So I’ve been investigating my blog stats and discovered that my all-time most visited post is my 2012 sunscreen guide. I’m really pleased if it’s been helpful for people but it made me think that it could do with a refresher. A condensed, easy to navigate consolidation of the suncare advice littered throughout the blog.
And here it is. The 2014 NBC ULTIMATE GUIDE TO SUNSCREEN.
I read a lot of scientific research to get my facts straight but I haven’t laboured over ‘the science bit’ in the article. If you’re interested in knowing more about the studies just drop me a line and I’ll happily give you a list of extended reading!
And I’d love to get your feedback on how useful (or otherwise) the finished piece is. Too long, too short, something missing? Just let me know.
There are two different types of ultraviolet (UV) light.
- UVB light: UVB rays penetrate into the upper layer of skin (the epidermis) and are primarily responsible for the reddening and discomfort associated with sunburn. It’s not thought that UVB rays can pass through glass in significant amounts.
- UVA light: UVA rays penetrate deeper into the lower layers of skin (the dermis). They are responsible for photo-aging, contributing to skin wrinkling and loss of elasticity over time, and studies show that sustained exposure damages keratinocytes (cells found in the basal layer of the epidermis), which could lead to the development of skin cancers. UVA rays are 30–50 times more prevalent than UVB rays and they do pass through glass.
It’s simplistic, but it might help to remember UVB for burning and UVA for ageing.
When you choose a sunscreen, it’s really important that it protects you against both types of UV light.
There are two different types of sunscreen:
- Chemical sunscreens – chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that are absorbed into the skin and neutralise UV light as it penetrates. There are many chemical sunscreens but you might see any of the following on ingredients lists: Benzophenones (dixoybenzone, oxybenzone), PABA and PABA esters (ethyl dihydroxy propyl PAB, glyceryl PABA, p-aminobenzoic acid, padimate-O or octyl dimethyl PABA), Cinnamates (cinoxate, ethylhexyl p-methoxycinnamate, octocrylene, octyl methoxycinnamate), Salicylates (ethylhexyl salicylate, homosalate, octyl salicylate), Digalloyl trioleate, Menthyl anthranilate, or Avobenzone.
- Physical (or Mineral) sunscreens – Physical sunscreens contain minerals that form a protective layer on the surface of the skin and block or reflect UV light, preventing it from penetrating the skin. The two mineral ingredients to look out for are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. They may be found alone or in combination.
Whatever sunscreen you choose it must offer a high enough SPF to protect you from UVB rays and, crucially, broad spectrum protection against UVA light. Remember that the SPF rating is only a measure of UVB protection. Some products use the star rating system for UVA protection but I think the classification is still really unclear. If in doubt, carefully check the packaging and/or quiz the manufacturer.
Sunscreens and UV light
Unfortunately you can’t assume that a single ingredient, be it chemical or mineral, offers protection against both types of UV light. Many don’t. That’s why a lot of sunscreen formulations will include more than one active ingredient to ensure broad spectrum protection. You might also see chemical and mineral sunscreens combined in one product. As far as I’m aware, the only ingredient that offers satisfactory protection against both UVA and UVB when used alone in a sunscreen is zinc oxide.
So which to choose? Chemical or physical? My goal here is to give you the information that will help you make up your mind. I have a personal preference but if you pick products you’re not happy with, you’re less likely to use them.
Issues with chemical sunscreens
Most people are now familiar with the research on chemical sunscreens. The most frequently-used ingredients are oxybenzone, octisalate, octinoxate and avobenzone. There’s been a lot of research into whether UV filters can penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream, and even more research on the harm they might cause if they did so. Oxybenzone, one the most common chemical ingredients, is also one of the more controversial and has been shown to penetrate the skin in greater amounts than any other ingredient.
Studies have shown the presence of chemical sunscreen ingredients in human urine and breast milk. They’ve also shown that these ingredients can have harmful oestrogenic or reproductive effects on fish and rats. A 2012 study even suggested a link between the levels of oxybenzone in urine and endometriosis, which is a condition affecting women in which endometrial cells that line the womb migrate to other parts of the body.
Some chemical ingredients also break down in strong sunlight, meaning that your UV protection could reduce over time.
Issues with physical sunscreens
Physical sunscreens contain tiny particles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep database – a great research tool if you want to learn about the ingredients in your skincare – notes that while most studies demonstrate that these particles do not penetrate the skin, research is continuing into the smaller ‘nano’ particles. There’s also concern about whether nano particles can change the type of UV protection offered, potentially making a sunscreen less effective against UVA.
Research also indicates that active mineral ingredients can enter the body if inhaled. For this reason, the lower toxicity rating given to mineral creams/lotions by the EWG doesn’t apply to mineral sunscreens sold as sprays or in loose powder formulations, which also has implications for mineral make-up.
