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.
NPR logo

A Sunscreen Evangelist Explains Why You Need To Get On Board

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/892062631/892383823" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Sunscreen Evangelist Explains Why You Need To Get On Board

A Sunscreen Evangelist Explains Why You Need To Get On Board

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/892062631/892383823" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVID MACHEMER: Hello. This is David Machemer (ph) from Seattle, Wash. One of my little life hacks during the COVID-19 - after the first week of being totally out of sorts, I decided I needed to get back into my routine, so I set the alarm for the same time, and then I still do my morning commute. I jump on my bike, I go halfway to the office, I turn around, I bike back. And then I get to work. And if I can, I do the same thing at the end of the day. That way, I'm still getting my exercise, and the day is still relatively the same. That's my little thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JULIA FURLAN, HOST:

Hi. I'm Julia Furlan. This is NPR's LIFE KIT. This episode, we're talking about the ins and outs of something that's a big part of my life right now, maybe yours, sunscreen - as in the different things that are in sunscreen and, namely, where sunscreen goes - outside of your body, on your skin. To share her overwhelming knowledge on this topic, I'm joined by Barrie Hardymon, a senior editor at NPR's Weekend Edition and a sunscreen evangelist. Hi, Barrie.

BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: Hi, Julia.

FURLAN: OK, we're going to start at the beginning. We're going to go with our basics here.

HARDYMON: Do it.

FURLAN: What is sunscreen?

(LAUGHTER)

FURLAN: And why is it so important? And why are you so passionate about it?

HARDYMON: First of all, sunscreen is the thing that's going to protect you from the sun's rays - UVA and UVB rays - and they each have different effects on your skin.

CHERYL BURGESS: UVB - think of B for burns, A for aging.

HARDYMON: That's Dr. Cheryl Burgess, a dermatologist in Washington, D.C.

BURGESS: Everyone has to wear sunscreen, just like you have to brush your teeth every day. And as long as the sun is shining, we're going to have photodamage. So the sun protection in sunscreens are primarily preventing you from harming your skin or causing sunburns or skin cancers, but, of course, everyone doesn't want to go through the aging process.

HARDYMON: Me, me. I don't. So Dr. Burgess recommends looking for a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which will tackle both kinds of light, UVB, which is the one that is responsible for sunburns and skin cancer, melanoma - you don't want those things - and UVA rays, which is responsible for making you look older faster. And truly, I got to say UVA rays are the ones that are really responsible for my passion for sunscreen.

FURLAN: I'm just going to say, first of all, I think we need to accept the process of aging.

HARDYMON: I want to accept the process, too. I just want to accept it with, you know, like, a touch of a glow.

FURLAN: (Laughter).

HARDYMON: You know what I'm saying? Like, I can't wait to have, like, a hottie streak of, like, white hair and whatever. And I just - I want all that. I just want to know that I've also protected my skin.

FURLAN: OK, fair. That is a fair point. I guess that my follow-up question is, like, does everybody need to constantly put on sunscreen all the time? 'Cause I grew up in a family - my mom has vitiligo, which means that she doesn't have any pigment...

HARDYMON: Oh, yeah.

FURLAN: ...In parts of her skin. And my dad is Brazilian and tans very deeply, as do I. And we all had different regimens. There were, like, three different ways to do sunscreen. I guess my question is, does everybody need sunscreen?

HARDYMON: Yes, everyone needs sunscreen. And Dr. Burgess says she's constantly fielding this question from her patients.

BURGESS: Everyone is susceptible to sun damage. And it doesn't matter what ethnicity you are; you're going to see a difference in the color of the tone in your sun-exposed areas versus your covered areas.

FURLAN: OK, another question.

HARDYMON: Hit me.

FURLAN: So right now, I'm living in a house full of very pale people who use a lot of different kinds of sunscreen. It seems like there's, like, a sunscreen for your face, a sunscreen for your tattoo, a sunscreen for your little toe, a sunscreen for, you know, every - different parts of your body. I wasn't aware of the spectrum of experience when it came to sunscreen.

HARDYMON: Yeah. I, too, am living in a house with a bunch of very pale people - my family. And we have also tried a bunch of different things because some of the people here are very squirmy little guys. Some of them are just sort of grumpy big guys. That's my husband, but, you know, he's bald, so you got to protect the noggin. So there are a lot of different kinds of sunscreen.

I spoke to another dermatologist, Dr. Kanade Shinkai at the University of California in San Francisco, and she broke down sunscreen into two basic types.

