Block the Burn: How to Choose the Right Sunscreen

Learn the differences between sunscreen types and what to look for.

Adding sunscreen to your daily skincare routine may be one of the best decisions you will make in your life. As you age, you’ll undoubtedly notice the benefits.

But with so many options on the shelf, how do you choose the right one?

Sunscreens, whether chemical- or mineral-based, have the same purpose: to protect your skin from the damaging effects of ultraviolet rays that come from natural light. The damage can cause sunburns and contribute to the onset of skin cancer, such as basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas. (Melanoma is not always linked to sun exposure.)

But here’s how they differ:

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens contain organic or carbon-based compounds such as:

  • Avobenzone
  • Octisalate
  • Octinoxate
  • Oxybenzone

These sunscreens have a thinner consistency and are more quickly absorbed but need 10 to 15 minutes to become effective. This type is easily applied under makeup and used daily.

Mineral Sunscreens

Sunscreens with active mineral compounds include:

  • Titanium dioxide
  • Zinc oxide

These formulations deflect harsh UV rays of the sun from the skin's surface, protecting from both UVA and UVB rays. (UVA rays are what cause signs of aging, while UVB rays cause sunburns.) They cannot be thoroughly blended and—unless mixed with a tint—will leave a white film on the skin, but they provide instant protection.

Compared to the chemical sunscreens, they are thicker and also have a longer shelf life.

What to Look for in a Sunscreen

  • The American Academy of Dermatology recommends an SPF 30 for everyday use. SPF is the measurement of how long UVB protection will last.
  • Sunscreens with a broad spectrum contain a photostabilizer. UVA filtering compounds combine with both chemical and mineral compounds to help protect your skin from UVA and UVB rays. They’re blended into moisturizers, lip balms, lotions, face powders, liquid foundations and sunscreen lotions, sprays and sticks.
  • If you have acne-prone or sensitive skin, consider that when choosing sunscreen. Fewer chemicals may be the better choice for sensitive skin. Thinner formulations may be your go-to if you’re worried about breakouts.

Our very best advice is this: Any time you know you’ll be in the sun, use a water-resistant SPF of 50 or higher sunscreen, wear a hat and stay in a shaded area for extra protection.

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