Sunscreen 101 – A Simple Way To Protect Your Skin

The sun is shining, and the weather is warm and balmy! As much as we love to embrace that Vitamin D we get from the sun, the truth remains we HAVE TO protect our skin, to avoid skin damage. Here is everything you need to know about sunscreen, SPF, UVA/UVB in one place.

The truth is, if I was going to be sent away and was only allowed to bring one item, sunscreen would be that thing.  Sunscreen is the simplest and most effective step you have control of to protect and keep your skin looking its best, and starting from a young age is key.  Sun damage on the skin typically appears years after the damage is done. 

Simply, if I had to assess which step is most important in my skincare routine, sunscreen would be number one without hesitation. 

Sunscreen creates a barrier when applied to the skin, and works by absorbing or reflecting the sun’s UV rays, so it does not have the opportunity to damage your skin.

Let me lay out all the ins and outs of choosing the appropriate sunscreen for you and your family, no matter what your skin tone is.

What is UVA vs. UVB rays?

Sunlight consists of two types of rays, ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB).  In the long term, UVA rays tend to be more damaging as they penetrate deep into the skin’s dermis.  Extended exposure to the sun can result in premature skin ageing, wrinkles, and even suppression of your immune system. Studies have shown that UVA rays can damage your DNA, your skin cells over time, and increase the risk of developing malignant melanoma, the most severe type of skin cancer that grows in the cells that produce melanin.  Another skin condition you can develop is Melsama, which can be caused by sun exposure, and results in a patch or generalized skin pigmentation issues.

On a day to day basis, more people should be concerned with UVB rays, the culprit of your sunburn.  UVB rays burn the top layer of your skin, causing immediate redness and discomfort.  Continued damage to your skin from UVB rays will likely result in skin cancer.

What does the SPF number mean?

Sunscreens have a sun protection factor (SPF), where each rating is a measurement of the fraction of UV rays that hit your skin from the sun.  Relating to the amount of time it takes for your skin to burn without any protection, and how long it would take if you used the appropriate amount of sunscreen. Which essentially tells you its ability to screen or block out the sun’s UVB rays:

  • SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB  rays
  • SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays
  • SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays
  • SPF 100 blocks 99% of UVB rays

The SPF value indicates the level of sunburn protection provided by the sunscreen product you’ve purchased. Sunscreens do get tested to measure the amount of UV radiation exposure it takes to cause a sunburn when using a sunscreen, compared to how much UV exposure it takes to produce a sunburn when not using a sunscreen. Following this step, a designation of the appropriate SPF value is assigned. Higher SPF values (up to 50) provide higher sunburn protection.


The importance of Broad Spectrum

You may notice the words “Broad Spectrum” labelled on various sunscreen products you are looking to purchase.  Broad Spectrum offers UVA and UVB protection from the sun by providing a chemical barrier that absorbs or reflects UV radiation before it can damage the skin.

There is a popular misconception that SPF relates to the time of solar exposure. For example, many people believe if they usually get sunburned in one hour, then an SPF 15 sunscreens allows them to stay in the sun for 15 hours (e.g., 15 times longer) without getting sunburn. However, this is not true because SPF is not directly related to the time of solar exposure, but the amount of solar exposure.

How to use your sunscreen to amplify its effectiveness

How you use sunscreen and the extra protective measures you take to make a difference in how well you can protect yourself and your loved ones from overexposure to the sun.

Here are some essential sun safety tips:

  • Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before sun exposure to have enough time to provide the maximum benefit.
  • Limit your time in the sun, especially during peak hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun rays are most intense.
  • Wear clothing to cover your skin exposed to the sun.
  • Use broad-spectrum sunscreens with SPF 30 and higher.
  • Reapply your sunscreen at minimum every 2 hours, but more frequently if you are swimming or sweating a lot.
  • Apply a water-resistant sunscreen if you will be in the water. It is usually adequate for 40 to 80 minutes; however, this number decreases if you are consistently in the water.
  • Apply a generous amount of 2 to 3 tablespoons (about one ounce=a shot glass) of sunscreen for your entire body, and one teaspoon for your face and neck.
  • Don’t forget to apply on most forgotten places, including your ears, chin, neck, nose, back of your neck, along your hairline, bald spots, back of hands and the top of your feet.
  • Knowing your skin, fair-skinned people are likely to absorb more solar energy than darker-skinned people under the same conditions.
  • Remember to use a lip balm containing sunscreen.  It is easy to burn your lips.
  • Always apply sunscreen, even on cloudy days.  UV’s rays are consistently present and can pass through clouds.  In the winter, the UV rays reflect off the snow and can cause sunburns.
  • Wear a wide-brim hat and sunglasses with UV protection to protect your eyes.

