Start by finding your dream SPF, commit to some easy application and skin-check habits, then enjoy the sun safely—at long last.

By Gina Way
April 09, 2021
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portrait of woman in skin tone swimsuit
There are now sunscreen picks for every skin tone, type, and preference.
| Credit: Anna Wolf

It happens all the time: You pack the bags, fill the sippy cups, smear the kids with sunscreen, and then think, "Meh. I'll do myself later." Let's make this the year that finally changes. Start by finding your dream SPF, commit to some easy application and skin-check habits, then enjoy the sun safely—at long last.

Step One: Put Your Sunscreen Routine on Automatic

Imagine there was a miracle product proven to prevent wrinkles, brown spots, and sagging over time. Surprise: There is. All you have to do is find a brand (or two) you like and use it on the daily.

Elta MD Skincare UV Clear Broad- Spectrum SPF 46
Credit: Jeffrey Westbrook

First, try a Tinder approach.

"You can't swipe right on just any sunscreen," says Mona Gohara, M.D., a dermatologist in Hamden, Connecticut. "Be realistic about what you'll actually wear and what could be a long-lasting relationship." To wit: If you traditionally hate blending on a mineral sunscreen, pick a chemical-based one instead. (A) Elta MD Skincare UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 has a mix of chemical and physical ingredients and really does go on clear. If you wear makeup, consider a tinted C moisturizer with SPF, such as (B) First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Tinted Moisturizer SPF 30. If you love a little face powder, think about a powder SPF. Find what works so you'll stick with it.

First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Tinted Moisturizer SPF 30
Tinted SPF is an a.m. routine in one step.
| Credit: Jeffrey Westbrook

Keep it at the ready.

"I have sunscreen lotions and sticks in every bag, as well as in the bathroom, the kitchen, the backyard, and by the front and back doors," says Rosemarie Ingleton, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. "When SPF is right in front of me, I'm less likely to forget to put it on." If it's easiest to have one formula for the whole family, go for it. Try (C) Aveeno Kids Continuous Protection Sunscreen Lotion With Broad Spectrum SPF 50.

Aveeno Kids Continuous Protection Sunscreen Lotion With Broad Spectrum SPF 50
Credit: Jeffrey Westbrook

Apply sunscreen naked.

On days that entail a hike, the pool, or other outdoor adventures, put your sunscreen on before getting dressed. Doing so guarantees you're covered before the morning rush. "Clothing and bathing suits tend to shift around, and you don't want to get burned on those unexpectedly uncovered areas," says Amy Wechsler, M.D., a dermatologist and psychiatrist in New York City. You can skip body lotion and instead try: (D) Coppertone Glow Spray SPF 30, which contains a hint of shimmer, or quick-to-absorb (E) La Roche-Posay Anthelios 30 Cooling Water-Lotion SPF 30. "Put it everywhere, including ears, feet, hairline, and the back of your neck," Dr. Wechsler says.

Coppertone Glow Spray SPF 30
Credit: Jeffrey Westbrook
La Roche-Posay Anthelios 30 Cooling Water-Lotion SPF 30
Credit: Jeffrey Westbrook

Dress in sunblock.

Look for UV-protective clothing, swimsuits, and exercise gear with builtin UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) of 50+ because it blocks 98 percent of UVA and UVB rays. Check out (F) Mott50 Coco Crew Neck Rash Guard. "When I'm wearing a UPF cover-up or shirt, I don't need to wear sunscreen underneath it. How easy is that?" Dr. Wechsler says. The caveat: UPF usually lasts one summer because the UPF in the fibers wears off over time in the wash. You can add Rit Sun Guard Laundry Aid UV Protectant to a load of laundry to turn any clothing item into UPF 30.

Mott50 Coco Crew Neck Rash Guard
UPF can be cool.
| Credit: Courtesy of Mott50

Layer different formulas throughout the day.

"I never leave the house without sunscreen on, and that's not just about skin cancer; it's about keeping my skin looking youthful," says Dr. Gohara. She uses (G) Melē Dew the Most Sheer Moisturizer SPF 30, which she says blends easily into her medium-brown skin. "I apply it to my face and neck in the morning, and then I touch up during the day with an SPF powder." We like the translucent (H) Tarte Sea Set & Protect Mineral Sunscreen Powder Broad Spectrum SPF 30. For full-on outdoor days, Dr. Gohara reapplies with an SPF stick and spray because they're thorough and so easy to use on the go.

Melē Dew the Most Sheer Moisturizer SPF 30
Credit: Jeffrey Westbrook
Tarte Sea Set & Protect Mineral Sunscreen Powder Broad Spectrum SPF 30
Credit: Jeffrey Westbrook
portrait of woman in yellow dress
Credit: Cedric Terrell/Gallery Stock

Look for the zinc

Zinc oxide has had a bad rep for resembling white paste on skin, but new formulas are easier to blend. Here, three reasons to use the mineral.

