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Sunscreen 101: Everything you need to know and look for in a sunscreen

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

Sunscreen is the single important anti-aging product there is. Roughly 90 percent of photo aging is preventable by wearing SPF daily.

Photo damage or UV exposure (which causes aging) occurs from exposure to daylight through clouds, rain, glass and even fluorescent indoor lighting. This is why protecting the skin every day is so important imperative.

But, there’s a lot to learn about when it comes to choosing the correct sunscreen. It’s not a one size fits all product. There are multiple factors to consider when finding the right sunscreen for your skin (or particular activity you may be participating in that day).

Our aestheticians got together, reminisced about all the awful things we did to our skin in the sun in our younger days (Hello, laying out on a roof lathered in baby oil!) and put together all the information you need to know when choosing the correct sunscreen.

Many people think that applying any old SPF will keep us safe from both kinds of the sun's harmful rays. Unfortunately, this is not true. To understand why, look closely at the labels, ingredients and physical forms of the products you are buying.

Choose a “Broad Spectrum” sunscreen

The term “Broad Spectrum” means that it protects your skin from both UVB and UVA rays.

UVA rays make up 95% of the all the UV rays that make it to the Earth’s surface. UVA penetrates deep into our skin and can even pass through glass. Its rays play a major part in accelerating the signs of skin aging and generating skin cancer. UVB rays don’t penetrate as deeply as UVA, but they can wreak havoc on the top layers of your skin, causing wrinkles and speeding up the signs of aging.

Start with SPF 30, Go as High as 50

The SPF on sunscreen stands for sun protection factor, a relative measurement for the amount of time the sunscreen will protect you from ultraviolet (UV) rays

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends a minimum of SPF 30, which protects against 97% of the sun’s UVB rays.

Higher SPFs are better for the fair skinned or those who burn easily, but keep in mind that improvements are minimal—SPF 15 provides 93% protection, so it’s not like 30 is “twice” as effective. The AAD recommends SPF 50 for the fair skinned or those who burn easily, but don’t insist upon maxing out your SPF.


No sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun’s rays,” according to the Academy, and there’s actually no evidence that SPFs higher than 50 protect any better.

Consider Your Skin Type

Many sunscreens are made to specifically help those with dry, oily or sensitive skin. People with dry skin should look for ingredients like glycerin, lanolin, oils, silicones (like dimethicone) and aloe, and avoid sunscreen sprays or gels with alcohol.

For oily skin, lightweight or gel lotions with ingredients like silica or isododecane are best.

For sensitive skin, hypoallergenic and fragrance-free are good bets, as are mineral sunscreens with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Alcohols and preservatives should also be avoided.

Avoid Alcohol If You Have Rosacea, but Consider It If You’re Prone to Acne

People with rosacea or acne may need to take alcohol—a common sunscreen ingredient—into consideration, especially when using other skin treatments. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that people who have rosacea or are prone to allergies should avoid sunscreens with alcohol, but that “patients with acne, however, may find gel formulas, which usually contain alcohol, less likely to aggravate acne.” These can work better for acne-prone people than greasy, cream-based sunscreens.

Another anti-acne tip? The UVB filter ensulizole has a lighter, less oily consistency than most other chemical sunscreens. Finally, though, be sure to listen to your skin. For example, if you’re using an acne medication cream or treatment, a light cream can help balance out the drying effects of the acne medication.

Chemical or physical sunscreen? It's a matter of preference.

Chemical sunscreens absorb into the skin and are usually more popular because they feel lighter and look less noticeable. They use active ingredients like Avobenzone, Octinoxate, Oxybenzone and Helioplex.

Physical sunscreens, or mineral sunscreens, sit on the surface of the skin. They can feel heavier and look more noticeable, but they provide added coverage and are more resistant to sweating and swimming. Look for active ingredients like Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide to identify them.

As long as the label says “broad spectrum,” it’s pure preference.

Water Resistance

Even if you don’t plan to splash around in the water, reach for a water-resistant sunscreen—if you get sweaty, the water-resistance will keep you covered longer.

Sunscreens can be tested for either 40 or 80 minutes of water-resistant protection, but reapplication every two hours or after heavy perspiring, swimming, or just being wiped off with a towel is crucial.

One last tip: You're probably not using enough sunscreen.

As a general rule, creams and lotions tend to deliver better protection than spray formulations, which most people don't apply enough of to get adequate coverage. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends a "liberal use" of SPF 30 (picture a shot glass full of lotion) for the body, and reapplying every two hours (or after swimming or exercising). For the face, the rule of thumb is one teaspoon of sunscreen to deliver the SPF protection on the package.


We understand tan skin is typically perceived as more attractive so it’s more than tempting to use little to no sunscreen while relaxing at the pool or beach this summer. But, that temporary tan can cause more permanent results such as wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and potentially skin cancer, if you’re not truly careful.

Your best bet? Find a light weight tinted moisturizer (with SPF) and a good bronzer and you’ll have glowing skin without the risks of more permanent damage.

Trust us … we wish we had this advice when we were a little younger. (Not that we’ll ever tell you our age!)

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