There are two main reasons I’ve hated sunscreen growing up: it usually leaves my face looking pale and greasy, and it feels heavy on my face. I’ve had oily skin all my life, which basically started when I was a teenager, and one lesson I’ve learned as a 13 year old is that caking more stuff on my oily skin does not help. My skin needs to breathe. Which is why I’ve always stayed away from foundation (and ultimately make-up majority of my life so far) and sunscreen. I knew I needed sunscreen, but why would I wear something that keeps breaking my face out??? Teenage me was definitely more worried about reducing acne as opposed to sun damage. Pfft… sun damage is something to worry about laaaaaater.
Fast-forward to my early 20s, acne no longer continued to be my concern (until cystic acne appeared out of nowhere when I was 27). But then sun damage became a point of concern: skin aging, wrinkles, dark spots. “That’s because the sun gives off ultraviolet (UV) light that damages your skin and causes sunburn. Overtime, these rays can lead to wrinkles, dark spots, and other problem areas. The result: you can add years to your looks. Research shows that UV exposure is the reason behind 80% of your skin’s aging.” (“Can You Reverse Sun Damage?,” 2017). On top of being blessed with Asian skin — you know, looking 30 even when we’re 70 — I am also blessed with huge pores, commonly linked to oily skin. And what do you know? Appearance of pore size can be affected by unprotected skin exposure. UV rays can weaken collagen — main building block for skin — that supports pores and result in a “sagging” effect that could make your pores appear larger (Chung, 2008). So, I guess teenage me wasn’t so smart after all. We needed to find a sunscreen that worked for us, not completely forego it (duh).
So as I try to reverse and fix the damage already done and prevent more damage from happening, I couldn’t help but wonder: which of the 2,934,349,857 of sunscreen products out there is going to work for me? Yes it needs to be lightweight but how is SPF15 different from SPF50? Will I be more protected with SPF50 versus SPF15? What about broad spectrum? Like, am I protecting myself from the colors of the rainbow? Also, I’ve seen PA+++ — is this a charge? Is it better to have zinc oxide in the sunscreen because it sounds dangerous. I wish I were joking about these questions, but this is my level of ignorance when it comes to sunscreen and sun protection. So I did a little digging and exploring and learned a lot more than where I started and thought I could share my newly-found knowledge in a condensed format with you.
I know we usually like to start off with SPF and what it is but I think it makes more sense talking about broad spectrum first. And no, it does not mean the rainbow.
What does “broad spectrum” mean on our sunscreen labels?
The two main UV rays most harmful to us are UVA and UVB rays. Broad spectrum on sunscreen label means the sunscreen contains ingredients that can block both of the most damaging rays.
So what are UVA and UVB rays?
UVA rays are the culprit behind skin aging and wrinkles. This is also the one that leads to tanning and can contribute to sunburn.
UVB rays cause sunburn and is the main cause in skin cancer development. When we talk about SPF protection and the number behind SPF, UVB is the UV ray that our sunscreen is trying to protect us from.
SPF: What is it?
It stands for Sun Protection Factor. The number behind SPF is a little more difficult to understand, but essentially the number indicates how much longer it would take to burn your skin than if not using sunscreen. So SPF15 means it would take 15 times longer to burn your skin compared to not using sunscreen at all.
There is also a general “rule” (I will explain later why I have quotes around this) with determining how long you can stay outside for based on SPF number:
minutes to burn without sunscreen x SPF number = maximum sun exposure time
Example: 60 minutes x SPF30 = 1800 minutes sun exposure time
So this means I can apply an SPF100 sunscreen and bake in the sun all day, right?
Wrong. There is a lot to explore and to take into consideration here, but ultimately you’ll have to reapply sunscreen because it loses effectiveness over time. The determining factor in knowing when to reapply sunscreen is based on what you are doing. If you’ll be in the sun a lot or will be sweating a lot, the general rule is to apply every hour or two. If you’ll be swimming, then you will need to apply sunscreen right after you come back up. If you’ll be exposed to the sun all day, then the higher the SPF, the better for you and your skin.
If you’ll be indoors all day majority of the day — like me at my M-F/9-5 day job — that would be a completely different story. I normally use SPF30+ broad spectrum every morning, 15 minutes before heading out to work. It takes me about 30 minutes to drive to work, which I feel is enough time for my skin to absorb UV rays if I am not protecting my skin with sunscreen. I am taking into consideration the rays that come through the windows, which is why I like to use sunscreen even if I’ll be indoors majority of the day. It would probably be ideal for me to apply same sunscreen 15 minutes before heading home as well, but that’s another habit I’ll have to get into soon. I like to be on the safe side 🙂
Another consideration has to do with your skin color and genetics/history with skin damage/cancer. The fairer your skin color, the higher the SPF number you should be using. If there is any member in your family who has had a history of skin cancer, it would also make sense for you to apply a higher number SPF as well.
