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How Do I Know What Type of Sunscreen Is Best for My Skin?

Did you know that 91% of melanoma skin cancer is caused by Ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure?

With numbers like that, does sunscreen actually do anything?

The short answer is yes. But its Sun Protection Factor (SPF) only scratches the surface of the complexity of sunscreen.

Here's how to know what type of sunscreen is best for your skin.

Understanding UV Rays

From vitamin D to regulating our circadian rhythm, the human body needs the sun to properly function. But there's a dark side too.

The sun you drew as a child with lines of different lengths indicating the glowing rays of earth's light source was actually not far off. The sun has different types of rays and each type extends to a varying length with differentiating forces of energy.

UVC, UVB, and UVA are the rays concerning human health. The shorter the ray the more powerful it is—meaning it can cause more damage to the human skin.

UVC rays are the shortest and the most dangerous for the skin. These rays are naturally filtered out by the stratosphere and the ozone layer. So unless you're planning to adventure 10 miles above sea level, they aren't a major concern.

Unfortunately, UVB rays are longer and can break through the earth's atmospheric barriers. They are the ones responsible for redness and sunburn.

UVA rays break-in to the human world with even more stealth. Some researchers believe they're responsible for 95% of solar radiation that reaches the blue planet. These are the types of rays that can wrinkle and discolor the skin permanently.

Breaking Down SPF

So what does SPF really mean, and what does it do?

Sunscreen is a protective shield humans can use to protect their skin from UVB and UVA rays. The term "broad spectrum" simply means that the sunscreen contains the barriers for both types (or all types) of UV light.

SPF is a measurement used on sunscreen to show how long your skin can be protected by the harmful rays of the sun. The number (SPF 30, SPF 50, etc.) indicates, ideally, the amount of extended sun exposure you can have.

This calculation is based on your skin's natural burn time. For example, if your skin starts to burn after five minutes of sun exposure without sunscreen, an SPF 45 would allow you 225 safe minutes in the sun. You simply multiply the SPF level by your skin's natural burn time to estimate how long your skin is protected for.

But it's important to note that SPF is an "ideal" and not definitive. Unless you're a scientist, you have to guess your skin's natural burn time. Effectiveness is also dependent on environment, application, and activity.

But the biggest differentiator in SPF potency is in the ingredients used in sunscreen. There are two main types of UV light protectants: physical and chemical.

Physical Type of Sunscreen

Physical sun filters in sunscreen are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These are also known as inorganic, or non-carbon-based, compounds.

Inorganic sunscreen is usually less irritating to people with skin problems like acne and atopic dermatitis. But it's also whiter and leaves a stronger "white cast," or undesired white residue.

Zinc oxide is broad-spectrum, but titanium dioxide is not. But both also reflect 5-10% of UV rays they come into contact with. Zinc oxide also has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties.

UV fighting fabrics have been popularized over the past decade and are also often referred to as physical sun protectants. Clothing is rated on an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) scale and can be equally effective. You can find out more about protective clothing here.

Chemical Type of Sunscreen

Chemical sun filters are also called organic, or carbon-based. Chemical sun protectants are everything that isn't zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

Unlike physical sun filters, there aren't a few simple industry standards. Chemical sun filters are being tested and invented by brand name cosmetics all the time. There are also different regulations in different countries regarding man-made chemicals and their toxicity, effectiveness, and risk to human health.

Besides practical concerns, there are also politics that come into play. This includes which chemicals are allowed to be manufactured in America and if they get clearance by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Just because a sunscreen that's commonly used in Europe is not approved by the FDA doesn't necessarily reflect its quality. Most countries in Europe actually have more restrictions and regulations for cosmetics than America does.

There are also many chemical sunscreens approved by the FDA that are considered controversial. Even though they are effective at blocking UV rays, they might damage DNA, disrupt endocrine system function, or cause birth defects.

Avobenzone is the best chemical sunscreen option in America. This is because it's widely available, FDA approved, and does not cause any harm to humans or the environment. It's also a full-spectrum sunscreen.

But, it can be "unstable," which means it can degrade under sun exposure rapidly without the presence of "stabilizer." Safe stabilizers include Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M, and Octocrylene. Only purchase an avobenzone sunscreen if it also includes these ingredients. Mexoryl XL is also a sunscreen worth looking into.

Avobenzone is also oil-soluble, meaning it won't dissolve in water. Zinc oxide is also water-insoluble (titanium oxide does dissolve in water). But a benefit to avobenzone, and a lot of chemical sunscreens, is that they do not leave as strong of a "white cast" as physical sunscreens do. 

The Right Sunscreen for You

You have to be your own expert in knowing which type of sunscreen works best for you. Your values in relation to the health, safety, ethical, and legal considerations for these products will ultimately shape your opinion on which products to try.

Then it's just a matter of trial and error. Different skin types react differently to emollients, emulsifiers, moisturizers, chemical compounds, and all the different components that make sunscreen.

Did you enjoy this post? Head over to our Health & Wellness section for even more skincare tips!