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Sunscreen 101: How to Choose the Right One for You

With the popularity of skincare at an all-time high, you’ve probably heard a lot of confusing information. While there are all sorts of opinions out there for how to keep our skin healthy, there is one thing almost everyone agrees on, which is the importance of sun protection. Sunscreen is considered by many industry professionals, beauty gurus, and skin experts to be the most important step in our beauty routine. Seriously, if you’re not protecting your skin from potential sun damage, you might as well throw out those expensive anti-aging creams and serums.

Since everyone should be using sunscreen daily, you’d think it’d be pretty easy to choose the right product for you, but nothing in life is that easy. There are different types of sunscreen, varying SPFs, and a lot of terms that might be difficult to understand. To help you choose the right product for your skin, we’ll go over chemical vs physical sunscreens, what SPF really means, and other important factors.

Let’s start with why you need sunscreen in the first place. When our skin is exposed to the sun it absorbs all sorts of ultraviolet rays, namely UVA and UVB. Both can cause premature aging and even cancer, so we need sunscreen to block some of that potential damage. This is where it can get tricky, since the sun protection factor, or SPF, doesn’t really work how we think it does. The SPF of a sunscreen tells us how much it can block UVB damage compared to if you weren’t wearing it at all. So, a sunscreen with SPF 30 will cause your skin to absorb about 30 times fewer UVB rays than it would without sunscreen. Surprisingly, most experts say we don’t need to go much higher than SPF 30 since the higher increments really only protect our skin a tiny bit more. SPF only measures UVB rays, so for protection from UVA rays make sure to get a sunscreen that’s labeled “broad-spectrum”.

Now that we know it’s best to choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with around a 30-50 SPF, we can talk about choosing a sunscreen for specific skin types and personal preferences. There are two types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients like avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone that convert the UV rays into heat which is then released from the body. Most popular sunscreens are chemical, and they work well for a wide variety of people. They’re more water-resistant, so they’re ideal if you’re swimming or sweating a lot through the day. They’re also better for wearing under makeup because they’re more lightweight and absorb nicely into the skin.

Physical sunscreens contain the minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that physically block UV rays. If you have sensitive and irritable skin, physical sunscreen is the way to go. Physical sunscreens sit on top of the skin and are far less irritating than chemical, but there are also some downsides. They’re thicker and tend to leave a white cast, which is especially annoying if you have a darker skin tone.

No matter which type of sunscreen you choose, remember to follow these basic safety tips. If you’re going on spring break, make sure to take a break in the shade during the middle of the day when the UV index is highest, to avoid burns or potential skin damage. Reapply sunscreen throughout the day, especially after swimming, and remember that everyone’s skin is different and will react differently to sun exposure, so do what’s best for you.

Glossier Invisible Shield is a chemical sunscreen with a huge fan base, but it’s especially good for those with oily and acne-prone skin. The clear water gel formula is about as lightweight as you can get so you can wear it under makeup without worrying that it’ll feel too heavy or clog your pores.

Supergoop’s Unseen Sunscreen is an award-winning option for those of you who want quality sun protection with a few extra perks. This chemical formula also contains ingredients like red algae to protect your skin from blue light emitted by your phone, as well as a meadowfoam seed complex for hydration, making it a top choice for people with dry skin.

Coola has so many fabulous sunscreens, but if you’re going to be active and need sun protection that’s safe from water and sweat, the Classic Body Organic Spray is the one for you. This chemical formula comes in a variety of beachy scents, is vegan-friendly, and ultra-sheer.

If you’re pregnant or have sensitive skin and need a physical sunscreen, the Anthelios Tinted Mineral Sunscreen by La Roche-Posay is ideal. It’s tinted to ensure it won’t leave a white cast, and the liquid oil-free formula will feel super lightweight.

For low-maintenance physical sun protection, Blue Lizard is a great brand to try. It’s affordable and effective, and as someone who’s been using their face sunscreen for months, I’m happy to say it doesn’t leave a white cast.

The bottom line is that we all need to protect our skin from UV rays, no matter our skin type or skin tone. There are so many serious and painful side effects from sun damage, it’s important to find a sunscreen that works for you, and not just in the warmer seasons. Whether you go with physical or chemical, basic sunscreen or ultra-fancy, your skin will thank you.

by Clare Saxton