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide aren’t created equal and you may see them used in combination. Both offer good UVB protection. Titanium dioxide protects against UVB and short-wave UVA radiation (but not long wave UVA, which can still cause damage). Zinc oxide is a better choice, protecting against UVB and most UVA rays, plus it’s known for its antimicrobial and healing properties. However, manufacturers are still struggling with the heavy white cast it leaves on the skin.
|Chemical sunscreens||Physical sunscreens|
|Pros||More pleasant formulations to use (lighter, etc.)
No ‘white mask’ or ashy effect on skin
|Zinc oxide consistently offers excellent UVB and UVA protection
Less risk of allergic response or irritation (product not absorbed into skin)
Cooler on the skin (UV light is reflected not absorbed)
Offer more sustained protection – do not break down in sunlight
|Cons||Many chemicals do penetrate the skin and can enter the bloodstream
Some chemicals have been shown to act as hormone disruptors or to trigger allergic reactions
Many chemical ingredients provide inadequate UVA protection
Formulations can break down in sunlight – more regular application required
|Formulations can be heavier or greasier
Some formulations leave an ashy, white tint on the skin
Ongoing safety debate about the absorption of ‘nano’ particles into the skin
Studies indicate powder or spray formulations could be toxic if inhaled
|Ingredient||UV protection||Safety issues||Ingredient||UV protection||Safety issues|
|Avobenzone||UVA||Breaks down in UV light – must be combined with other ingredients to make it stable; possible skin allergen||Titanium dioxide||UVB (limited UVA)||Possible toxin if inhaled in powder|
|Homosalate||UVB||Possible hormone disruptor||Zinc oxide||UVA and UVB||Possible toxin if inhaled in powder|
|Mexoryl SX and XL (also known as drometrizole trisiloxane)||UVA||None found so far|
|Octinoxate||UVB||Possible hormone disruptor; possible skin allergen|
|Octisalate||UVB||None found so far|
|Octocrylene||UVB||Possible skin allergen|
|Oxybenzone||UVB (limited UVA)||Possible hormone disruptor; possible skin allergen|
My personal choice
I’ve said it before and I haven’t changed my mind. Based on the guidance available, I prefer to use physical cream/liquid sunscreens. I’m also going to keep an eye out for formulations that include zinc oxide for better UVA protection, particularly with formulations that I’d use on holiday, wear more often or for when I’m spending more time outdoors. If I do use a chemical formulation now and then, I’ll avoid oxybenzone.
For me, the big issues are the absorption of chemicals into the skin and the fact that it’s easier to get trustworthy UVA protection from physical sunscreens. The EWG analysis suggests that people using chemical sunscreens are exposed to approximately 20% more UVA radiation than those using physical protection.
There are so many sunscreens available. I’ve limited my recommendations to physical formulations because those are the products I test and use. The list below includes products I’ve tried personally and those I’ve heard good things about. It also includes a few that include zinc oxide that I’ve discovered on my internet travels but haven’t yet tried or read a review of. If you’ve any feedback on any of these products, please do leave a comment.
- Kimberly Sayer Anti-Oxidant Daily Moisturising Cream SPF30 (Active ingredient: zinc oxide) – My number one choice for a daily facial sunscreen.
- Balance Me BB natural perfection SPF25 (Active ingredient: titanium dioxide only) – see my review here.
- Melvita Nectar de Roses BB cream SPF15 (Active ingredient: titanium dioxide only) – see my review here.
- Trilogy Vital Moisturising Cream SPF15 (Active ingredient: titanium dioxide) – see my review here.
- Green People Day Solution SPF15 (Active ingredient: Isoamyl p-menthoxycinnamate – an organic compound that absorbs and scatters UV light as well as stabilising the sunscreen and helping to prevent it from breaking down, titanium dioxide) – see my review here.
- Oy! Face the Sun SPF15 moisturiser – This is currently being reformulated, according to the Green People rep, and I hope it comes back just as good as before because I loved the sample I tried. It was previously based on zinc oxide but I can’t speak for the new formulation.
- Melvita Prosun High Protection Sunscreen SPF30 (Active ingredient: zinc oxide, titanium dioxide) – see my review here.
- Miessence Reflect Outdoor Balm SPF15 (Active ingredient: zinc oxide)
- Kosmea Moisturising Lotion SPF30 (Active ingredient: zinc oxide) <LINK> No UK stockist as yet. Please Kosmea? Pretty please?
- MyChelle Sun Shield SPF28 Unscented (Active ingredient: zinc oxide, titanium dioxide) – another one that I haven’t found a UK stockist for, yet.
- I’ve heard good things about Badger’s sunscreens but a note on their website indicates they’re reformulating many products from their sun range for re-release in early 2015. One to bookmark until then.
