider is wearing a sunscreen and makeup with sunscreen doesn't equal double or stronger protection. It means whatever SPF number is the highest is the number you should go by!

Other ways to Protect yourself

+ Wear clothes and hats
+ Sit under shade
+ Avoid being in the sun when it's the strongest times of the day, 10 am - 4 pm
+ Wear UV-absorbing sunglasses

What about vitamin D + Is it safe to wear sunscreen every day?

This is a tricky question because only you can answer it since you know your lifestyle better than anyone else. If you are going from your house to your car to an indoor office and back home you probably don't need to wear it 24/7/365. It is great to get a little sun exposure from time to time and you absolutely need to have some time to be exposed to vitamin D! However, if you are a college student and are walking around a college campus all day for 4 years you should probably be wearing sunscreen daily!

If you are looking for a serious matte sunscreen this is your product as it has a powder finish.

If you are looking for a serious matte sunscreen this is your product as it has a powder finish.

One of the few mineral spray sunscreens out there. This is a great product to spray over makeup for reapplication too!

One of the few mineral spray sunscreens out there. This is a great product to spray over makeup for reapplication too!