KANADE SHINKAI: Physical sunscreens are literally minerals that coat the skin and reflect ultraviolet light off of the skin, and chemical sunscreens sort of coat the skin and actually absorb and filter ultraviolet rays. If you have darker skin, like myself, putting on a mineral or physical sunblock can often look very pasty, for lack of a better word. I mean, you can actually see a whitish or sometimes even kind of a purplish tint, which cosmetically is not ideal. And also, it can also feel thicker and kind of heavier on the skin.

HARDYMON: OK, we're going to have some application tips a little bit later that are going to help minimize that problem that she's talking about - that thicker, heavier aspect of physical sunscreen - but let me just recap. We generally put sunscreen into two basic categories - physical, which you'll see on the bottle. You can see it referred to as physical, sometimes mineral. And it coats the skin, and it bounces that UV light back away from the body. Chemical sunscreens sink into the skin. They are absorbed by the skin like a sponge, and they reflect the UV rays out of your body like heat.

Now, chemical sunscreens, they feel a lot better. The experience of putting them on is just more pleasant in general. There's an industry term called cosmetic elegance, which I love, and it basically means how easy is it to use this product? How good does it feel on your skin? Chemical sunscreens feel great. They don't leave that whitish, chalky cast, and they tend to sink in and absorb pretty fast.

But there are some reasons to be wary of them. Both of the dermatologists I spoke to said that there are no concrete signs or studies that chemical sunscreens are harmful to our health, but because they work by sinking into the skin and absorbing those UV rays, those active ingredients in the products - that's the oxybenzone, the avobenzone - they are being absorbed into your bloodstream. Dr. Shinkai says that the industry is really just waiting for more data about what long-term use of chemical sunscreens can mean given the absorption into the bloodstream.

But for now, the main thing to remember is either type is good, but the only type of sunscreen that really works is the one you're wearing. So just pick one and stick with it.

FURLAN: OK. This is good to bear in mind. You know, I've definitely had the experience of looking, like, purple or chalky or weird when I'm putting on sunscreen. How is it that I can tell the different types apart?

HARDYMON: Well, be an informed consumer and read the back of the bottle. If you have picked up a chemical sunscreen, what you will find is something called avobenzone, something called oxybenzone. There's another one called octisalate. Those are the ingredients that are the chemical filters. And they do feel a lot better. They sink into the skin. Those are the ones that you're like, sunscreen's so great.

Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, contain ingredients like zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, less frequently iron oxide. They're minerals, which is why sometimes you'll see physical sunscreens are referred to as mineral sunscreens. These are the ingredients that sit on top of your skin, and they will bounce the UV rays away. The other thing you can look for on the bottle is if it says all physical or 100% mineral, 100% physical. Those are other ways that you can tell that you are choosing a physical sunscreen.

FURLAN: While we're on the topic, I know I've read that chemical sunscreens might be bad for the environment, right?

HARDYMON: You're right. There is some research that shows that the avobenzone, the oxybenzone - those are the active ingredients that are specifically found in chemical sunscreens - they may be contributing to the bleaching of the coral reefs. And there are some places that have banned them. They have a lot of tourists that are heavily lotioned up, swimming in the ocean. These are places like Hawaii, Australia, the Florida Keys.

And here's the thing. It is unclear how much these chemical sunscreens are contributing to coral reefs dying. And when it comes down to it, it's global warming that really trumps all other factors here, but it might be something you want to weigh as a consumer when you're choosing the best sunscreen for you. And as I've said, there are a lot of tourist destinations that have actually banned these ingredients.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: So physical and chemical are two types, but what is the deal with SPF? How does it work? Is higher better? How can I get a nice tan and still wear my SPF?

HARDYMON: I'm glad you asked that because there's no sunscreen that's 100% effective.

FURLAN: Right.

HARDYMON: So you're still going to get, like, a touch of a glow. So SPF is sun protection factor. That's what it stands for. And in general, you want an SPF of 30 or higher.

BURGESS: An SPF of 30 is going to protect you close to 98%. Now, if you go from a SPF of 30 to an SPF of 60, well, you don't have that much to improve on. And so that number, just because it doubles, doesn't double your protection. So it's still important that when you're using sunscreens to reapply every two hours.

HARDYMON: Yeah, that's right - two hours. That's the bad news. But here's the good news. You're not getting burned. So if you go into the water, you actually have to reapply it maybe more frequently because when you come out, if you've gotten really wet or maybe even if you've gotten really sweaty, you should also reapply. Now, some sunscreens are advertised as sport sunscreens, and those ones are actually supposed to stick around a little longer on your skin as things get damp, but you still have to reapply.

