How To Pick The Best Sunscreen For You : Life Kit No matter your skin tone, sunscreen keeps your skin safe from harmful UVA and UVB rays. But to use it right, you need to know a few things: What SPF to use, how often to reapply and the difference between chemical and physical sunscreen. This episode explains what to look for on the back of a sunscreen bottle and how to use it effectively.
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A Sunscreen Evangelist Explains Why You Need To Get On Board

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A Sunscreen Evangelist Explains Why You Need To Get On Board

A Sunscreen Evangelist Explains Why You Need To Get On Board

A Sunscreen Evangelist Explains Why You Need To Get On Board

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/892062631/892383823" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Photo illustration by Eslah Attar/NPR
Sunscreens containing minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide reflect sun rays away from skin and are a good alternative to chemicals that could be harmful to ocean reefs.
Photo illustration by Eslah Attar/NPR

People of Earth! There is a lot to worry about, right? You've got your pandemic, your climate change, your protests, your sourdough starter and your kids' screen time. I get it. But I'm here from the future, and I want to tell you one thing that you should put on your list, and just get 'er done.

Wear Sunscreen.

That's right, sunscreen. It's mid-July, and since sheltering-in-place through an anxious spring, summer has arrived and it's time to (safely, and with a mask) get out of the house and see the sun. And yes, you must protect yourself from the sun's rays — UVA, UVB, the whole gang.

You'd be surprised how often, I, a sunscreen evangelist, find myself in conversation with someone who says — 'oh, hey, yeah, I don't wear sunscreen.' (Gasp.) When those sweet summer children come into my life — either in line at Sephora in happier days, or sometimes even under my own roof (ahem, my husband), here's how I make my case.

Ugh, I don't wear sunscreen. I don't need it.

(Gulps, takes deep breath). Listen to me carefully: everyone, every skin color, every tone, every ethnicity, and almost every age — needs sunscreen. You need it for two reasons: first, because it prevents skin cancer, and second, because it prevents premature aging.

Let me start with the most important bit: everyone can develop skin cancer, no matter how dark or light their skin. Cancer is caused by exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun, the ones we call UVB (B for burns) — this raises the risk of all forms of skin cancer, including melanoma which is often deadly. Dermatologists say that they hear this all the time, "I don't need it, my skin is too dark!"... and it drives them nuts. Especially because the prognosis for skin cancers in nonwhite racial ethnic groups tend to be worse as they are often diagnosed at a later stage. So this is truly about stayin' alive people. If you're wearing a mask, brushing your teeth, taking care of yourself — you gotta add in sunscreen.

Now, the second part may not bother you as much — because this is about wrinkles, brown spots, photoaging. I am age-positive and cannot wait to rock a hot silver stripe in my hair. But also, I am vain and I am trying to get carded long into my forties! And whether or not this is internalized patriarchy, it is a truth that should be universally acknowledged that many women, and not enough men, do care about how their skin looks. And those rays we call UVA (A for aging), they will give you brown pigmentation, they will give you crow's feet, they will simply prematurely age you! (This is a conversation I have a lot at the skincare counter when I see people buying a serum, but skipping the sunscreen.)

Fine. But I heard sunscreen isn't safe!

Okay well first, maybe listen to the Life Kit on misinformation. And don't panic. Broadly speaking, sunscreen is safe. But this gets to a very important distinction between kinds of sunscreens. Bear with me.

There are two kinds of sunscreen we usually talk about. The first we describe as "chemical" sunscreen. If you're looking at the ingredient list you'll see words like, avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate. These sunscreens work by absorbing into the skin, converting UV rays into heat, and then releasing them from the body. They tend to feel a little better — they absorb better, they feel more moisturizing, they are cosmetically elegant.

Here's the rub (see what I did there?): There have been studies recently that ingredients in "chemical" sunscreens do build-up in the body, and more over time. Based on animal studies, there's concern it might disrupt endocrine systems, but there isn't any data to show harm to humans yet. So the jury is out on these sunscreens, but they've enjoyed widespread use with few reported problems over the years, so people do still use them.