- Antipodes Immortal Moisturiser SPF15 (Active ingredient: zinc oxide)
- Comvita Daily Moisturiser with SPF15 (Active ingredient: zinc oxide)
- REN Satin Perfection BB cream SPF15 (Active ingredients: zinc oxide, titanium dioxide)
- MooGoo Cover-Up Buttercup Natural Moisturiser with SPF15 (Active ingredient: zinc oxide)
- Neal’s Yard Chamomile & Aloe Vera Moisturising Sun Lotion SPF25 (Active ingredient: titanium dioxide)
- Juice Beauty SPF30 Mineral Moisturiser Sheer (Active ingredient: zinc oxide)
- Erbaviva Sunscreen SPF30 (Active ingredient: zinc oxide)
- Green People Scent-Free sun lotion SPF25 (Active ingredient: Isoamyl p-menthoxycinnamate – an organic compound that absorbs and scatters UV light as well as stabilising the sunscreen and helping to prevent it from breaking down, titanium dioxide) – see my review here.
- Original Sprout Face and Body Sunscreen SPF24+ (Active ingredient: zinc oxide) – see my review here.
- Neal’s Yard Chamomile & Aloe Vera Moisturising Sun Lotion SPF25 (Active ingredient: titanium dioxide)
- Liz Earle Mineral Sunscreen SPF20 – this is another one that’s being reformulated. The previous version used zinc oxide.
- Clarin’s Sun Care Milk for Children SPF50 (Active ingredient: zinc oxide, titanium dioxide)
- Lovea Natura sunscreen Spray SPF30 (Active ingredient: titanium dioxide)
Thanks to a lovely reader – Helen – who left a brilliantly detailed comment under my previous sunscreen post, I’ve also added the following to my ‘must try’ list. Thanks so much, Helen!
- (FOR FACE) Organic Botanics Organic Moisturising Nutritive Extra Rich. Helen says “I don’t think it uses a mineral but a rice bran oil or something. I have really sensitive skin, and have tried all the products you mention and a multitude more but have found none so good as this one. (Have had sun sensitive eczema since childhood and was also a psoriasis sufferer prior to liver detox and diet changes.) Wish I was rich enough to use organic botanics all over my body…think 60 ml retails at about 21 pound but they do 10% discounts every now and then.”
- (FOR BODY) Helen says “Dr Mercolas sunscreen is good on the body...”
Staying safe in the sun
- Always in moderation. Sunscreen doesn’t give you license to bake. Ironically, studies indicate that incidences of skin cancer continue to rise despite the growth of ever more sophisticated sunscreens. This isn’t because they don’t work. It’s more likely to be because people regard themselves as protected once applied and stay out in strong sunlight for far longer than they should (or would) otherwise have done. Even if you’ve applied sunscreen, limit your exposure to strong sunlight and seek shade between 11am and 3pm when the sun is at its fiercest.
- Apply in time. And reapply. Physical sunscreens offer instant protection on application but if you do want to use chemical formulas, remember that you need to apply 20–30 minutes before sun exposure to allow them to absorb and be effective. And ALL sunscreens need regular reapplying. If you haven’t been swimming, sweating or rolling in sand, every couple of hours is probably fine. But if you get wet, reapply afterwards. Remember that ‘water resistant’ is not ‘water proof’.
- Apply enough. The SPF rating on the bottle is only true if you apply enough. You want 2-3 teaspoons for your face and neck/chest and 2-3 tablespoons for your body. This is why make-up rarely offers adequate sun protection on its own. If we applied the correct amount we’d all look a bit too ‘trowelled on’!
- Avoid unexpected pink bits. The best way to avoid those painful little strips along the edge of your clothing or swimsuit is too apply sunscreen while you’re completely in the buff. Then get dressed. This is also recommended because not all clothing is created equal when it comes to UV protection. Dark, closely-woven fabrics offer better protection so it is possible to burn through some of our lighter, floatier summer clothes and it’s better to have some sunscreen on underneath.
- Don’t forget the oft-forgotten bits. Like your ears, the backs of your hands and the tops of your feet. One of my worst experiences was burning the parting in my hair. You’d be better off brushing your hair over your parting, smoothing through some sunscreen (for a wet-look effect) and tying it back in a ponytail.
- Use it up or throw it out. The active ingredients in sunscreen will degrade over time. Check the expiry date on your sunscreen and don’t use last year’s bottle on this year’s holiday.
- Don’t be sucked in by SPF50+. There is no point in using a sunscreen with a rating above SPF50. The difference in the level of protection offered is actually minimal (not that you’d know this from the price!) and it can lull you into a false sense of security about the amount of time you can safely spend in the sun. I use anything from 15–40/50, depending on where I am and the time of year.
- Eat your SPF. Get plenty of veg and drink green tea. Recent studies show that polyphenols in green tea and carotenoids and lycopenes in fresh fruit and veg offer some protection against sunburn and UV damage.
- If in doubt, check it out. Be aware of your skin and keep an eye out for changes. If you notice anything unusual, visit your GP. Look out for moles that change colour or shape, or become itchy, scabbed, crusty or bleed. And don’t forget areas that you don’t see very often, like your back or the back of your legs. Taking pictures for future comparison can be very helpful.
Have fun in the sun, you guys, but don’t forget to look after your skin!