Sunscreen 101: How to Pick The Right One for You and Use it Properly!

Sunscreen, Sunscreens, 101, basics, how to select, pick, correct sunscreen, right sunscreen, use sunscreen correctly, right, sunblock
How to Pick The Right Sunscreen for You and Use it Properly!

With so many sunscreens on the market, it is really hard to select one from all the masses to be "your" sunscreen. There are a lot of factors to take into account such as chemical vs physical ingredients, SPF, UVA protection, formulation, the list goes on and on. Once you've finally decided which product you'll buy, you need to make sure that you are getting your money's worth. Which means correctly applying the product so it can actually do its job.

Physical vs Chemical Sunscreens
I mentioned the main differences between physical and chemical sunscreens last week, but here are the quick take home points:
• Physical sunscreens reflect light away from the skin while chemical sunscreens undergo a chemical reaction or change in structure to absorb the light.
• Physical sunscreens are associated with less irritation and allergic reactions, but can feel much heavier on your skin and impart a white cast to skin.
• Chemical sunscreens have been found to absorb into skin so much that they've been found in urine samples, which means it was in the blood stream. While no one has found any ill effects from this, pediatricians don't recommend the use of chemical sunscreens in children under 2 years of age (when the brain is doing most of its development), and it might be a good idea to avoid them if you're pregnant as well.

So, which ingredients are which? The physical sunscreens are Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide. Everything else is a chemical sunscreen.

UV Range Covered
One would hope that this is pretty obvious, but you would be better served by a sunscreen that has broad spectrum UV coverage, especially if you are planning to wear the product for high sun exposure.

I created a graphic based on the FDA's sunscreen guidelines. Note that the wavelengths considered by the FDA are divided into three main groups, UVB, UVA I and UVA II. I realize that some of these active ingredients may actually a slightly wider UV range than what I have included here. However, it is much easier to just think of 3 ranges that need to be covered, and the FDA has broken it all down for us.

Taking into account what the FDA considers each approved sunscreen ingredient to cover, I created a graphic that I've been using for a year or so in sunscreen reviews. I specialize it for each review that I post, but if you are curious about the UV range covered by a product I haven't reviewed, simply check the label and compare to this chart. Keep in mind that there are some alternative names for these ingredients. If there is a sunscreen listed under "Active Ingredients" (where all the sunscreens are listed) that you don't recognize, just Google it and you'll find out what it's other name is.

So, what SPF number do you need?

While it's a personal choice, I strongly encourage you to use at least SPF 15 everyday. You get a lot of UV exposure every day, even if it's just driving your car or sitting near a window on occasion. This all adds up, and studies have found photoaging (particularly thickening of the epidermis) with repeated UVA exposures. It doesn't need to be big exposures like a trip to the beach. If you use SPF 15 you need to make sure you use it properly (see below) to get the full protection offered.

Unfortunately many of us don't use our sunscreen properly, and we're actually getting a much lower effective SPF than we think we are. To help combat this you should use the highest SPF you can stand to use, especially for days with a lot of sun exposure. Think of it this way: If you're misusing SPF 15 you might be lucky to get SPF 8. Misuse a SPF 85 and you are probably up in the SPF 45 range.

The final thing to think about when choosing your overall SPF is your skin tone. While I don't think this should allow you to ever decrease your SPF (the above recommendations for SPF minimum hold for everyone regardless of skin tone), it might be a reason to increase your SPF. If you have a family history of skin cancers or happen to be pale like me, you should especially consider increasing your minimum SPF.

Formulations Available

Lotions & Creams
These are the most typical formulations. Creams tend to be preferred by those with dry skin as they are more hydrating. Lotions are less thick, spread more easily and are less greasy. They typically are better for those with oily to combination skin.

This might be a good alternative if you have oily skin. Be careful if you want to use a gel during exercise though, alcohol based gels might cause burning/stinging in your eyes. There are water based gel options, check the label.

I love stick sunscreens. They are perfect for applying in a small area like the bridge of the nose that is very prominent. Because the sticks are usually based in wax or petroleum they tend to last longer and have fewer issues with prolonged water exposure.

I couldn't find any information about how much sunscreen you need to use to get the right SPF if you have a spray formulation. But, it does seem pretty reasonable that they've formulated it to pretty much correlate

Misc. Formulations
There is one product on the market that is a cleanser said to leave behind sunscreen. The amount left behind is going to vary a lot depending on how you rinse the product, whether you have hard or soft water, etc. Don't depend on a product like this to provide all of your sun protection, but as an "added bonus" in addition to another product, it can't hurt.

There are a lot of powders and other makeup products that have SPF listed. In order to actually get the SPF listed on the product you have to use a lot more product than most women would ever use. I wouldn't depend upon these products for all of my sun protection, but in combination with a lotion underneath.... the extra sunscreen is always a bonus!

