Finding a sunscreen that does its job is getting tougher. The sun’s ultraviolet radiation is penetrating our atmosphere more easily thanks to climate change. Approximately one in five people will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Previous compounds used in sunscreen have proven ineffective at preventing this skin cancer, as well as being damaging to coral reefs. Then there’s those lotions that simply wash away with sweat and water. When all you want is a balm with a decent SPF, that doesn’t hurt the Earth but protects your supple flesh, you often have to look far and wide. Which is why we devised this guide to picking the perfect sunscreen, sunblock, or tanning cream for your days under our nearest star.
There’s two basic types of sunscreen available. There’s the type that uses a combination of para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and cinnamates to turn UV rays into heat. These are called chemical sunscreens.
The other type is the physical sunscreen which contain compounds such as titanium or zinc oxide. These scatter the rays of the sun before they can penetrate to your skin.
Either type can be sufficient protection, but each one has different efficacy under different conditions.
Broad Spectrum Protection
Whether you go with a chemical or physical sunscreen, you should be seeking anything with broad spectrum protection. This covers UVA and UVB (and in some cases UVC) rays. Blocking just UVA or UVB won’t work. If a sunscreen isn’t broad spectrum, it’s not actually protecting your skin from cancer, and is therefore worse than nothing at all.
The broad-spectrum protection also makes the lotion more chemically stable, allowing it to last longer in the bright sunlight.
This is the one hard rule of choosing a decent sunscreen: Broad spectrum is the only choice.
Pick an SPF of 30 to 50
SPF refers to the “Sun Protection Factor” of a sunblock. It measures only how well that product blocks UVB radiation, so it’s only part of the story. But, it is still important to know.
Once you’ve determined that your sunscreen is going to be blocking all the UV radiation coming at you, it’s time to pick your strength. The best way to pick an SPF is to guess how long you’re going to be in the sun. The more time you intend on being exposed to direct sunlight, the higher you should go. If you’re going to be near water – which reflects the sun’s light – SPF 50+ is the only thing you should be using.
The reason to stop at SPF 50 is because higher ratings don’t provide very much more protection. Granted, you will get better protection from an SPF 70, but it’s very marginal. SPF ratings over 50 don’t show any higher skin cancer prevention than an SPF 50.
Note On Low SPF
Any SPF below 30 is for incremental sun exposure. If you’re donning an SPF 15, you don’t expect to be out in the sun for very long. This includes being in a car, as your car windows do not provide much, if any, protection from UV radiation.
An SPF 15 will protect you as you go to get the mail. It’s the next best thing to worthless for serious sun. Don’t bother unless there’s literally nothing else.
A Note On SPF and Suncreen Application
Most people don’t apply sunscreen thickly enough to actually reach the SPF listed on the bottle, so if you must go lower on the protection rating, slather yourself like a baby seal about to slide through a chute.
Shop For Your Skin
Here’s where the sunscreen game gets tricky. If all you needed was broad spectrum protection and a high SPF, everyone could use the same thing and be happy, if pale, people. But we all have different needs, and react differently with different products.
The issue with sunscreen is it needs to be reapplied all day long. For those with sensitive skin, or children, this can quickly cause a rash, irritation, itching, and discomfort. Those with heartier hides can find that only a gel works, where lotions slide right off.
There’s only one way to determine what your skin likes: Experiment. If you know you have sensitive skin, pick a formula that caters to your thin epidermis. It makes you no less of a man.
Chemical vs Physical Sunscreen
When discussing skin reactions, it’s important to note whether you’re using a chemical or physical product. The easy rule to follow is chemical sunscreens – those containing PABA – are much, much more likely to cause reactions. Those with acne, red or irritated skin, rashes, discoloration, or any other topical issues will do well to stick with physical sunscreens – those containing zinc oxide or titanium oxide. The likelihood of reaction is far lower.
Water and Sweat Protection
If you plan to be near water, or will be doing any physical labor, seek out products that are specifically formulated to help. There are items with water-resistance, and those with sweat-resistance. Some claim both, and sometimes deliver. But, don’t count on it. All sunscreens should be reapplied every two hours, or immediately after leaving the water. If you’re sweating, every hour – or as often as possible – is suggested.
A sunscreen can call itself water-resistant, according to the FDA, if it lasts for 40 minutes in the water. The exceptional ones last closer to 80 minutes. That’s as good as it gets. Even then, the SPF rating will degrade with each moment in the water, giving you incrementally less protection. So, be advised.
A Few Humble Suggestions
There’s a lot of hype and BS in the sunscreen industry, with big brands making bold claims to weigh down their price tags. Here’s top shelf protection without a lot of jargon.
CVS Health Clear Zinc Sun Lotion
Best For Humans: Inexpensive and safe for nearly everyone, this is the biggest bang for your buck, most for your money, get it while it’s hot sunscreen. You can use the ingredients on this as a baseline for what to look for in inexpensive, generic sun protection. Purchase: $6
Best For The Sensitive: Be it kids or those who want a delicate touch, WaterBabies comes correct. It’s as gentle as it gets, applies easily, lasts well, and won’t wreck your vacation savings. Purchase: $12
Best For The Paranoid: You don’t need the SPF 70, but it’s there. And this is a serious 70 that knocks UVB rays out cold. Purchase: $9
Neutrogena Beach Defense
Best For The Spritzer: Again, the SPF 70 is overkill, but when you can afford to do it, do it. Instead of rubbing your body slick, this goes on with a dry feeling. Great for oily skin, terrible for dry. Purchase: $9