Chemical ingredients have also been shown to be a factor in the bleaching of the coral reefs — they're banned in places like Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand. Global warming, of course, trumps all other factors when it comes to the environment, but it's still something you might want to consider.

And good news, there's another kind of sunscreen you can choose! It's sometimes called "physical" and sometimes called "mineral" if you're looking at the bottle — the active ingredients you want to look for are titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide. These form a physical layer on your skin — but again, there's a rub, and this time literally. Because these are literally physical blocks on your skin, they tend to be very hard to rub in, and can leave a whitish, or purple cast on your skin. However, because we know these ingredients are safe, these are what you should use if you have particularly sensitive skin.

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And what about the BABIES!! Won't you think of the children?

Same answer as above — except somebody's gotta hold them down to get it rubbed in. You have to commit to protecting your kids from the sun if they are more than six months old — and before that, just keep them out of it at all. Probably best to go the physical/mineral route: there are gentle physical sunscreens for kiddos, and you can sometimes bribe them with candy, but also, they should be in full body swimsuits and hats, too.

But I have darker skin, and I can't find a sunscreen that works for me! Why?

The answer to this one comes down to structural racism. The sunscreen gap between black and white skin is as wide as the gaps that exist across medical care in this country — dermatology is no exception. Funding and research have typically excluded people with darker skin tones, which means that it can be hard to find one that doesn't look chalky.

But here's some good advice from Dr. Cheryl Burgess, a dermatologist who has what she describes as medium brown skin, and wears physical sunscreen. And this is great for people of all shades who want to find a way to wear their physical/chemical sunscreen invisibly. "If you put it in your hand and rub your hands together...for a short period of time, smooth it out in your hands and then apply it to your skin, you'll find you'll get a more even application." She says that's how she applies it to her own skin, in fact.

Okay so let's start shopping. How do I read these labels?

SPF means "sun protection factor" — and here's something to remember, your T-shirt has an SPF of 4. So you need more than that. Dermatologists I talked to recommend an SPF of at least 30, and you want to look for the label, "broad spectrum" — that gets you screened from UVA and UVB rays.

But don't fall for those SPF 1,000,000 you see on the shelf! Dr. Burgess told me "SPF of 30 is going to protect you like close to ninety eight percent. Now, the thing is, if you go from a SPF of 30 to an SPF 60, well, you don't have that much to improve on. So the higher the SPF usually, the more expensive it is. And it gives you a fraction more of protection."

Then you just want to make your choice between a chemical or a physical/mineral sunscreen. Best to chat with your doctor to make the best decision for you. But don't leave the store without it!

What else should I do?

Don't go out in the full sun between 10 am and 2 pm if you can help it. Go get lunch in the shade instead. And slather it on! You need enough sunscreen to fill a shot glass (hey, look, now you're bringing fun to the party!) to cover your whole body. Wear a hat, cover up where and when you can. And make sure you reapply frequently — every two hours or more if you've been swimming, or working up a sweat. Also, check your body for suspicious lumps, spots, moles, and make a doctor check them too.

And get those babies in the MOST PROTECTION YOU CAN. Rash guards, hats, shade. You do not want to be smearing sunscreen on a wailing toddler's back. (I mean honestly, I'd rather be shoving mittens on their hands, wouldn't you!?)

Great! Do I have to wear it every day?

Yes. Yes you do. Have you been listening? You get UV rays through your windows, your windshield, your office skylights and, most importantly, even on a cloudy day! And if you're vain (who, ME!?) you really need to be diligent about the sunscreen no matter what your day brings. I don't care if you're in an office or a car — Wear. The. Damn. Sunscreen.

Also your foundation may have an SPF on it which can give you extra protection. However, if you are slathering on enough foundation to get that level of SPF, then you are putting on foundation wrong and here is my email (redacted) for a makeup lesson. When you're doing your morning regimen — put your sunscreen on last — after serum and moisturizer. But before foundation. And blush always makes you look great but that's another Q&A.

This has been a really long conversation.

Sure, but we've had a lot of fun. And I've saved your life, and your skin! You're welcome.


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This podcast portion of this story was produced by Sylvie Douglis.