Olay Regenerist Hydrating Mineral Sunscreen Moisturizer SPF 30
Zinc oxide–based and fragrance-free
| Credit: Jeffrey Westbrook
  1. It's Great for Sensitive Skin: Zinc oxide has skin-soothing properties and won't cause an allergic reaction. Because mineral formulas can feel thick, it may come as a surprise that zinc oxide won't cause breakouts. "In fact, zinc oxide–based sunscreen is what I recommend to my patients with acne," says Dr. Wechsler, who suggests checking the label for the percent of zinc oxide. "The higher the better, and the minimum is 10 percent," she says. Try Olay Regenerist Hydrating Mineral Sunscreen Moisturizer SPF 30, which has 17.5 percent.
  2. It Works Right Away: Because zinc oxide is a mineral that sits on skin like armor to filter UV rays, it protects the second you put it on (chemical sunscreens need at least 20 minutes to absorb).
  3. It Might Be Safer for the Seas: Some researchers believe that oxybenzone and octinoxate may damage coral reefs and marine life, and some places have banned the sale of sunscreens with those ingredients. Physical SPFs, like Australian Gold Botanical Mineral Lotion SPF 30, are “reef friendly.”
Australian Gold Botanical Mineral Lotion SPF 30
Credit: Jeffrey Westbrook

Step Two: Bust Your SPF Excuses

Adults may be even better than kids at coming up with reasons not to apply. We all know (and have probably used) greatest hits such as "It's cloudy" or "I'm in the car." Derms have heard them all, and they have comebacks for any justification you can dish out.

Supergoop! Daily Dose Vitamin C + SPF 40 Serum
Credit: Jeffrey Westbrook

I WFH and am never outside …

"You don't need to be on the beach to get sun exposure or sun damage," says Ellen Marmur, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City and mom of four. "UVA rays come through windows, so you need to protect your skin while in a car, a plane, or a home office." Supergoop! Daily Dose Vitamin C + SPF 40 Serum contains chemical sunscreen and an antioxidant to protect and brighten in one step. Blue light from digital devices could be problematic too (see "Remember Your Screen 'Screen," right).

Banana Boat Light as Air Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50+
Credit: Jeffrey Westbrook

I'm just running one errand …

"We all make these little deals with ourselves," Dr. Wechsler says. "We associate applying sunscreen with being outside all day on vacation, but even five minutes of unprotected sun exposure is harmful." And besides, quick errands can turn into long ones. A sunscreen that doesn't feel thick or greasy, like Banana Boat Light as Air Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50+, is hassle-free.

Sunscreen absorbs into the bloodstream …

"Mineral sunscreens do not absorb into the skin, which is why I love them," Dr. Wechsler says. Some chemical sunscreen ingredients do, but scientists haven't found evidence that they're harmful. Bottom line: If you're worried, wear UPF clothing and mineral sunscreen.

But I need vitamin D …

"It's true that making vitamin D is one of the skin's big jobs, and the vitamin is important for the immune system and the absorption of calcium," Dr. Marmur says. "But just five to 15 minutes of incidental light is enough to get your body to synthesize vitamin D through the skin. Realistically, unless you slather on SPF like cake frosting from your scalp to your fingertips, you'll probably still make enough. You can also get it from fortified food and supplements."

EleVen by Venus Unrivaled Sun Serum SPF 35
This is Venus Williams’s brand.
| Credit: Jeffrey Westbrook

My dark skin protects me …

"People of color have a built-in SPF of about 13.4 compared with fair skin's 3.4," Dr. Gohara says. "But all skin tones can get skin cancer, and those with more melanin can be more prone to hyperpigmentation. Sunscreen is the best way to prevent both. A recent study showed that BIPOC women who wore sunscreen every day had improved skin texture and tone." Adds Dr. Ingleton, who has dark skin herself, "My patients with darker complexions ask how mine looks so youthful. I tell them that I've been wearing sunscreen daily for the past 30 years." We like EleVen by Venus Unrivaled Sun Serum SPF 35, which blends into all skin tones.

Dr. Loretta Urban Antioxidant Sunscreen SPF 40
Credit: Jeffrey Westbrook

Step Three: Remember Your Screen 'Screen

Just when you think you've got this UV thing figured out, here comes another wavelength to protect against. High-energy visible (HEV) light, aka blue light, is a short-wavelength light emitted by the sun, lightbulbs, and digital devices like (gulp) our laptops and phones. Blue light has been shown to contribute to skin issues like hyperpigmentation and wrinkles, but unlike UVA/UVB light, it is not associated with skin cancers. FYI, not all sunscreens are blue-light-protective, Dr. Gohara says. "Chemical ones absorb UVA and UVB but not HEV rays. Mineral sunscreens, however, do have the ability to protect from all wavelengths of light. And research is showing that the ingredient iron oxide boosts their effectiveness." Dr. Loretta Urban Antioxidant Sunscreen SPF 40 and Colorescience Face Shield Glow SPF 50 check all the boxes.

Colorescience Face Shield Glow SPF 50
Credit: Jeffrey Westbrook
portrait of woman in dramatic light
Credit: Samantha Annis/Gallery Stock

Step Four: Get Serious About Skin Checks

"I believe you should live your life and not be afraid of the sun," says Dr. Marmur, a skin-cancer survivor. "I've had multiple surgeries for basal cell carcinoma, but I still run on the beach, climb mountains, and go outside with my family every chance I get—I just take a few seconds to put sunscreen on first."

Melanoma is the most common cancer in people between the ages of 25 and 29 and also the most serious. But here's the good news: According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, daily use of sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher reduces the risk of developing melanoma by 50 percent. While a yearly exam from your dermatologist is highly recommended, giving your own bod a regular once-over could be even more important. "Most skin cancers are found by the patient, and about half of melanomas are self-detected," Dr. Marmur says. "Skin cancers that are caught early are 92 to 100 percent curable, so time is of the essence." Don't think of a self-exam as a big thing. "It's really about getting to know the landscape and texture of your skin and noticing if there's a change," Dr. Gohara says. "When taking a shower or putting on lotion, be aware of anything that wasn't there before or feels different." This includes a spot or sore that won't heal or a mole that's changed color, size, or shape.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's May 2021 issue as "Make SPF Your Jam!" Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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