You’ve officially converted to Team Sunscreen-Every-Day. And while you happily rub it into your face and body every morning…do you actually know what it does?
For your own sake and knowledge — and also so you can spout some well-earned facts should the need or desire ever arise — here’s a little primer on all things SPF. Now go forth and protect your skin.
What does ‘SPF’ stand for/mean?
“Sun protection factor,” which measures how much protection a sunscreen offers. The number — 15, 30, 60, etc. — indicates the amount of sun exposure needed to result in a sunburn for skin protected by that product. So if you’re wearing SPF 60, it would take your skin 60 times longer to burn than if you weren’t wearing sunscreen. And SPF only reflects protection from UVB rays (more on this later).
Does a higher SPF always equal better protection?
Standard SPF strengths range from 2 to 100, though a higher number doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better sunscreen. Yes, in theory, SPF 75 will offer you more protection than SPF 15 in terms of how long your skin can go without burning, but the danger of a high SPF is that you’re more likely to think you don’t need to reapply as frequently. Studies have found that people are more likely to misuse high-SPF products, thereby exposing themselves to more harmful ultraviolet radiation. What’s more: SPF 100 does not offer twice the protection as SPF 50 — the difference is negligible. To play it safe(r), stick with SPF 30-50 and reapply regularly.
How does sunscreen actually work?
There are two types of sun protection: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreen (also known as mineral sunscreen) creates a — you guessed it! — physical barrier between your skin and the sun. It sits on top of your skin and acts as a fortress wall, keeping UV rays from your hitting your skin. Chemical sunscreen sinks into your skin and absorbs UV rays, then converts them to energy that’s less damaging to the skin.
To make things even more complicated, you need to know that the sun emits different types of ultraviolet radiation: UVA, which gets deep into skin and cause wrinkles and aging, and UVB, which targets the top layer of skin and is the culprit behind burns. So when you’re choosing a sun protectant, it’s crucial that you find one that protects against both. (Physical sunscreens tend to be much better barriers against both UVA and UVB; chemical sunscreens can help with both, but they require way more ingredients to do so.)
What ingredients are best when it comes to SPF?
As with all skincare, “best” is subjective. The best ingredients for you depend on where you live, how much time you spend outside, how active you are, what the sensitivity level of your skin is, etc. That said, there are ingredients that are more common than others, so it’s good to know the difference when picking your ideal product.
A note! Like with any skincare product, sunscreen formulas contain active and inactive ingredients. Everything listed below is an active ingredient, which means they’re the ones that do the actual protecting. (Think of inactive ingredients like extras — the lotion needed to help you slather the active ingredients on your skin successfully.) Since you know that the higher an ingredient is on a product’s ingredient list, the more of it there is in that product…make sure the active ingredient(s) are very close to the top of the list for whatever SPF product you pick.
Avobenzone: A chemical blocker that protects against UVA and UVB. It can be a bit unstable, though, so make sure it’s backed up by a physical blocker as well.
Octinoxate: A very popular chemical UVB blocker. Unfortunately, prolonged exposure to sunlight can change its chemical structure, making it less effective.
Octisalate: Another chemical UVB blocker that degrades with sun exposure. Make sure it’s paired with another UVB-blocking ingredient.
Octocrylene: The most stable chemical UVB blocker on the market. (Though it can cause topical reactions and irritations in sensitive skin.)
Oxybenzone: A broad-spectrum, chemical blocker that protects against short UVA rays. A common ingredient, though it’s been cited as problematic for coral reefs and the EWG lists it as an endocrine disruptor and potential toxin.
Titanium dioxide: A physical blocker that protects against both UVA and UVB rays — a true broad-spectrum blocker.
Zinc oxide: A highly stable, broad-spectrum physical blocker.
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