And chemical sunscreens, because they actually do get absorbed by the skin, you have to apply those about 15 minutes before you actually get out in the sun so that those ingredients have a chance to work. Physical sunscreens - slap them on, go on out there and play in the sun.

FURLAN: The next thing is, like, Vitamin D. Am I going to get enough even if I super-duper triple wrap myself in SPF?

HARDYMON: Yeah. So this is a thing that both dermatologists said they hear all the time. Like, I need my Vitamin D. Don't worry. You're going to get it.

SHINKAI: Sunning yourself to get Vitamin D is a really unreliable activity, meaning we don't really know how much time a given person of a given skin tone at a given time of year needs to sit outside in order to get adequate Vitamin D levels on any given day. It's a much more reliable way to get Vitamin D to take it through the diet rather than through the skin.

HARDYMON: You're going to eat your salmon. You're going to eat your mushrooms and your herring and your sardines - or maybe you're not. But I'm going to eat sardines, and you should all try them. They're the best.

FURLAN: They're so good. OK, I want to talk about application of sunscreen. This is a very hot topic for me right now because I'm, like, sweaty. I'm hot. I'm outside. I don't want to, you know, spend forever rubbing it all in. I think that sunscreen has a delivery mechanism issue, and I want you to help me fix it.

HARDYMON: You're totally right. That's exactly - there really is a problem with the way that it gets delivered. And in particular, it is physical sunscreen, as I've been talking about. Those are the ones that give you the white cast. Those are the ones that are definitely a problem for people who have darker skin tones.

So for Dr. Cheryl Burgess, and she describes herself as having a medium brown skin tone, this is something that she's really worked on with people. Like, how do you apply this stuff so that you don't have a layer of chalk on your skin?

BURGESS: When my patients come in, I show them, like, if you put it in your palm and you just kind of dab it on your face and then you try to rub it in, of course, that's like trying to rub in something very thick, like caulk or caulking type of material, and it looks like it, as well. But if you put it in your hand and rub it 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, so they won't look as chalky. In fact, I use one on a daily basis, and no one can ever really see it on me. And they're like, how do you get it that way? The hands are warm, and so if you massage it in your hands and then apply it, it goes in quite nicely.

HARDYMON: I tried this after we talked to her. It really does work. So get out there, and start rubbing your hands together.

FURLAN: I found that there - I have a mineral sunscreen that is SPF 30 and it's a spray, and I hate it because I cannot get it on my body properly. I was so excited for it to be the one, and it's not. What am I doing wrong?

HARDYMON: So here's the thing with sprays. Your sunscreen is only as good as how you put it on (laughter).

FURLAN: Right, right.

HARDYMON: You, like, are the main factor. And a lot of people like sprays, especially if, like me, you have two small wriggly human children, you know, 'cause, like, if they're running away, I can just spray it at them. But it doesn't work. You have to put it on your hands first and rub it in or put it thickly on the body. But, you know, I've used sprays sometimes, and what I find is that, oh, I don't know how I got that weird burn on the back of my arm. So sprays are not great. But I will tell you another sort of thing that is becoming more prevalent are powders.

FURLAN: Oh.

HARDYMON: And this is particularly good if you're on the beach and you maybe have put on a full face of makeup. I maybe have done that every now and then. You need to reapply, but you're not going to, like, redo your whole thing. You can spin the, like, the powder on top of your face to do it. I've done it, like, in my kids, like, in their part, so that's another usage that I'm seeing more of it.

FURLAN: Yeah. I'm going to come in with my own hot tip here. Are you ready?

HARDYMON: Do it. I love hot tips.

FURLAN: I just got - I got a tattoo last year, and it's in a place that gets plenty of sun for me. And I've been using one of those zinc sticks that's actually for babies...

HARDYMON: Yes.

FURLAN: ...To draw over my tattoo to make sure that, like, even though I'm putting sunblock on my whole body, this particular area is getting, like, an extra special cover.

HARDYMON: That is such a good tip.

FURLAN: Thank you. Thank you. It's a new life for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: OK, so I put on sunscreen every day in the summer. I'm probably hearing that I should probably be doing it year-round, but I haven't been. When do I need to wear sunscreen?

HARDYMON: All the time, Julia. All the time. Oh, my God. This is like - I'm out here like, put it on. I'm looking at you on Zoom, and I could see all of that ultraviolet light pouring in behind you in your beautiful place. And ultraviolet light can find you. It wants to find you. So just get in the habit of doing it. Another thing that these dermatologists told me is that it doesn't matter if it's overcast. You think a bunch of clouds are going to stop your wrinkles? No, they're not.

