After more than a year of feeling endlessly cooped up, we’re emerging from our pandemic isolation to do all the things we once took for granted. All of that means being out in the sunshine, which feels glorious after a long, dark, lonely winter; but it also means we need to get back in the regular habit of applying sunscreen.
I’ve personally already gotten one particularly good sunburn this year, thanks to a kids’ soccer doubleheader on a cool, cloudy day. I’d forgotten that clouds and a comfortable temperature are not protectors against the sun’s rays. If you, like me, are out of practice with even remembering to apply the stuff, here are some tips to keep your precious skin burn-free this summer.
Wear sunscreen when you fly
Sunscreen might be the last thing on your mind as you begin to take post-pandemic flights again — but, as Michelle Woo has written for Lifehacker, it’s something we should be packing along with our masks:
The fact that our skin is more susceptible to sun damage when we’re in the sky is something we’re rarely warned about. Yet the risk is real. While most aeroplane windows effectively block UVB rays, UVA radiation can still penetrate through and may be “much more intense at higher altitudes,” as Dr. Marisa Garshick, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College, explains to Travel + Leisure. In a 2014 study published in JAMA Dermatology, researchers found that in terms of radiation doses, flying for 56.6 minutes at cruising altitude is equivalent to spending 20 minutes in a tanning bed.
Choose a sweat-resistant sunscreen
Although there is no such thing waterproof or “sweatproof” sunscreen (and the FDA won’t allow companies to market them as such), there are sunscreens that stand up better against water and sweat. Here’s what Lifehacker senior health editor Beth Skwarecki says:
Sunscreens that can stand up to sweating or swimming will be labelled “water resistant,” and you’ll see those words on the front of the package. Most sunscreens with “sport” in the name are water resistant, but make sure to look for the fine print.
According to the FDA’s labelling guidelines, a sunscreen that calls itself water resistant must also indicate whether it has passed a 40-minute or 80-minute test. For the sunscreens that stand up best to sweat, look for the words “water resistant (80 minutes).”
Just because these sunscreens do a better job against sweat and water doesn’t mean they don’t need to be reapplied, though. Reapply based on what the bottle says your sunscreen can do and how long you’ll be out in the sun, sweat or no sweat.
Get a sunscreen with a high SPF
I remember the first time I went to the beach with my (then future) in-laws and I pulled out my sunscreen with an SPF as high as I could find. They knew I was protective of my fair skin, but they laughed at just how protective I was. Well, the joke’s on them, because as we have reported in the past, higher SPFs actually are better:
In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, researchers asked 199 people at a Colorado ski resort to apply an SPF 50+ sunscreen to one side of their face, and SPF 100+ to the other side. (They didn’t know which was which; they were given bottles marked “right” and “left.”) The volunteers carried the bottles with them throughout the day and reapplied however they liked.
The result: 14 per cent of volunteers had redness the next day on the SPF 100+ side of their face, and 41 per cent on the SPF 50+ side.
Put bottles of sunscreen all over the place
One reason we may either 1) choose to skip the sunscreen application, or 2) forget to put it on entirely is because it is out of sight and out of mind. By the time you realise you breezed out the front door without applying any cream, you may be halfway to the park and figure it’s not worth the trip back home.
This is a problem to be solved, Nicole Dieker writes for Lifehacker, by stashing bottles of sunscreen wherever you may later need it:
Placing a bottle of sunscreen everywhere you might need it is like leaving a gift for your future self. I’ve been putting separate bottles of sunscreen in my bathroom, purse and backpack for years, and I can’t tell you how many times having an extra tube of of the stuff around has saved my skin. So, if you can afford to stock up on multiple sunscreen bottles, start stashing them everywhere: in bathrooms, mudrooms, backpacks, beach totes, glove compartments, hipster fanny packs and anywhere else you think you could use one.
Assume that your kids aren’t wearing enough sunscreen
If you’ve ever had to apply sunscreen to a young child, you know that it’s…not easy. For that reason, we often reach for the sunscreen sprays, which are fine, but not as good as other options. Add to that the fact that we often overlook certain problem areas, and we must admit that overall, our kids probably aren’t wearing enough of the stuff.
I’ve broken down what types of sunscreens work best for different scenarios:
To make sure they’re getting the best coverage possible, you’ll first want to consider using the best type of sunscreen for the situation and body part. Sunscreens generally fall into four categories: creams, gels, sticks, and sprays. Creams are best for (dry) skin and faces; gels are good for hairy areas, such as the scalp; sticks are good for around the eyes; and sprays can be an easy solution for parents — with some caveats.
Parents often prefer spray sunscreens because they’re the quickest and easiest to apply; however, it can be especially challenging with spray to know whether you’ve applied enough or covered all of the skin. Sprays should not be inhaled, and some of them are flammable and shouldn’t be applied near heat, an open flame, or while smoking.
Reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating — whichever comes first — even on cloudy days. And don’t forget to hit the tops of the feet and hands, the ears, the back of the neck, the top of the head, and the lips. (You can use a lip balm with an SPF 30 or higher.)
How to actually get sunscreen on a child
As I’ve pointed out, knowing our kids need to wear sunscreen and actually wrangling them to apply an adequate amount of the stuff are two different things. That’s why I have compiled for you a list of my favourite tricks for lathering up little kids. You’ll find more details for each method here, but the quick versions are:
- Apply sunscreen to a toddler when they can’t escape (i.e., when they are strapped into a carseat or stroller).
- Do a countdown: Count down — or up — to a set number so they know when the torture will end.
- Apply lotion evenly to their face with a large makeup brush (this is especially good for kids who like the sensory feeling of the brush).
- Tell them to make a “pufferfish face,” which you will “pop” once the sunscreen is fully applied.
- Let them help — they’re not great at applying sunscreen, but focusing on one area will distract them long enough for you to get the rest.
- Build it into your regular going-outside routine so they come to accept it as part of leaving the home.
Don’t make your own sunscreen
You might pride yourself on making your own soaps, detergents, and chemical-free cleaning products — and we salute you for it. However, if you find yourself wondering whether you could make your own zinc oxide sunscreen at home, hold up. It’s harder than you think and, as Lifehacker’s senior health editor Beth Skwarecki writes, it’s not likely to be effective:
To make an effective zinc oxide sunscreen, your formula needs to ensure that the zinc is evenly distributed, that it doesn’t interact with the lotion’s other ingredients, and that the formula overall has the right chemical properties to last in the bottle and to still be effective when applied on the skin.
It’s a tougher chemistry problem than you might think. Cosmetic chemists The Beauty Brains have also tackled the question, and they point out that even if you were to smear diaper cream all over your face, you probably wouldn’t be getting very good sun protection, even though diaper cream has more zinc oxide than regular sunscreens. The manufacturing and the inactive ingredients matter a lot. Wong points out one brand that gets SPF 50 out of just 15% zinc oxide, while another gets SPF 15 from its 19% zinc oxide formula.
You probably don’t need to worry about sunscreen seeping into your bloodstream
If you’ve ever worried that applying sunscreen (and all the chemicals in it) is actually worse for your body than sun exposure, we’re here to reassure you that you’re probably fine. Here’s what Lifehacker’s senior health editor Beth Skwarecki wrote after a survey raised those concerns anew in 2019:
You should definitely keep using sunscreen, since its benefits are pretty well established, and nothing about this study suggests that sunscreen is dangerous — just that it’s not as well understood as we thought.
If you’re concerned, one option is to use titanium oxide or zinc oxide sunscreens, whose components are not absorbed into the skin. They have their own downsides, though: a thick layer of these sunscreens can give skin a white cast, and they may not protect as well against the entire UV spectrum.
You also probably don’t need a “reef-safe” sunscreen
There are plenty of considerations to make when choosing the right sunscreen for you — but unless you’re actually going to be in close proximity to a coral reef, finding a “reef-safe” sunscreen probably doesn’t need to be a priority. As Lifehacker staff writer Aisha Jordan reports:
In a 2016 study, the chemical form of sunscreen was found to be harmful towards coral reefs and add to the issue of “coral bleaching,” but a more recent study found “no quantifiable levels” of the harmful chemical on the surface seawater or in the coral itself. Chemistry PhD and science content creator Dr. Michelle Wong is an expert on the subject, and eases any concerns about the level of destruction sunscreen is causing the coral reefs.
“It’s always possible that sunscreen has an effect on coral reefs, but the evidence so far points towards sunscreen not having a large impact,” Wong explains. “The ocean is massive, so any sunscreen that goes into it gets diluted very quickly.”
If you are going to be scuba diving near a coral reef, though, you might want to choose a “physical” sunscreen (as opposed to a “chemical” sunscreen). These sunscreens use mineral-based ingredients, like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, sit on top of the skin, and reflect the sun’s rays.
But really, the best sunscreen is the one you’ll wear
Sure, a higher SPF is better than a lower SPF. A sweat-resistant variety is great if you’re going to be sweating. Store-bought is better than homemade, and we’ve got a variety of sprays, creams, and gels, depending on who is using it and why. But at the end of the (long, sunny) day, the best sunscreen is the one you will actually apply. As Lifehacker senior health editor Beth Skwarecki correctly points out:
If you hate your sunscreen — even because of something minor like the smell annoys you — you’ll conveniently forget to wear it as often as you should. Not even the best sunscreen can help you if you don’t use it.
So, apply (and reapply) what you like best, and call it a day.