Rain or shine, indoors or outdoors, on the beach or on the mountaintops. Wherever you are or whatever Mother Nature brings you, sunscreen is essential for radiant, healthy-looking skin. While the blazing sun is a glorious part of our natural existence, with overexposure its UVA/UVB rays can negatively impact your skin—whether it’s marked dullness or an increased risk of skin cancer . With sunscreen, you can decrease these effects. But, of course, not all sunscreens are created equal. There are chemical sunscreens and physical sunscreens with significant differences between them. Let’s explore the safest type of sunscreen to use for your face and why it’s important to use safe sunscreen not only for your own health but for the environment too.
How to Use Sunscreen
The general rule of thumb is simple: use sunscreen anytime you’ll be exposed to the sun, whether it’s direct or indirect. This means even if you’re at the office sitting by a window or even if you’re taking a walk for only 10-15 minutes, you should use sunscreen. That’s because UV rays can penetrate glass, and a few minutes of sun exposure can still affect your skin, as sun damage is cumulative (meaning it accumulates over time throughout one’s lifetime).
Most people don’t realize they aren’t using enough sunscreen. A teaspoon of sunscreen is usually recommended for your entire face. It should be applied approximately 15 minutes before sun exposure occurs (so slathering it on during your morning skincare ritual is your best bet). Always read the label carefully on any sunscreen you use, but generally speaking, reapply every 2 hours or more frequently (every hour) if you are swimming or sweating/towelling off often. Choose sunscreen with an SPF of 30, that offers broad-spectrum protection (both UVA and UVB protection) and is water- and sweat-resistant.
When it comes to SPF (sun protection factor), aim for at least SPF 30. One misconception about SPF is that the higher the number, the longer you can go without reapplying—but that’s not the case. According to dermatologist Steven Q. Wang, MD, “The SPF number tells you how long the sun’s UV radiation would take to redden your skin when using the product exactly as directed versus the amount of time without any sunscreen.” Given that, choosing SPF 100 seems like your best bet, but Wang says people tend to generally misuse higher-SPF sunscreens by not reapplying them often enough or staying out in the sun for longer, thinking a higher SPF will offer more protection, giving you “a false sense of security.”  Ultimately, your best strategy is to ensure you use your sunscreen correctly.
Chemical vs. Mineral/Physical Sunscreens
Chemical and mineral, or physical, sunscreens are the two options you will encounter. Chemical sunscreens will typically contain one or more of these ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun’s UV rays like a sponge, as opposed to deflecting them away and are less likely to leave behind a white residue. They can also be easier to apply and be absorbed by your skin.
Physical/mineral sunscreens sit atop the skin and work by deflecting the sun’s UV rays like a shield. The two main ingredients you will encounter in physical sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are considered “generally recognized as safe and effective (GRASE)” by the FDA. In fact, only zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are considered GRASE by the FDA, while other popular sunscreen ingredients have been determined to need more testing to ensure their safety. Also, chemical sunscreen ingredients are better for sensitive skin.
Hawaii’s Chemical Sunscreen Ban
In Hawaii, a recent bill was passed to ban chemical sunscreen ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate. The bill states that the Hawaiian legislature finds oxybenzone and octinoxate are harmful and damaging to coral reefs and marine organisms that reside in coral reefs. These ingredients have been found to increase mortality of coral reefs, lead to increased coral bleaching and cause genetic damage to reefs and organisms by increasing the probability of disruption to the endocrine system. There is some inconclusive evidence that chemical sunscreens disrupt the endocrine system in humans as well. The ban on chemical sunscreen ingredients in Hawaii will go into effect in 2021.
You can ensure that your sunscreen is “reef-safe” by checking the ingredients on sunscreen bottles and making sure they don’t contain oxybenzone or octinoxate.
Mineral sunscreens containing zinc oxide are safe as long as they are “non-nano.” Typically, because mineral sunscreens leave behind a white, unwanted residue, sunscreen companies have been using nano-sized particles to reduce this chalkiness, but these smaller particles can be absorbed by coral and also cause harm. Although titanium dioxide is considered GRASE by the FDA, sunscreen with a high content of titanium dioxide can also be harmful to reefs.
When in doubt, your best bet is to buy sunscreen labelled “reef-safe” or if you prefer to read ingredients lists, look for non-nano zinc oxide. Commit to following directions to benefit from the best protection possible and if you’re not afraid of hat head, get your favorite cap or sunhat out for some extra protection. Stay safe and enjoy the sun!
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