If Confusion Over Sunscreen Is The Reason You're Not Wearing It, You're Out Of Excuses

Or at least you will be when you finish reading this.
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Or at least you will be when you finish reading this.

Does anyone remember that Baz Lurhman song to the class of '99, "Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)"? In 1999, I was 13 and pretty much a ward of the public school system, so I largely ignored any advice broadly distributed by Top 40 music on account of my adolescent self-absorption and believing I was somehow “above” it or whatever. Also, the song says to not read beauty magazines because they will only make you feel ugly. Haha--you didn’t tell people to not read beauty websites, now did you, Baz? How shortsighted. (But really, please keep reading?)

Now that I’m in my late twenties, I’m beginning to notice “changes” in my body. It’s like some latent aftershock of puberty. Since I turned 25, I can’t comprise the base of my personal food pyramid with black and white cookies and grilled cheese sandwiches anymore without my waistline bearing the brunt. I don’t wake up at the crack of dawn with seemingly inexhaustible energy (nor do I go to bed before midnight anymore). 

But most noticeably, my skin is a little duller, a little fine-linear, and slightly less cherub-y feeling than I remember it feeling when I was still a junior varsity cheerleader (truly). While I’m not ready to succumb to the paranoid grasp of anti-aging products, it’s become a real and present issue. I am aging. The things I do or don’t do to my body will stick around until I’m dead. How morbid. 

Since it’s literally the most prevalent advice your dermatologist, general physician, librarian, neighbor, fellow human will give you, I figured it is probably for good reason. WEAR SUNSCREEN EVERYDAY. EVEN IN THE WINTER. EVEN WHEN IT’S OVERCAST. EVERY. DAY.

You’ll find anywhere from SPF 4 to 30 in most makeups and facial moisturizers. In fact, you can barely avoid it anymore. For the longest time, I was alternating between Neutrogena’s Healthy Skin Glow Sheers, which come in a range of skin colors and have an SPF of 30, and Aveeno’s Positively Radiant Tinted Moisturizer, which only comes in two different colors (light and medium) and also has an SPF 30. Both worked well for me, and since I don’t mess with foundation, covers two bases in one. 

Lately, I’ve been using Origins Smarty Plants CC cream, which has an SPF of 20. For some reason, all the BB/CC creams at Sephora pretty much top out at around 20 to 30 SPF.

I recently decided that that isn’t good enough for me. I want to look 30 when I’m 45, so I’m going to need to step up my sunscreen game, Karate Kid montage style. 

From my discussion a little while ago with Kevin, who is a cosmetic chemist, I never asked him specifically about it, but he stressed the importance of sunscreen as a preventative measure that no anti-aging cream, no matter how miraculous, could compete with. He did say that wearing SPF 15 daily would be totally passable, but like I said, I am an overachiever. (Oh, I didn’t say that? Well… I just did now).

There are pretty much two categories of sunscreen: chemical and physical. You’ll find chemical sunscreens in most makeups, moisturizers and foundations. These chemicals come in spades, all of which do the same thing (block sun) but with different strengths and potencies. They work mostly by absorbing or scattering the sun’s rays. 

Physical sunscreens work by acting as a barrier between the sun’s rays and your skin--they deflect the sun’s rays, rather than absorbing them. The main difference between the two that you can detect is in their textures.

Physical sunscreens, compromised of titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, are generally always in sunscreens marketed for beach-going and sports/outdoor activities. It’s thick, greasy-feeling and sometimes leaves a whitish cast on your skin. I use to hate when my mom would glob sunscreen on my body in the summer when I was a kid because my thighs would just stick together and everything I sat on or touched left a greasy print. Also, when it’s sweltering outside, the last thing you want on your skin is some grease balm. 

Unless it’s waterproof, physical sunscreens require more frequent reapplication because they rub off easily, since they’re just chilling on top of it, which, if you ask me, is just another opportunity to ask the nearest attractive human, “Can you do my back?”

Some popular ingredients in chemical sunscreens are:









That’s… a lot, and not even the all of it. Most are photostable, but some aren’t, so used in conjunction with each other, you can pretty much have all your UVA/UBA bases blocked. 

For instance, avobenzone is widely known to be unstable; however, it’s got all it’s friends around to help it out. Avobenzone is kind of like that kid who always copies someone else’s homework so they don’t flunk out of calculus or whatever and is always the weakest link in a group project. What are you even good for, avobenzone? 

You don’t have to worry about stability with physical blockers. They are the meathead bouncers of not letting UVA and UVB into da club.