Well, if you buy a tube of sunscreen at a store that is labelled "Waterproof" you need to take it back. The FDA no longer allows sunscreens to be labelled waterproof, so that's either an old tube, or something not quite legal. I found it very interesting to read about the FDA requirements for a sunscreen to be labelled with varying amounts of water resistance.

Basically, there's a system to the method of testing. Human volunteers apply the product to areas of skin that aren't sun exposed for testing (basically, I think that means their butt?), they swim in an indoor pool for 20 minutes and then air dry. This is repeated multiple times. The SPF that the product tests at after the water exposure is what gets put on the label. A water resistant product had a total of 40 minutes water exposure, very water resistant products underwent 80 minutes of water exposure.

Proper Use
There are a couple of big issues to consider when applying your sunscreen, and messing any of these up will result in lower sun protection.

Amount of Sunscreen Applied
There is an internationally agreed upon standard of 2 mg sunscreen/cm2 of skin surface area to test for SPF. So, to reach this amount of coverage (and therefore get the SPF advertised on the label), the average adult needs to apply 30 mL or 1 ounce of sunscreen. That's the size of a shot glass. That means you typically should have about 5 or 6 applications of sunscreen in a tube of sunscreen, so that bottle should not last you an entire vacation or summer.

This standard is especially difficult to obtain for a powder sunscreen. Believe it or not, to get the actual SPF stated for a powder product, you would need to apply 1.2 grams of powder to an average woman's face. What do most of us apply? 0.085 g, which is about 1/14th the amount needed. By contrast, the average woman needs to apply only 1.5x the amount of lotion she usually applies to get the correct SPF.

Timing of Application
About 98% of us apply our sunscreen at the beach or pool. Actually, you should be applying at least 30 minutes before sun exposure. This means the perfect time for application is when you're getting ready to head to the sun! I apply my sunscreen for the pool when I'm putting on my bikini. It's a lot easier to reach every spot when you're alone in your hotel room and can contort yourself in to strange positions without worrying about how you look.

To help compensate for photo instability you should reapply every 2 hours or after being in the water. That means you reapply everywhere, not just your legs or shoulders.

Using "Active" Sunscreen
Don't forget that sunscreen has an expiration date. You wouldn't drink Milk 4 months after its expiration date, would you? No, it would be bad. Check your sunscreen's date! If its outdated throw it out, it is not going to provide the proper protection. Also be careful how you store your sunscreen. It shouldn't be exposed to high heat or humidity (like in your car). This will also inactivate your sunscreen before its time. Properly store your sunscreen and throw it out once it hits that expiration date.

So, What do I do?
In an ideal world, all sunscreens would be SPF 30 or above with full UVA/UVB coverage. They would be water resistant. The sunscreen would have no smell and be so light that I would have no clue it was on my skin. It wouldn't make me greasy looking or clog my pores. It would be stable for use all day without reapplication. In fact, it wouldn't be a separate product, it would be part of my morning moisturizer. You get the idea.

Unfortunately, this product does not exist. If it did I wouldn't be doing this review series, we'd all just be buying that product.

So, what we all need to do is prioritize and make compromises when picking our daily sunscreen product. For me, it is more important that the product be part of my morning routine (in my moisturizer, I'm not going to apply that much foundation or powder), I want it to be smell free and I don't want to be able to tell that it is in the product. It can't interfere with my makeup application. If any of those weren't true I would not wear it each day. I'd end up making excuses like "Oh, I'm just going to work... I'll wear the moisturizer without SPF."

You also need to weigh how much sun coverage you want in that daily sunscreen. I strongly recommend at least SPF 15. I also recommend UVA and UVB coverage. Remember that UVB is filtered out by glass- you want to be protected from the UVA you are exposed to in your car!

So, for my daily moisturizer (the one I use in between product testings, or each morning if I'm only testing new night products at that time) what I use is a moisturizer with SPF that is very gentle but does not cause me to break out. It is SPF 15 with UVB and short UVA coverage (I've compromised to not have long UVA coverage, I haven't found a product yet that covers it and I like enough to be my go-to daily product). It's a product that I can not tell the sunscreen is in it, so I just buy it in the SPF version. I have reviewed it on here, but it was years ago. I'll publish a fresh review going over the sunscreen coverage in it later today.

I think most of us approach our "pool" sunscreens differently than our daily moisturizer. For longer sun exposure I prioritize UV range coverage and SPF much higher. I really want full UV coverage. I want at least SPF 45, the higher I can tolerate the better to help compensate in case I don't apply enough sunscreen. I want it water resistant or very water resistant for dips in the water. I would prefer a lotion, though I do use stick sunscreens for areas like my nose. I don't do well with spray sunscreens since I'm never sure how much I should apply, and as an asthmatic I prefer not to use something that could trigger an attack if inhaled. I'm willing to put up with sunscreen smell (admit it, the smell of Coppertone makes you think of when you were little, and what is a tropical vacation without a Coconut Sunscreen smell?), and I'll put up with it leaving a bit of residue behind so I can tell it's on there, but I don't want it to be heavy or make my skin itchy.

