Just In Time For Summer, Researchers Explain What Makes A Good Sunscreen

Sunburn is a miserable experience on about a zillion different levels — which is why most of us try to prevent said miserable experience with sunscreen. Of course, not all sunscreens are created equally, and some of them are horrible for the planet. The Environmental Working Group has just issued their tenth annual report on what makes a good sunscreen, so before you head outside, here’s what to look for:

Buy Lotions, Not Sprays

According to the research, spray-on sunscreen is pretty much not worth it. It doesn’t apply an even layer, it’s an inhalation risk, and, oh yes, they might not work at all. The FDA is skeptical towards the claims that they work as well as lotions, and wants data that manufacturers haven’t provided yet. Until they do, stick with the squirt bottles.

Look For Minerals In The Ingredients

The most highly rated sunscreens in the study that didn’t harm the environment, won’t kill you, and also work were all mineral based — usually zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. It makes sense, as they tend to be stable in sunshine and don’t need any other additives to work. Non-mineral sunscreens tend to use oxybenzone, a potential allergen that kills coral reefs. There’s also a lot of argument about whether or not oxybenzone even works in the first place, so why risk it?

Check The Expiration Date

Unfortunately, sunscreen is like milk, going bad right when you need it. Usually it lasts for up to a year after being opened, or up to the expiration date on the bottle. Unlike milk, you can’t fudge the expiration dates if it smells okay, so plan accordingly.

Know What SPF Really Means

SPF, or sun protection factor, doesn’t work the way people think it does. All SPF does is measure how long it takes for you to get a sunburn with a thick, even layer of the product on your skin. So, for example, if you get a sunburn in five minutes, with SPF 15, you’d get a sunburn in seventy-five minutes.

But beyond a certain point, it doesn’t matter, because your skin absorbs sunscreen in about two hours, provided you don’t go swimming or sweat it off in the heat. So, no matter your SPF, you need to reapply it at the two hour mark. If you’re fairer, higher SPF might help, but don’t think you can apply once and forget it.

Buy European

Another problem is that there are two kinds of UV rays. UVB you know about, as it causes sunburn. UVA is what gives you the tan that quickly fades, and it’s a likely culprit for causing skin cancer, as it penetrates deeper into the skin. European manufacturers have been cleared to use more filters in their products that absorb UVA radiation, while the FDA is still holding approval, limiting American sunscreens to three chemicals. So if you can buy European, it’s a better purchase at the moment.

Bring An Umbrella

No sunscreen is perfect at filtering out UV radiation. The more you’re out in the sun, no matter how good your sunscreen is, the more UV exposure you’re going to collect. So, spend a few hours at the beach, but head inside after a while, or duck under a tree, or bring an umbrella. There’s only so much sunscreen can do, even if you’re consuming it in a variety of ways.

(via Environmental Working Group)