FURLAN: I really did think that they were. Just to be clear, I 100% was like, it's cloudy; I don't really need it. I was wrong.

HARDYMON: You got to protect yourself at all times.

FURLAN: So what you're saying is that you can get sun damage even if you don't leave your house every day, which is basically what everybody's doing?

HARDYMON: Yes. Damage to your skin can happen not just from the window behind you. It can happen through the clouds. It can happen when you're driving to the supermarket, even with your mask on. You just want to get in the habit of putting it on as part of your routine. It's not hurting. It's almost certainly helping.

FURLAN: OK. So you put on sunscreen. Ideally, now that you have all these tips, it goes better than it has for you your whole life. My life is complete, right?

HARDYMON: No. No, no, no, no, no, no. Not so fast. The truth is that the dermatologists that I talked to, all of them were like, sunscreen is essential. It is an essential part of a healthy skin diet, but it's not the only thing.

SHINKAI: It's not meant to be a stand-alone. You know, hat, sunglasses, neck buffs, shirts, pants can be really important, and also, avoiding the sun during the peak hours, which is around roughly 10 a.m. and to 2 p.m.

HARDYMON: So there's a lot of things that dermatologists want you to do to protect your skin. But maybe you're unwilling to give up that prime beach time in the late morning or early afternoon, or maybe you're not a hat person. I kind of think everyone is a hat person, but fine. But sunscreen - sunscreen - there's no excuse. Just put it on.

FURLAN: OK, I hear you. But what if a person who's, like, not me but hypothetically a person that I know went outside and spent too much time in the sun and did get a sunburn? What would you say to this, like, hypothetical person?

HARDYMON: Listen; people get burned. It's OK. No judgment. And it hurts. It's no fun at all. And here's the problem. There actually isn't a lot of, like, great evidence for managing sunburns. If you're really feeling hot and uncomfortable, you can take ibuprofen for that discomfort. But you should not take ibuprofen while you're out in the sun because that kind of medication can actually make you more sensitive to the sun.

So if you've got a bad burn, stay out of the sun, use cool compresses, use a great moisturizer, and you can also try a topical anesthetic cream, which can kind of help it as well. Now, you're going to hear a lot of people say, oh, I use aloe. Well, that's fine, but aloe is actually extremely drying to your skin, and it can actually make you sting even more. So even if your mom is like, but that's what we used, it's just not going to feel that good, and I would avoid it.

Now, if you have, like, some real pain, like if you have a headache or you're nauseated or - and here's the really important thing, where you really screwed up - if you have blistering, go see a doctor and especially a dermatologist. And speaking of dermatologists, our own Dr. Burgess has one last really important bit of advice.

BURGESS: The most common thing that I hear is that, oh, you know, I grew up when we didn't have sunscreens, and so my skin is long gone. But it's never too late. It's kind of like smoking in that you can stop smoking and still add years onto your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: Barrie, I feel like I've learned so much, and I'm really grateful to you and Dr. Burgess and Dr. Shinkai, the amazing dermatologists that you spoke to. Now, let's recap, as we do here on LIFE KIT.

HARDYMON: OK, takeaway No. 1 - you got to wear sunscreen. It doesn't matter how dark or light your skin is. Everyone needs protection.

FURLAN: Takeaway No. 2 - there are two types of sunscreens - physical, also known as mineral, and chemical. And there are a ton of different formulations, from sticks to sprays to powders and the classic lotion. Whichever one works for you, use it.

HARDYMON: Takeaway No. 3 - dermatologists recommend a broad-spectrum, an SPF of 30 or higher. And you've got to reapply it every two hours no matter what. And I'm going to add one more, takeaway No. 4 - wearing sunscreen isn't going to mess with your Vitamin D levels. That's a myth.

FURLAN: And lastly, takeaway No. 5 - if you're wearing physical sunscreen, you want to really, like, warm it up between your hands, and that's going to help it be less detectable on your skin so you won't turn purple and chalky.

HARDYMON: So now you, too, Julia, can go out there and become a sunscreen evangelist to folks in the Sephora or the CVS or maybe just, like, a random person on a sidewalk.

FURLAN: You know what? I will take it under advisement. Thank you so much, Barrie.

HARDYMON: You're so welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes, like the series that I did about friendship. It's very good. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT, which I really hope you do, and you want more, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. If you've got a good tip or an idea for an episode, please give us a call. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at lifekit@npr.org.

This episode was produced by the fabulous Sylvie Douglis. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan, and our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. I'm Julia Furlan. Thank you so much for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: Meghan Keane is the imagining - imagining - imagining producer. What do you think? What do you think (laughter)? Is that a promotion?

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.