Some things of note about the duking power of these two is that the two components of physical sunscreens (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) are not completely effective when without the other. Titanium dioxide only protects against UVB but not UVA, while zinc oxide’s got your back with both of them. Chemical sunscreens are generally formulated to cover both those in full. You do have to wait about 20 minutes for the chemicals to soak into your skin before they’re effective, though, whereas physical blockers are effective once applied. Ain’t nobody got time for that, chemical blockers.

Physical blockers are pretty much all-around safe to use, or are at least FDA-approved, if that means anything to you. Since there is such a buffet of chemicals to choose from with non-physical sunscreens, some of them will generate free radicals, and some haven’t been FDA-approved in the US but are in Asia and/or Europe. I don’t quite understand why some chemicals are good enough for Euros but not for us yanks, but I’m not going to get all Erin Brockovich about it.

Comparing and contrasting kinds of sunscreen aside, have you ever wondered what the SPF actually denotes other than ULTIMATE SUNBLOCKING POWER? Obviously, the higher the SPF, the stronger the sunscreen, but a little tricky bit of information is that SPF denotes the amount of protection from mostly UVB rays, not UVA. UVB rays are the ones that cause burns, though UVA rays are the cause of accelerated aging and also cancer. So while you won’t burn you could still be rapidly aging/soaking up cancer. The horror! 

SPF 15 blocks about 93% of UVB radiation, and SPF 30 blocks roughly 97%. Once you go above SPF 50, there is very little increase in protection. So please, dudes, make sure your sunscreen says it protects from UVB and UVA--broad-spectrum--not just one. Otherwise you’re just half-assing it.

Since I wanted the bouncer treatment on the exclusive VIP club that is my skin, I opted for a daily physical sunscreen for my face. But what ones won’t feel gross and make me look like I’m always clammy and sweaty? 

A quick search on the web touted SkinCeuticals Sheer Physical UV Defense SPF 50and EltaMD UV Sport Broad-Spectrum SPF 50 as two of the more popular physical sunscreens for your face, so I bought those. I’m going on vacation someplace sunny this week, so I want one for my face (it’s tinted!) and one hardcore “sporty” one for my sporty bod (and probably face too). I’m still stuck in that mentality that a product for my body is not okay for my face, which for me, personally, is largely applicable.

“Save me, sunscreen!”

“Save me, sunscreen!”

At about $34 retail, the Skinceuticals sunscreen is well worth the moo-lah considering I already paid $35 for my Origins CC cream. There’s a little ball-bearing in the bottle because you’re supposed to shake it up to mix the ingredients before blending on you face. Fun! The texture is heavenly--it’s like rubbing liquid velvet on your skin, making it an ace makeup primer. 

Alone, this tinted sunscreen isn’t terribly moisturizing, but if you’re on the oilier/combination side, you will love this. Normalites, adjust as you will. My face is a desert in the wintertime, so I tend to always pat on a little bit of rose hip oil before moisturizer.

“Well, it’s a big improvement over the white ghostly cast most physical sunscreens leave on your skin”

It’s a big improvement over the white ghostly cast most physical sunscreens leave on your skin.

One gripe I may have with it is that it boasts a “universal tint” which is OK, I guess, if you have anywhere from fair to medium skin tone. I mean, I have a medium to slightly olive complexion in general. In the summer, it certainly veers more olive than medium. I guess Skinceuticals doesn’t include dark-skinned ladies in their universe. What gives? It’s 2014!

EltaMD’s sunscreen, while geared for sport, surprisingly feels like regular lotion when rubbed into my skin. At first it was the classic thick white goop, but with proper blending it absorbs nicely into skin, leaving behind no greasy residue. Hallelujah! I did not know this was possible! 

It was a bit cheaper than Skinceuticals and you get more product for your buck, $15 for three ounces. EltaMD also offers a tinted physical sunscreen, so I’m planning on trying that after this Skinceuticals is dunzo.

So far, I’m pretty jazzed about my sunscreen investment. Being that I will be road-testing the hell out of these for the five days I will be swirling around the drink someplace between the Bermuda Triangle and the Bahamas--that will be the true test. Unlike most women, I prefer my skin un-kissed by the sun. I use to have eczema as a kid, and whenever I get tan, those little spots where I use to have eczema rashes DO NOT tan. and I look like a spotted weirdo or like I got splashed with sunscreen and didn’t rub it in.

Also, I’ll be totally off the grid for five days, so while that is an embarrassingly terrifying prospect for me, should I return from the Bermuda Triangle, I would like very much to let you know the results of my sunscreen-a-thon. If I see ONE tan line, so help me, EltaMD and Skinceuticals…