Our editors have independently chosen the products listed on this page. If you purchase something mentioned in this article, we may earn a small commission.
Here’s what I’ve learned about sun protection: It’s complicated. Very complicated. And there’s quite a bit of information we simply don’t know about how we can best shield ourselves from excessive UV rays and the damage they can inflict on your DNA and cells.
In a recent episode of Clean Beauty School, I spoke with science journalist and author (and MIT-trained chemist!) George Zaidan all about sun care and the many misconceptions we have about sunscreen. His book Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and on Us covered said topic (in pretty impressive detail, among many other ingredients—I really do recommend picking yourself up a copy! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it!). It turns out that over the course of my beauty career, I haven’t been offering up the whole picture of exactly how you should be keeping yourself safe while in the sun. Yes, sun protection is far more than just a bottle of SPF.
But before we begin, I do want to note that skin cancer is the most common kind in the United States. And melanoma—the more serious kind that is prone to spreading—is on the rise. And one of the most important preventive steps you can take is to get checked by your dermatologist annually.
“Go see your dermatologist and do a full-body skin check once a year,” says Zaidan. “If I’m applying sunscreen on a daily basis, I don’t fully know what it’s doing to affect my chances of developing cancer. But I do know that if I go to the dermatologist once a year and get a full-body skin check, the likelihood is that they’ll catch any skin cancer early, we’ll take care of it, and it’ll most likely be fine.”
1. Don’t only rely on sunscreen: Just be smart about your time in the sun.
The deep and restorative sleep you’ve always dreamt about*
Listen: It’s important to get outside, enjoy nature, and get a little vitamin D. I’m never going to be the one to tell you to avoid precious sunshine altogether. But so many people view sunbathing as a sport. And what do they use to justify that behavior? Apply sunscreen and think that’s enough. And here’s the thing: While we know that sunscreen is pretty great at stopping sunburns, we are not as certain about how effective it is at stopping skin cancer from developing.
That’s why it’s vital you don’t view SPF as an excuse to spend all day in the sun, risk-free.
“The one thing we know really, really well is that too much sun causes skin cancer—and we have some evidence that sunscreen helps prevent skin cancer. So personally I’m going to tailor my behavior to target both of those things,” says Zaidan. “For example, if I had to be out in the sun for a long time in the middle of the day in the summer, yeah, I’ll wear sunscreen, but I’ll also wear a hat and sunglasses. I will also try to avoid too much direct sunlight—so I won’t roast myself on the beach.”
As Zaidan explains in this episode, smart sun and skin care requires us to think broadly about our habits and make common-sense lifestyle choices.
2. Use titanium dioxide & zinc oxide formulas.
Mineral sunscreens are not only better for the environment, but as Zaidan points out, likely safer for your body (from what we can tell of the available research). Mineral—sometimes called physical and inorganic sunscreens—options actually work similarly to what we call “chemical” sunscreens, but it just seems they are more effective at it.
“There’s this idea that ‘physical sunscreens’ reflect sunlight like a mirror is a misconception. They do a little bit of scattering sunlight, but their main mechanism is to absorb UV light and turn it into heat which isn’t damaging to your DNA,” says Zaidan. These options come in two forms: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Now, you may have seen the recent report showing that the carcinogen benzene was found in several SPFs on the market (says Zaidan: “It’s not great!”). So if you would like to be abundantly cautious about selecting your SPF option, Zaidan suggests the following.
“First, you could go off this benzene list and pick ones that aren’t shown to be contaminated. Then you can pick an inorganic sunscreen—so zinc oxide and titanium dioxide,” he says. “In 2019, the FDA put out a proposed rule on sunscreen saying that ‘chemical’ ingredients—oxybenzone, avobenzone, anything that ends with a ‘-one’—are not generally recognized as safe and effective, which is just the FDA’s way of saying pump the brakes a bit here.”
3. Don’t fully rub it in & wait to dry.
Here’s another thing people get wrong about sunscreen: Its efficacy is so dependent on user behavior.
“I learned I’ve been applying sunscreen wrong my entire life! So many people do this too: They use sunscreen like a moisturizer. What I mean by this is that they’ll rub it into their skins until it’s completely gone. And at that point, you’ve massaged it under the top layer of your skin cells. And what you actually want for sunscreen is for it to form a protective barrier above your skin cells,” he says. “I was told by a sunscreen expert that the right way to put it on is to smear it very slightly over the surface of your skin. And then step away, let it dry, and don’t touch it. When this dries it actually binds to the top layer of your skin. And, by the way, this is why the bottle says to apply it 15 minutes before doing anything.”
This obviously brings up images of the dreaded white cast, so we really do recommend putting in the work to find an option that works for your skin tone. Unsun makes great options, and Biossance’s Sheer Mineral Sunscreen goes on quite clear actually.