All You Ever Wanted to Know About Sunscreen—and Then Some

Wilson Diehl Fact Checked
Woman in hat walks in shallow ocean water
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Here in the Pacific Northwest we earn our summers. The sun is finally out of hibernation, the days have morphed from absurdly short to absurdly long, and the time has come (finally!) to liberate our cutoffs and sundresses from deep, damp storage. That’s the good news.

The bad news: the Puget Sound region has some of the country’s highest rates of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. One in five of us will get skin cancer in our lives, warns Jennifer Gardner, M.D., who sees patients at the Dermatology Clinic at UW Medical Center–Roosevelt. People with fair skin or skin that burns easily and people with blonde or red hair are at increased risk.

Yes, you have earned your fun in the sun, but before you frolic, here are a few friendly skin-protection reminders (and a thing or two you might not already know about sunscreen).

I never read those pesky labels—what do they say?

You probably know that sunscreen is a must—to protect against sunburn, wrinkles, spots, leathery skin and skin cancer. But how much should you be using? The answer is likely: More! All the sunscreen! Experts recommend one ounce of sunscreen—enough to fill a shot glass—to cover one adult body.

Look for a sunscreen marked “broad spectrum,” which means it protects against both UVA rays (the ones that can cause wrinkles and spots) and UVB rays (the ones that can cause sunburns). (Both can contribute to skin cancer.)

Aim for a sun protection factor (SPF FTW!) of 30 or above. The SPF listed on the bottle isn’t always accurate, says Gardner, so aiming higher than 30 is not a terrible idea. Also, a poorly applied sunscreen with an SPF of 100 will give you better protection than a poorly applied sunscreen with an SPF of 50. If you or your loved ones believe that your sunscreen application technique leaves room for improvement, opt for a higher SPF.

There’s no such thing as a waterproof sunscreen, and the Food and Drug Administration no longer allows manufacturers to make such a claim. Go for ones labeled “water resistant,” especially if you’re swimming or sweating.

What if I hate lotion?

Kendra Bergstrom, M.D., who sees patients at the Dermatology Clinic at UW Medical Center–Roosevelt urges caution when considering powdered or spray sunscreens. 

“Ophthalmologists don’t like powders because they can irritate eyes,” says Bergstrom. “Sprays are a mixed bag. Distribution can be patchy and they can sting, get in your eyes, blow in the wind and get on other people and things. That said, they’re helpful for people with hairy skin who often find creams challenging.”

Do I have to wear a sun visor?

Sunscreen should be just part of your summer sun protection strategy. Seek shade in the middle of the day when the sun is at its harshest. Rock a wide-brimmed hat and Jackie O. sunglasses. Wear a rash guard or sun shirt to protect those lovely shoulders of yours—one that’s labeled ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) 50. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning to preserve the UPF.

Does my baby have to wear a sun visor?

Babies under six months have very sensitive skin—too sensitive for sun exposure or sunscreen. Keep them covered up and in the shade. For babies older than 6 months, Bergstrom recommends zinc oxide sunscreen. Zinc oxide is a common food additive, so if your baby is a hand-eater (which is to say, if your baby is a baby), you don’t have to worry about them ingesting harmful ingredients.

Could you please tell me more about sunscreen than I ever cared to know?

Generally speaking, the sunscreen market in the U.S. can be divided into two camps: mineral sunscreens and chemical ones. Mineral sunscreens (also referred to as physical sunscreens) contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. They are typically less irritating to the skin than their chemical counterparts, which is why they’re recommended for babies and people with sensitive skin. Chemical sunscreens tend to go on more smoothly, feel more refined and don’t leave the telltale chalky streaks mineral sunscreens are infamous for.

What’s the deal with oxybenzone?

Hawaii recently passed a bill banning two common chemical sunscreen ingredients—oxybenzone and octinoxate—because they are bleaching coral reefs, hastening the reefs’ demise. The ban will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021, and chances are you’ll be seeing more mineral sunscreens and sunscreens labeled “reef-safe” in the coming years.

And nanoparticles?

If you want to get really into the (sea)weeds—to be reef-safe, the mineral particles in a sunscreen must be “non-nano” in size. If they are small enough to be measured in nanometers, they too can damage coral. (If a sunscreen is non-nano, it will tell you so on the label. It’s also more likely to feel thick and pasty when you apply it. That’s why people like their nanoparticles. They lead to silky sunscreens, among other things.)

While we’re on the topic of nanoparticle-containing sunscreen, Gardner discourages its use on broken skin.

“There is no evidence of problems from particles getting absorbed through intact skin,” says Gardner. “But there haven’t been studies in patients with eczema or open wounds where the barrier is not fully intact. If you have open scratches, lay off the sunscreen.” (And stay in the shade.)

Could you please tell me one more thing about oxybenzone?

There has been internet chatter about oxybenzone being a hormone disrupter that mimics estrogen. Estrogen exposure has been associated with an increased risk of a number of diseases, including breast and uterine cancer. So, naturally, many of us try to limit our exposure.

A study in rats confirmed that oxybenzone can mimic estrogen, but the rats were exposed to very high doses. Gardner points to a study that shows a person would have to apply sunscreen with oxybenzone to her face, neck, arms and hands once a day for over 270 years to expose herself to the same dose of oxybenzone the rats were exposed to in the experiment. 

“Skin cancer poses a far greater risk,” says Gardner.

Can we pivot and talk about my sunscreen-stained upholstery?

With sunscreen comes stains—on your clothes, your sofa, your favorite picnic blanket ... you get the idea.

“To get sunscreen off fabric and clothing, rubbing alcohol helps,” recommends Bergstrom. “For a leather car interior, leather cleaning wipes work well. Diluted Dawn dish soap can get sunscreen out of clothes and upholstery.”

Gardner’s suggestion: “Invest in a really great drycleaner.”

The main message dermatologists would like to drive home is, of course: wear sunscreen. Find one you like since you’ll be more inclined to use it consistently if you like it—and then use it. Your skin will thank you—and so will your mother.