The Truth About Sunscreens and SPFs


Summer is a great time to get outdoors—whether it’s enjoying a dip in the pool, heading to the beach, or firing up the grill. Yet, before you head out, you need to make sure you’re protecting your skin.

Sunshine contains two types of rays: UVA and UVB. Both can penetrate your skin, causing sunburns and premature aging. UVB rays are especially dangerous since they can cause damage to the DNA in skin cells, increasing the risk of developing skin cancer. 

Wearing protective clothing and a hat can help, as can using physical barriers like an umbrella on the beach. It’s also important to apply sunscreen every time you go out. However, deciding which sunscreen to use can be confusing. Plus, many people apply them incorrectly. 

Since July is UV Safety Month, we want to share what you need to know to enjoy fun in the sun safely. 

Chemical Blockers vs. Natural Blockers

There are two types of sunscreens—chemical blockers and natural blockers. 

Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays from the sun and release them before they can penetrate your skin, where they can cause sunburn or other skin damage. Common ingredients found in chemical sunscreens include oxybenzone, octocrylene, aminobenzoic acid, and avobenzone.

Natural blockers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sunscreens create a physical barrier on your skin's surface, reflecting and scattering UV rays away from your skin. 

So, which one works better? The answer isn't straightforward. Chemical sunscreens tend to be thinner and more easily absorbed into the skin, making them popular for everyday use. Studies have shown they’re effective in helping to prevent skin cancer. Some chemical filters, such as oxybenzone, have raised some concerns about their hormonal impact, yet those findings haven’t been fully confirmed. 

Natural blockers like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide sunscreens provide broad-spectrum protection without penetrating the skin, making them ideal for children and sensitive skin types. These have been been extensively studied and are considered safe and effective. 

SPF Meaning: Is Higher Really Better?

SPF (Sun Protection Factor) is a measure of how well a sunscreen protects you against UVB rays. Surprisingly, a higher SPF doesn’t always mean better protection. 

Sunscreens with an SPF 15 block approximately 93% of UVB rays, while an SPF 30 gives you slightly higher protection, blocking around 97%. As the SPF rises, though, the increase in sun protection gets smaller. An SPF 50 blocks 98% of the sun’s rays, so many experts recommend stopping at an SPF 30 sunscreen and reapplying it frequently.

Beyond the SPF, it’s also important to look for a sunscreen that says it’s “broad spectrum,” meaning it protects you against both UVA and UVB rays. It’s also important to choose one that’s water resistant so it stays on while you’re in the water or working up a sweat.

How to Apply Your Sunscreen for the Best Protection

In addition to choosing a sunscreen, it’s important to apply it correctly in order to get the best protection. 

  • Make sure you’re using enough: When it comes to sunscreen, you want to make sure you’re applying a generous amount. Most adults need to use at least one ounce of sunscreen to cover all exposed areas of their skin.
  • Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going out: You don’t want to wait until you arrive at the beach or pool before applying your sunscreen. It takes at least 15 minutes for your skin to absorb it.
  • Go head to toe: If you’ve ever gone out in the sun only to realize later that you missed spots that got a sunburn, you know how important it is to apply it everywhere. For the best coverage, go head to toe—making sure you don’t miss areas like your ears, lips, the back of your neck, and the tops of your feet and head.
  • Reapply every two hours and after swimming or sweating: All sunscreens, even water-resistant ones, need to be reapplied frequently throughout the day. The rule of thumb is to put sunscreen on every two hours and immediately after going into the ocean or pool.

It’s also important to remember to apply sunscreen even on cloudy days since the sun’s rays can still reach your skin. If possible, seek shade between 10 am and 4 pm, when UV rays are at their strongest.

You Can Enjoy the Sun Safely This Summer

When it comes to sun protection, knowledge is power. Once you choose the best sunscreen for you and make sure you apply it correctly and often, you can safely enjoy your time in the sun and all that summer has to offer.