Like flossing your teeth or taking your vitamins, slathering on sunscreen is probably something you know you should do every day — but may skip.
Of course, protecting yourself from the sun is important for preventing skin cancer. But if you don’t find that particularly motivating, think about this: Sunscreen is the best anti-aging skin product there is, says Elika Hoss, M.D., a cosmetic dermatologist at Mayo Clinic in Arizona.
“I practice cosmetic dermatology. Most of the patients I see are coming in for wrinkles, brown spots or redness. And all these things are secondary to sunlight,” Dr. Hoss says. “So, from a cosmetic standpoint, sunscreen is actually the number one, two and three anti-aging cream.”
To get the full benefits of sunscreen, you’ll want to make sure you’re applying it correctly. Read on for Dr. Hoss’s answers to all your sun protection questions.
Q: What’s the best type of sun protection to use?
A: To protect your skin, you can use mineral sunscreen, chemical sunscreen and sun protective clothing.
“When it comes to sunscreen, we always say, ‘The best sunscreen is the one that a patient is willing to use.’ So whatever you’re willing to actually put by your toothbrush and put on every morning is better than nothing,” says Dr. Hoss.
All three of these types of protection can protect you from UVA and UVB rays — as long as the sunscreen is labeled “broad spectrum” or “full spectrum.” We generally think of UVB being responsible for sunburn and skin cancer and UVA leading to skin aging, such as brown spots and wrinkles, Dr. Hoss says.
Q: What are the pros and cons of the different types of sun protection?
A: Here’s the breakdown:
- Chemical sunscreen. Looking at the list of ingredients in a chemical sunscreen, Dr. Hoss says, you’ll probably see names you can’t pronounce. The chemicals in these sunscreens absorb, rather than block, UV rays. But that also means that the chemical is potentially absorbed into the body — though there’s not clear evidence that these chemicals are harmful.
- Mineral sunscreen. Also called physical sunscreens, mineral sunscreens include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. They cover the top of the skin to block UV rays. They used to be known for leaving a white cast on the skin — making the wearer look a bit clownish. Today, many of these sunscreens are tinted to reduce the white residue. Mineral sunscreens are also less likely to cause skin irritation and allergic reactions than are chemical sunscreens.
- Sun protective clothing. A lot of great companies offer sun protective clothing, which includes an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) — basically the sun protection factor (SPF) equivalent for clothes. Sun protective clothing is an easy, mess-free way to protect yourself before heading out the door, and it’s a great option for squirmy kids, Dr. Hoss says. At the very least, shade your face. “Being a dermatologist and seeing what happens with sun exposure, I think everyone should always be wearing a hat if they’re going to be outside,” she says.
Q: When do I need sun protection?
A: You need it every day. Yes, really. Even if you’re only outside in the morning or evening. Even if you’re just driving to your office. Sun comes in through your windows, and windows block UVB, but not UVA rays.
“People don’t realize that they’re getting sun. They just think, ‘Oh, I’m never outside.’ But driving to work, going to the grocery store, walking the dog in the morning, all that sun is cumulative. And over years, depending on other risk factors, this sun exposure could lead to skin cancers, and will definitely lead to skin aging,” Dr. Hoss says. “Unless you’re going to work when it’s totally dark out and coming back when it’s dark out, you should be applying sunscreen.”
Q: How much sunscreen should I use?
A: For your face and neck, a teaspoon will do. For your entire body, you need an ounce of sunscreen, which is the equivalent of 2 tablespoons, or enough to fill a shot glass. If you’re outside longer than two hours, reapply.
And don’t forget your neck and chest — especially if you’re wearing a V-neck or low-cut shirt.
“A lot of women are really good at protecting their face, but they forget about their neck and chest,” says Dr. Hoss. “As a cosmetic dermatologist, I see a lot of patients for sun-damaged skin. And we’ll see that they’ve actually done a good job using products and sunscreen on their face, but they’ve ignored the neck and chest — it looks like two different people.”
Q: Is the SPF in my makeup enough?
A: Probably not. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends a minimum SPF of 30, and a lot of makeup includes only 15 or 20 SPF. Additionally, it may only block UVB rays. Plus, most people only put on a thin layer of makeup — not usually enough to give adequate coverage, Dr. Hoss says.
Q: Do other countries have better sunscreen options?
A: All sunscreens in the U.S. must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is a lengthy and expensive process. But we’re not missing out, Dr. Hoss says.
“We have fewer sunscreens available here,” Dr. Hoss says. “But in general, the physical blockers, just plain old zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are just as good as anything else if used properly.”
Q: What if I can’t find a sunscreen that works for my skin?
A: Dr. Hoss knows people end up writing off sunscreen after experiencing something like an acne breakout or burning in their eyes.
“They just decide, ‘Sunscreen’s not for me; my skin doesn’t like sunscreen,'” Dr. Hoss says. “I think that’s a place where dermatologists can educate patients and give recommendations on more modern sunscreens that might be best for a specific skin type and concern.”
Q: What are Dr. Hoss’s go-to sun protection products?
A: “I will always wear a wide-brimmed hat if I’m going for a walk or if I’m going to be at the pool. I utilize long sleeves a lot,” she says. “I really like those sunscreen sticks. They’re great for kids and also good to just throw in your purse and reapply at the end of the workday, during a long drive or at the beach.”