Beauty Wellness

Sunscreen 101: How to Choose Which Kind to Work With and Why

Wear sunscreen, they said. But what kind?

Estheticians and dermatologists have warned against getting too much sun for ages. I have vivid memories of my own mother slathering Coppertone on me every morning in the summer when we would make our trek to the beach. I despised it, the smell, the feeling, the time it took. I resisted her with every bit of strength I had (which wasn’t much).

Now, a woman nearing 30 working actively in skincare, and I find myself wearing it almost everyday by choice. I have strong opinions on sunscreen – when to wear it, when not to, and everyone’s ongoing question: what KIND to use. 

First let’s talk about the difference between physical sunscreen and chemical sunscreen:

Physical Sunscreen

This kind of sunscreen uses mineral ingredients (Zinc Oxide, Titanium dioxide) that sit on top of the skin and deflect UV rays, preventing them from being absorbed. So these minerals are physically blocking excessive UV rays from burning or otherwise causing damage. This type blocks both UVA and UVB rays. There’s no wait time necessary, it begins blocking rays as soon as it’s applied. This one is known for often leaving a white cast on the skin, but has more recently been tinted to help avoid this! Keep in mind that if you are physically active and sweating or swimming, then a physical sunscreen will need to be applied more frequently. 

Chemical Sunscreen

This kind uses certain organic compounds (oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and avobenzone) to create a chemical reaction changing UV rays absorbed by the skin into heat, and releasing the heat from the skin. There’s typically about a 15 min waiting period recommended between applying and sun exposure. Chemical sunscreens on the other hand have been found to do a bit more harm than good. Considering the increase in heat that the chemical reaction is creating in your skin, it can increase dark spots, melasma, and even rosacea. 

Many chemical sunscreens only block UVB rays, or the burning rays, therefore inhibiting our body’s initial warning system that it has had enough sun and our ability to synthesize Vitamin D.

Current studies suggest that UVA rays, when separated from UVB by way of sunscreen, become extremely dangerous and cause damage to DNA. This is similar to the way you receive indirect sunlight through a car window, the glass also separates the rays) Some of the compounds isolated for sunscreens are free radicals generators, increasing the risk for genetic damage further. 

I personally exclusively use and recommend physical sunscreens, and prefer to get sun on my skin in the morning (before noon) without any sunscreen at all. 

During the morning hours the sun is not at its strongest, so the damage feared that it would cause to your skin is not a concern. Letting your cells drink in sunlight without blocking it is vital. We’re designed to absorb some of the sun rays and synthesize Vitamin D, a crucial nutrient. 

Ancient Greeks practiced heliosis, therapeutic sun exposure through sunbathing and gazing, and wrote that “sun feeds the muscles.”

In 1903, Dr. Niels Finsen won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his pioneering work in using light therapy to treat smallpox, lupus, and tuberculosis, and continued bringing this therapy to the public and successfully treating clients in the Swiss Alps. 

“The action of sunshine in the outdoors on the body is of such a nature that sunbaths have a triple significance: as a healing agent in the cure for disease, as a preventative to disease by building up body resistance, and as a sheer pleasure-giving tonic which increases the feeling of well-being” -Edgar Mayer MD

So my professional advice? Get as much sunlight as you can in the morning hours and apply a physical sunblock if you’re fair-skinned should you find yourself in the sun’s powerful rays during their peak, or if you’re currently using retinoids or receiving other skin sensitizing treatments.

There’s no need to panic and apply even when it’s cloudy or the dead of a New England winter. Enjoy the sun and be well. 

My top physical sunscreens to try for face or body this season:

  1. Suntegrity 5 in 1 Tinted Sunscreen
  2. Evan Healy Sun Stick
  3. Pacifica Mineral sunscreen coconut probiotic

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