Summertime means lazy days at the beach, picnics in the park... and sometimes a bad sunburn. But protecting your skin with sunscreen can be pricey — especially when you consider that many bottles only contain 3 to 12 ounces, and the American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying a whole ounce of sunscreen every two hours.
Before you skip the sunscreen to save, know that sun exposure doesn't just cause sunburn. Getting too much sun is also the most common cause of skin cancer and plays a major role in prematurely aging skin. Even if it's cloudy or overcast, ultraviolet rays are still attacking your skin. Frankly, we should all be wearing sunscreen all the time.
Instead of skimping on sunscreen, try to save instead — you don't have to go for the most expensive brand to be protected! Read on for everything you need to know about buying and applying this summer essential.
What SPF Do You Need?
If you've ever read a sunscreen label, you're familiar with the term SPF, or sun protection factor. This number is the amount of protection a sunscreen has against UVB radiation, which is what causes those nasty sunburns. Dermatologist Dr. Fayne Frey and the American Academy of Dermatology both recommend using SPF 30, as it protects you from 97% of UVB rays.
Going higher than that offers little extra protection: SPF 50 protects you from 98% of UVB rays. While SPF 50 may be worthwhile if you burn easily, there's not much point in going higher than that. Don't be fooled by labels that tout an SPF of 100, as no sunscreen protects you from 100% of the sun's rays. The number is bigger, but the improvement is minuscule — stick with an SPF from 30 to 50, unless there's no price difference.
What Is UVB and UVA?
As we mentioned above, SPF only refers to the amount of protection a sunscreen offers from UVB radiation. That'll prevent you from getting a sunburn and help protect you from skin cancer, but you also need to worry about UVA radiation. While exposure to UVA and UVB radiation can both lead to skin cancer, UVA radiation also causes your skin to age — so you want a sunscreen that protects against it.
UVA protection isn't measured by a number like SPF. Instead, you're looking for "broad spectrum" on the package, which means the sunscreen protects from both types of UV radiation.
Is Sweat- or Water-Resistant Sunscreen Worth It?
While no sunscreen is completely waterproof, sunscreens labeled sweat- or water-resistant will last longer, even when they get wet. If the package says "water resistant," the sunscreen is effective for up to 40 minutes in the water. Alternatively, if it says "very water resistant," it's effective for up to 80 minutes in the water. That means you can swim or sweat for 40 or 80 minutes while still being protected from the sun. A sunscreen without water resistance will stop protecting you as soon as it gets wet.
Even if you aren't planning on swimming, getting a water-resistant sunscreen isn't a bad idea — if for no other reason than it means you won't have to buy a second bottle of water-resistant sunscreen when you do go swimming.
Should You Buy a Lotion, Spray, or Stick Sunscreen?
"Which sunscreen an individual chooses, whether it is a stick, lotion, or spray formulation, is personal preference," Frey says. "The characteristics of the sunscreen (SPF level, water resistance, broad spectrum), how much is applied, and how often will determine the effectiveness of the sunscreen." So pick whichever style of sunscreen you like.
Unsure of the differences? Here's a rundown:
When you think of sunscreen, these are probably what come to mind. They're simply lotions you rub on your skin.
These come in spray bottles, which can make them quick and easy to apply — just point and spray. However, you do need to be careful not to inhale sprays, so don't over-apply, and be sure to monitor kids who put on their own sunscreen.
This sunscreen type comes in a semi-hard stick, similar to a stick of deodorant. It can be less messy than lotions, but can also be harder to apply because it doesn't spread as easily.
What About Sunscreen for Kids?
Don't use sunscreen on children under 6 months of age. Instead, keep them in the shade and use clothes or blankets to cover their skin. After 6 months, children can use normal adult sunscreen without trouble; in particular, the AAD recommends sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide for infants and toddlers who are 6 months and older.
How Do You Apply Sunscreen Correctly?
Not using sunscreen correctly is nearly as bad as not putting it on at all. "All too often, sunscreens are not used appropriately," Frey says. "They are not applied to all exposed areas, not applied liberally, and/or not applied often. The result is that the person using the sunscreen doesn't get the SPF protection listed on the product label."
So just as important as what you buy is how you use it. Read and follow the package directions for any sunscreen you purchase. However, here's a basic rundown of how to use your sunscreen.
First, apply sunscreen 15 minutes before you go out in the sun. Use an ounce of sunscreen to cover all exposed skin, though the exact amount depends on your size and what you're wearing. Make sure you don't miss any spots! After two hours, reapply sunscreen if you're still in the sun. For water-resistant sunscreen, reapply it every 40 or 80 minutes if you're swimming or sweating.
Sunscreen has an expiration date, after which it becomes less effective. Be sure to toss yours when it's past its prime.
How Else Can You Protect Yourself From the Sun?
Though you should always wear sunscreen, here are some other ways to protect yourself from the sun:
Wear protective clothing. Clothing won't completely protect you from the sun, but it can help. So cover up with long sleeves when it makes sense to do so.
Buy clothing with sun protection built in. Some sportswear has its own UPF, or ultraviolet protection factor. If you're hunting for a cover-up to put over your swimsuit or a pullover to wear while hiking, look for something that lists UPF on the label.
Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes. Your eyes can be damaged by the sun, too! While cheap sunglasses are only tinted lenses, higher-end glasses will have UV protection.
Get a lip balm with SPF. Your lips aren't likely to burn, but only sunscreen can protect them from skin cancer.
Which Sunscreen Should You Buy?
"Sunscreens are regulated by the FDA as drugs," Frey explains. "This means they must get premarket approval by the FDA and show both efficacy and safety." And that means SPF 30 is SPF 30, regardless of price or brand. While you want to find a sunscreen that's SPF 30 to 50, broad spectrum, and with water resistance, it doesn't matter which brand you choose.
"There is no correlation between the cost of a sunscreen and its effectiveness," Frey says. Browse store shelves and find the sunscreen that fits your needs with the lowest price per ounce — remembering, of course, that you should apply about an ounce per person for every two hours of sun exposure.
Readers, which sunscreen brands do you recommend? Do you go for the least expensive options, or are there certain features you'll pay more for? Let us know in the comments below!