Even though there is a general “rule” on how long you can stay out in the sun based on the SPF you applied, that rule should be applied very loosely. The SPF number is assigned based on results in a lab environment, and unfortunately we normal people use a lot less sunscreen than the amount used in the lab to determine SPF number. This can also lead to our misconception of how much sun exposure we should actually have.
What’s with the 15 minute rule?
This is the amount of time it takes for sunscreen to be fully absorbed into the skin to be effective.
Is PA+++ another measure of sun protection?
No. It’s actually another name for UVA protection. You may see this on mostly Asian sunscreens because they use the Protection Grade of UVA (hence PA) system to measure sunscreen’s SPF. There is PA+, PA++, etc., where the more plusses indicate higher UVA ray protection.
What about zinc oxide?
This is that best friend you sort of hate. While it may sound dangerous (at least to me), it’s actually safe. And it’s the best ingredient for skin protection because it sits on top of our skin and bounces UV rays off like balls bouncing off the wall. I sort of hate it because zinc oxide is also the ingredient that leaves a white cast on my skin and makes me look pale. And the higher percentage of zinc oxide that the sunscreen contains, the whiter it leaves your face.
Good news is that there are studies that have been going on for years now to use zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens instead. Due to its microscopic size, it should hugely reduce the white that normal zinc oxide leaves on our face. Which means future sunscreens that use zinc oxide nanoparticles should be close to invisible on our skin when we apply it (considering this nanoparticle is safe). Let’s hope they get somewhere with that sooner rather than later.
Welp, damage is done. So what can I do now?
If you’re like me and have said “screw it” to sunscreen the last years or so, don’t fret because there are ways to help reverse the damage.
For one, definitely start wearing sunscreen now based on the above information. For two, if wrinkles are concerning, there are skincare products that include retinoids that can help boost the amount of collagen in your skin. Vitamin C in skincare products can also aid in fading dark spots.
If enlarged pores is your biggest concern… well, that will probably be another post.
Wow, this turned out a lot longer than I had anticipated, but the more I researched, the more I thought, “This is good information to know! I have to include this!” Also in the middle of my exploring, I messaged my brothers to ask if they wear sunscreen on a daily basis and strongly emphasized that they need to. And that they need to make my parents do it, too. Because this is serious stuff. Our world is changing rapidly everyday; the air we breathe is not the same as the air from 100 years ago. We are constantly trying to catch up to these changes to protect ourselves from the same things we are spitting out every minute. But amid all these changes, sunscreen is the constant that protects us and our skin from the biggest offender — UVA and UVB rays that can weaken collagen in our skin, cause our skin to age faster, and even develop skin cancer.
What are your thoughts on this? This is very basic sun protection information that I was able to quickly gather, so if you have any insights that you’d like to share with me or the community, please do! Should I write a part 2 to include more in-depth info on this topic? For the next five days starting with tomorrow, I’ll be writing a series of reviews on the five sunscreens I’ve tried (pictured at the beginning of this post). What are some sunscreens you’ve used where you’ve either loved or hated?
Ask the Expert: Does a High SPF Protect My Skin Better?. (2018, May 24). Retrieved from https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/ask-the-experts/does-a-higher-spf-sunscreen-always-protect-your-skin-better
Bailey, M.D. C. (2014, June 17). Are Zinc Oxide Sunscreens Better? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.drbaileyskincare.com/info/blog/are-zinc-oxide-sunscreens-better
Can You Reverse Sun Damage?. (2017, August 11). Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/melanoma-skin-cancer/skin-sun-damage-treatment#1
Chung, S. (2008, July 11). Sun Damage and Pore Size: The Other Reason to Wear Sunscreen [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.healthcentral.com/article/sun-damage-and-pore-size-the-other-reason-to-wear-sunscreen
Deepak. (2013, January 29). SPF and PA+++ Rating in Sunscreen: What does it indicate? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://www.dermatalk.com/blogs/skincare/spf-and-pa-rating-in-sunscreen-what-does-it-indicate/
Mann M.S., D. 11 Myths and Truths About Large Pores that Will Change Your Face [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.rd.com/health/beauty/large-pores-myths-facts/
Tachibana, C. (2010, June 1). Probing Question: What does the SPF rating of sunscreen mean? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://news.psu.edu/story/141338/2010/06/01/research/probing-question-what-does-spf-rating-sunscreen-mean