Am I using a chemical or physical sunscreen?

A chemical and physical sunscreen difference is this: Physical sunscreens contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. They form an effective barrier instantly, so no waiting time before jumping in the pool.  Typically, physical sunscreens work for sensitive skin people, but always remember to do a patch test when using any new product. They are more environmentally friendly, which I support.   Chemical sunscreen ingredients usually end with: -ate, -one, -one.  As with any chemical, be aware that they are chemically based, and the components could well absorb into your body.


With your skincare regimen, when do you apply sunscreen?

Whether you are using a physical or chemical sunscreen, this will slightly change. With a chemical sunscreen, apply it before anything else.  The reason is the formula works by absorbing into your pores to capture the sun’s rays.  A physical sunscreen should be applied last in your skincare regimen after your moisturizer, but before your makeup application. Also, if you are using insect repellent, your sunscreen should be applied before this as well.

If you have an aerosol sunscreen, do your eyes and lips a favour, and do not spray this directly into your face; instead, spray it into your hands and rub it into your skin.

Store your Sunscreen

You are buying your sunscreen, so making sure you keep it in top shape is essential.  Do not expose your sunscreen containers to direct sunlight; consider keeping the bottle in the shade or wrapping it in a towel.  A clever place to store your sunscreen is cool if you are outside in the heat for extended periods.

A formula for every skin type

There are endless formulas available to suit consumers’ preferences. Cream formulas work well for individuals with dryer skin and the face. Hypoallergenic brands may work well for sensitive skin. Non-comedogenic brands will not clog your pores.  For covering areas with hair—like an exposed scalp or a man’s arms or legs—a gel formula may glide on easier. Sunscreen sticks neatly cover the ears, nose, and under the eyes.  Directions for sunscreen use can vary depending on the form, and these days, sunscreen comes in different variations:

  • Lotions and creams
  • Sticks
  • Gels – Perfect on oily skin types
  • Oils and butters
  • Balms – Best on dry skin types
  • Pastes
  • Sprays

Ensure you read the packaging on every form of sunscreen you purchase to ensure you are using the product to its utmost protection.

Sunscreen Ingredients 

When purchasing sunscreen, it is fundamental to take note of the ingredients, because they are protecting the top layers of your skin; however, there is evidence that some elements absorb through your skin and into your body.

In Canada, sunscreens are either Natural Health Products (NHPs) or non-prescription drugs, depending on the ingredients they contain.  Commonly used natural ingredients include titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and p-aminobenzoic acid. They would require a Natural Product Number (NPN), unless the product contains ingredients that are not naturally derived.  For products that contain drug ingredients, they must have a Drug Identification Number (DIN).  All Canadian sunscreen products must include the statement to the product’s effect that prevents sunburn instead of “sunblock.”

Logically, every drug contains active and inactive ingredients.  Active ingredients in sunscreen are the ones that are protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays.  Inactive ingredients are not technically protecting you; however, contained in the formulation of the sunscreen product. 

Does sunscreen still work after the expiry date?

Sunscreens contain chemicals that break down over time, compromising your sunscreen’s effectiveness, so you should not use them after the expiry date.  If there is no expiry date on your product, a general date range is 3 years from the date of purchase.  Personally, I would not purchase a sunscreen with no expiry date present, because there is no way to know when it was put on the shelf and how long it has been stored before it was purchased.

Alternate tanning options

Luckily nowadays, there are many options to achieve a tan without being in the sun.  This is a wonderful luxury we can indulge in, knowing our skin is safe in doing so.  There are spray tans available and tanning water, lotions, mousses, gels and creams that effectively tan your skin to last weeks at a time.  This is an excellent alternative to achieving a safer tan colour to your skin.

Always remember to be generous when applying your sunscreen.  You only have one face and one body, so take ownership and do what you can to take care of it.  If you have any questions about sunscreen, please leave them below.

Disclosure: This post contains some affiliate links. If you use these links to make a purchase, I may earn a modest commission, however this does not affect pricing for you in any way. As always, I only recommend products that I truly love and use myself.


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