What SPF Should You Be Using on Your Face?
Protect yourself against sun damage and skin cancer — no excuses.
By now, we’ve all heard how critical it is to have sunscreen in our skincare routine — yet some of us still only slap it on our faces before spending time by the pool, or rely exclusively on SPF-infused makeup for daily protection. While occasional sunscreen use is better than none, protecting your skin really requires consistent and adequate application.
“The potential consequences of forgoing sunscreen extend far beyond the serious risk of skin cancer,” warns Doris Day, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “Neglecting to apply sunscreen can wreak havoc on the appearance and health of your skin.” By leaving your skin unprotected, you’re letting the sun damage your skin cells, blood vessels, and collagen, which can ultimately cause premature aging, wrinkling, dryness, discoloration, and a rough, leathery texture. Translation: For healthy, glowing skin, you need an SPF you’ll love to apply every single day.
Here, we break down what you need to know about choosing a sunscreen for your face, including what kinds you’ll find on the market, how they work, and how to shop for one that works for you and your needs.
Related:Sunscreen Facts and Myths You Need to Know About
What Does SPF Stand for?
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, a measure used to determine how long a sunscreen will protect you against UVB rays, says Dr. Day. (UVB rays are the type that burn skin.) “The higher the SPF, the greater the level of protection—for example, if a sunscreen has an SPF rating of 30, that means it would take 30 times as long for your skin to burn when you're wearing that particular formula.”
A higher SPF isn’t necessarily better, though — while SPF 30 will filter out about 97 percent of UVB rays, SPF 50 will block about 98 percent, and SPF 100 will protect you against around 99 percent. “The difference [in protection] is such a small percentage, and it can be twice the price or cause more skin irritation if using a chemical sunscreen,” says Ava Shamban, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Beverly Hills.
Ultimately, it’s most important to find a broad spectrum formula, which means that it’ll provide defense against UVB and UVA rays, the type that cause skin aging. It should also be at least SPF 30, the minimum rating recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology to protect against UV radiation.
The Difference Between Chemical and Mineral Sunscreens
You’re probably familiar with chemical sunscreens — they’re what many of our parents slathered on us as kids on beach vacations, with that signature SPF smell. “They use active chemical compounds, which penetrate the top layers of our epidermis,” says Dr. Shamban. “They are designed to interact within the skin, functioning like a defensive army to absorb the majority of the rays and disengage the UV rays before they cause damage to the skin cells.” You’ll know if a product is a chemical sunscreen if you see ingredients like avobenzone, oxybenzone, and octinoxate on the label; these formulas tend to be lighter in weight and disappear into all skin tones.
Related:How to Find the Right Sunscreen for Oily Skin, According to Dermatologists
While this makes chemical sunscreens easier to use, there are some caveats. They take up to 20 minutes to activate in the skin, so you’ll have to wait around a bit before heading outside to ensure you have maximal protection. They’re also not always a fit for certain skin types. “Their active ingredients are often more irritating if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin,” says Dr. Day. If that sounds like you, you’ll want to look like a formula like La Roche-Posay Anthelios Water Lotion Sunscreen SPF 30, a dermatologist-tested and non-comedogenic formula that soothes and hydrates the skin while being water resistant for up to 80 minutes, a must for hot and sweaty days.
Instead of creating a chemical reaction within your skin, a mineral sunscreen acts like a physical barricade between you and the sun. “It is a composition of key minerals that sit on the skin surface to form a secure barrier that deflects the majority of the rays before they are able to connect directly to the skin to inflict damage,” Dr. Shamban explains. Those minerals tend to be zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, which you’ll see on the label. Because mineral SPF functions by sitting on top of your skin, it tends to be a better option for sensitive complexions. “They are also gentle enough to use on children, making them a go-to choice for pediatricians,” says Dr. Day.
Historically, mineral sunscreens have been thicker and chalkier than chemical sunscreens, which has made them less enjoyable to apply — and for people of color, an unattractive option. “The minerals often leave a gray, ashy, or white cast as the zinc molecules are not easily broken down or absorbed by the skin,” says Dr. Shamban. New nanotechnology in SPF has led to the development of formulas that are lighter in texture and work on a wider variety of skin tones. For example, Blue Lizard Sheer Lotion Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50 has a smooth, spreadable feel and dries clear, making it an option for melanin-rich skin, and is formulated with hydrating hyaluronic acid and nourishing vitamin E to leave skin comfortable.
You’ll also find formulas that combine both mineral and chemical sunscreens, which can be the best of both worlds — a comfortable and satisfying application with potent protection. Dr. Shamban loves Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40, which is oil and fragrance free, lightweight and clear, with a velvety texture that feels and functions like a makeup primer (bonus!). Derm-developed and -beloved EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 also falls within this category; the niacinamide-infused formula is so gentle that it can be used safely on sensitive and rosacea-prone skin.
How Much SPF to Apply — and How Often
Proper application is just as important as picking the right formula, says Dr. Day. “It's recommended to apply a nickel-sized amount of sunscreen — about two finger lengths — to the face and neck combined,” she says. No matter where you live or what time of year it is, always apply this much, as it’s the amount you need to ensure you get the SPF level of protection that’s printed on the bottle. And don’t just slather it on where you’d apply your makeup! Make sure you get the oft-forgotten areas, like the back of your neck, ears, and your hair’s part.
And as frustrating as it is, you have to reapply — Dr. Shamban recommends doing so twice or three times daily. Without it, you won’t be adequately protected from the sun’s rays. “Reapplication is key during high volume sun exposure months and times of day,” she says. That doesn’t mean you have to remove your makeup and start over with a fresh coat of SPF. Try Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50, an easy-to-use mineral sunscreen that comes in four different shades and can be dusted on top of makeup (and it helps absorb excess oil, too). “By prioritizing consistency in application, you can enjoy the outdoors safely and protect your skin from the dangers of overexposure to the sun,” adds Dr. Day.
While it may sound like a suncare routine takes a lot of effort, it’s no more than the work you’ve put into your existing skincare regimen, which many of us do to protect against future skin damage. Remember that even if you haven’t seen any sun damage from skimping on SPF, it’s still there. “Sun damage is cumulative,” says Dr. Shamban. “Because the cellular changes happen in the deepest layers of the skin, it can take many years before the damage may become visible.” In fact, most of the sun damage we see in our skin once we hit our forties and fifties was actually incurred in our teens and twenties. So don’t make excuses: Find your perfect SPF match and apply it early and often.
Related:What to Look for In a Sunscreen, According to a Top Dermatologist
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