Stay tuned, for now on every Tuesday will have a sunscreen review. I'll be looking for daily sunscreens and sunscreens for more intense exposure. Keep in mind that I'm looking for different features depending on what type of sunscreen I'm testing. How are your preferences different? Let me know in the comments so I can be sure to address them in the reviews!


  1. Great article Christine. Thank you for taking the time to educate us all on the ins and outs of sunscreen. Bravo!

  2. Do you think you could do a review of Le Roche Posay's Anthelios 60 sunscreen? I really like it but I'm wondering if it has proper protection and photostability in comparison with Neutrogena Helioplex AgePerfect (though I don't like Neutrogena because it pills everywhere!)

  3. Hello,
    I was the anonymous who requested you to test out Neutrogena's Ultra Sheer liquid daily sunblock. I got too excited on my trip to CVS and purchased both the sunscreen and CG's lash blast fusion.
    I just put on the sunblock and I feel like the consistency is okay but it has a strong sunblock odor. I wanted something light to go underneath my makeup because I still prefer to put my own moisturizer on before my makeup.

    The best lightweight daily moisturizer I've tried was a sample I received from the mail by Boscia. It's their oil-free daily hydration spf 15. It goes on so sheer and I prefer the smell much better.

    The upside of Neutrogena is their spf 55 and since I don't believe I use the proper amount of spf I like the added protection it gives.

    I'd like to see your take on the two sunscreens or even what is your daily sunscreen at the moment?

  4. Thank you for the enlightenment on sunscreen! I use SPF 15 everyday. I've gotta keep my skin looking young and pampered like I just came from a facial! You are definately right about sun aging.

  5. People say that which ever food is good for heart is good for skin.When you start taking caring of your heart, it will reflect in your skin.

  6. Thanks Carol!

    Christina- I ordered a tube of it about 10 days ago. I saw it on Skin and had to order it! It will be included for sure.

    Joyce- That's too bad about the sunscreen odor, but I definitely agree about the SPF 55. I am always convinced that I'm not putting on enough sunscreen, and I like to have the extra "buffer" for mistakes. I think I might have a sample of the Boscia around here somewhere, I'll have to look around and try it!

  7. what a great post! im trying to buy a new sunscreen so ur post was very helpful to me!

  8. Thanks for this informational post I want to protect my skin in my youth and this is really helpful on how to go about doing so properly. Thanks again!

  9. Thanks! The post is very informative and helpful. I am still looking for my HG moisturizer with SPF. =)

  10. I just found you blog (love it!)

    I love Neutrogena Visibly Even Daily Moisturizer (with Helioplex, SPF 30). Maybe you can review this one at some point? I'd love to see how it compares to some of the other daily moisturizers.
    This is the one I've been wearing for a few years now; after switching from one of Olay's daily moisturizers (with sunscreen) because it felt too greasy.

  11. This post is so interesting, and even though I'm diligent about putting on sunscreen before I go outside, I never knew this much about it! I love that you are able to go in depth about chemical processes without losing us! :) For more great sunscreen tips, please check out some of our posts on where we have a great assortment of advice! And let us know if you'd ever like to do a feature with us!

  12. Can you review "Face Cotz" SPF 40? I just started using it after reading the Amazon reviews, and it's perhaps the best facial sunscreen with physical blockers I've ever tried: not greasy, not heavy, not smelly. It's kind of fluffy, for lack of a better word to describe the texture. However, I'm so fearful of the sun and have had such issues with melasma that I'm afraid if I can't see it, it's not working. Thanks if you can, I love your website!

  13. Wow, thank you for the info on sunscreen! One question though; which sunscreen to you recommend for 11-15 year olds? My mom kind of is having trouble finding the perfect one for my family. Thank you! <3

  14. I use Cotz as well, it is THE BEST! Plus it double as a primer ( for me) and TRIPLES as a BB cream! I wear it alone when I'm on a light-makeup day, with a Lil blush and mascara, and it also works FABULOUS for under my Naked Foundation. :-) Cotz is THE BEST physical sunscreen ever! I've been a sunscreen freak for YEARS and my search ended when I discovered Cotz Spf 40 for face. :-)

  15. I live in Argentina and we've had the WORST possible summer in terms of sun. The index was over 90% most of the time, almost equal to being in the snow or in the water. I'm getting used to covering all of my exposed body areas with SPF moisturizer as I get dressed in the morning. For me it's best because it's not as sticky as sprays and it almost instantly fades into skin. Let it soak while I do my makeup, then get dressed. Eucerin has great all around one the Daily Protection Lotion with SPF 30. It's not suited for the beach (too low) but you can reapply something higher once you get to the pool or beach. I'm in my early 50s so this is almost mandatory now!!!


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