What You Don't Know about Protecting your Skin from the Sun

We get it. Sunscreen is tricky business. It’s enough to remember to apply it, but knowing what you’re using and how to make the most of it? Mind-blowing. The good news is we’ve rounded up the most common skincare questions right here to help you stay protected at all times.

Ready to nail everything you need to know about the sun? Then buckle up, and let’s begin…

Q: Full disclosure: is the sun seriously that bad for my skin?

A: Yes. Granted the world wouldn’t survive without it, but when it comes to your skin, the sun is responsible for a massive 90 percent of external damage. You know those lines, wrinkles, crow’s feet, and brown spots you often blame on your genes and ever-increasing age? Well, it turns out most of these are actually a direct result of sun damage. Eek.

If that’s not enough to convince you of the dangers of the sun, get this: skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, and according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), it is estimated that one in five Americans will develop some kind of skin cancer in their lifetime.

There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma, with melanoma being the most serious. And the main cause of all three is exposure to UV radiation from the sun (as well those nasty tanning booths). In fact, just one sunburn during childhood or adolescence can nearly double a person’s chance of developing melanoma. 

Q: What else should I know about UV radiation?

A: Sunlight is split into various types of radiation including visible light, ultraviolet light (UV), and infrared. Why should you care so much about UV? While invisible to the eye, these are the rays that damage the DNA of your skin. And we don’t know about you, but we’re not down with that. 

Like sunlight, UV is also split into different forms – namely UVA, B, and C. UVC is completely absorbed by the ozone layer so it doesn’t need to concern you much, but both UVA and UVB worm their way through, wreaking havoc on your skin. Most of UVB radiation is absorbed by the ozone layer, but enough reaches the Earth’s surface to penetrate the epidermis where it plays a big part in tanning and burning your skin. UVB rays also play a vital role in accelerating your risk of developing non-melanoma skin cancers (basal and squamous cell carcinomas).

UVA, on the other hand, is not absorbed by the ozone at all. It also is able to penetrate deeper into the skin, releasing free radicals and damaging collagen and elastin fibers, making it one of the biggest culprits when it comes to premature skin aging and melanoma. 

UVA-related skin damage can go unnoticed for years because it penetrates deeper, so it takes longer to rear its ugly head. However, this damage is far more long-term than UVB damage and can be irreversible.

Q: How do I know a sunscreen is protecting my skin from both UVA and UVB? 

A: This is where things get tricky. As you all know, a sunscreen’s SPF (sun protection factor) works like a guide to tell you long your skin would take to redden in the sun versus how long it would take without sunscreen. So if you were wearing the correct amount of SPF 50, it would take 50 times longer for your skin to burn than if you weren’t wearing any sunscreen at all.

The problem is this SPF number only refers to the amount of UVB protection your sunscreen provides. It bears no relevance to UVA protection. This is why you should always look for the term ‘broad-spectrum’ when buying sunscreen because this means it provides protection from both UVA and UVB radiation.

So does a higher SPF mean a product provides more protection from UVA as well as UVB? Theoretically, yes, and in fact, the FDA proposed new regulations in 2019 to require that as the SPF of a broad-spectrum product increases, so should its level of UVA protection. Unfortunately, these regulations are yet to go into effect (sigh), so our advice is to do as best as you can whenever you’re exposed to the sun for prolonged periods of time. Always wear a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above as recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation. And most importantly, avoid any product bearing the ‘See Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert.’ This means it may help prevent sunburn, but it won’t reduce your risks of skin cancer or premature aging. Not good enough.

Q: Do I really need to wear sunscreen every day – even in winter?

A: Well, you don’t need to slather your entire body with sunscreen in the depths of winter when most of your skin is covered by clothing, but your face is an entirely different matter. OK, so you’re not likely to get a sunburn during winter because UVB’s intensity varies throughout the year and it’s much weaker in winter. UVA, however, is present all year round and can even penetrate glass, so it’s important to incorporate a broad-spectrum sunscreen into your daily skincare routine. According to a survey as published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), only one in three adults regularly use sunscreen on their faces. Let’s get those figures up, shall we?

Q: How much sunscreen should I apply? And how often?

A: For everyday protection, apply sunscreen generously to cleansed skin according to the directions. Smooth it all over your face, neck, and any other areas of exposed skin, but be sure not to get it inside your mouth or eyes.

For more prolonged periods outside, you’ll need to apply 30 minutes before going outside and reapply at least every two hours. Always read the label carefully before applying, but as a general rule of thumb, experts agree that one ounce of sunscreen (about a shot glass full) should be enough to cover your entire body. Basal and squamous cell cancers are most frequently found on the face, neck, ears, lips, and backs of the hands, so be extra generous over these areas. Finally, remember there is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen, so always reapply immediately after sweating or swimming. No excuses.

Q: What’s the difference between physical and chemical sunscreen?

A: Physical sunscreen is also known as mineral sunscreen because its protective powers come from active mineral ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These work like a physical barrier by sitting on top of the skin’s surface and deflecting UV radiation away from the skin. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are also very gentle on the skin and protect it from both UVA and UVB radiation, thus automatically offering broad-spectrum coverage. 

Meanwhile, chemical sunscreens use chemicals to absorb UV radiation deeper into the skin where it’s converted into infrared heat and then released by the skin. Chemical sunscreen is often lighter in texture and easier to apply than physical sunscreen, but it can cause redness and sensitivities. The FDA is also in the process of confirming the safety of many of the ingredients used in chemical sunscreens like oxybenzone, octisalate, and avebenzone, which raises a red flag if you ask us. Game, set and match to physical sunscreen.

Q: Other than wearing sunscreen, what further skincare tips will protect me from sun damage?

A: One word: Antioxidants. While very different from sunscreens (for starters, they won’t protect you from tanning or burning), antioxidants are extremely effective at reducing the aging effects of UV radiation on the skin. They work by removing free radicals which, if left to their own devices, cause all manner of damage to some of your skin’s vital components, namely collagen, elastin and DNA. Our Overnight Star Lactic Acid Treatment contains lemongrass oil which is packed with vitamins A and C, plus prickly pear extract and hyaluronic acid – all powerful, effective antioxidants.

It also goes without saying that nothing will protect your skin more than reducing your time in the sun – especially during the middle of the day when it really likes to pack a punch. But you knew that… 

Q: Can I still use sunscreen from last year, or should I trash it?

A: If it looks lumpy or just a little bit “wrong,” then yes, throw old bottles of sunscreen away. Any compromise in texture will make sunscreen difficult to apply, thereby increasing your risk of poor protection. You should also check the expiration date on your sunscreen and trash it as soon as this passes because it won’t live up to expectations after that time. And that’s simply not worth the risk. 

FDA rules insist that all sunscreen must clearly print an expiration date unless it can prove it remains stable and effective for at least three years. This means that if yours doesn’t have one, it should have a shelf life of three years. But that’s hard to track, right? So, our advice is to check any new sunscreen purchase going forward and if it doesn’t have an expiration date, write the date on which you bought it on the label. Then if it’s still going three years later, you can send it straight to sunscreen heaven.

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