So hopefully you’re coming here from our article: The Best Way To Protect From The Sun. If not, check it out and love the sun.
At TheHikingChild we love the sun and the sun loves us, but we’re not insane (so we think) and there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. And you don’t want to get it wrong when the sun is concerned.
To prevent the sun from becoming overburdening you should hide yourself under clothing, in the shade, indoors, generally wherever possible. But sometimes you just can’t do these things and sunscreen becomes your last resort. But there are a lot of different sunscreens on the market, and naturally there’s quite a bit of controversy surrounding them. So let’s take a look at what the sunscreen market has to offer, and what all of the hubbub is about.
To Block Or To Screen? That Is The Question!
There are two types of sunscreen widely available on the market: physical and chemical. The former use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to reflect and scatter sunlight. Physical creams are sometimes referred to as sunblock because they literally block the sun from reaching your skin. The chemical products use a mixture of chemicals that absorb UV rays. Both types of sunscreens work to protect you from getting sunburn as long as they absorb both UVA and UVB rays, but some only absorb UVBs. Read up before you decide.
Furthermore, some of the chemicals used in chemical sunscreens are effective at protecting you from the sun but contain some gnarly (as the sun lovin’ surfers would say) toxins that should make you at least think twice before ‘diving in’, so to speak. We’re not going to get into all of the chemicals here, nor talk about their neurotoxic health consequences as there is plenty of information to go around. Read up about the basic chemicals that are used in most brand name chemical sunscreens: dioxybenzone, oxybenzone, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), octyl mehoxycinnamate, and benzophenone. Once you read about these you will likely kiss chemical sunscreens goodbye. And to make it even more fun some of the chemicals contained in chemical sunscreens become particularly toxic when exposed to – well you won’t believe this – sunlight. That’s got a little humor to it, doesn’t it? So why are chemical sunscreens even around, you ask? For starters they are cheaper, because the synthetic ingredients are cheaper to produce than mineral ingredients found in physical sunscreens. Second, chemical sunscreens apply better. They are smoother, have a lower viscosity, and do not leave any visible trace of cream on your skin.
It’s safe to say that at TheHikingChild we do not promote the use of chemical sunscreens. We certainly do not put them on our children. Naturally, this leaves us with physical sunscreens, so let’s take a look.
Let’s Get Physical, Physical: Physical Sunblock
As was already mentioned, physical sunscreens contain mineral filters zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (or both) to reflect and refract sunlight. They are the sunscreens that you associate with the 1980s: dudes in neon fashion with Zinka paste on their noses and lips, remember? Well, technology has improved a little and these characteristics are generally a thing of the past. Modern mineral sunscreens no longer leave that thick layer of ooze on your face, although they generally remain ‘thicker’ in their application than their chemical counterparts. While this improvement in application is regarded as a good thing there are some drawbacks. To make application easier many manufacturers have turned to nano-technology to produce less visible particles that are easier to apply. There are on-going studies concerning the impact of nano-sized zinc or titanium particles entering your skin, but it is still difficult to find concrete information, and better safe than sorry. Fortunately, there are manufacturers producing physical sunscreens that are easy to apply, non-visible, and do not contain nano-particles. These are the ones that we use and recommend, and here are a few products that are worth your consideration.
A great sunscreen manufacturer is New Hampshire based Badger. They produce a wide array of skincare products, not just sunscreens, and we often refer to them at TheHikinghild because their products are healthy, natural, and they work. Their sunscreens are among the best. They have multiple sun products available, like this SPF 30 and SPF35 sport stick, which provide 40 and 80 minutes of water resistance respectively.
They also have great sunscreens for children, which are scented using organic non-photosensitizing essential oils. All of their products use organic ingredients to the maximum extent possible and contain no nano-particles. We also recommend that you take a look at Badger’s website where they have a plethora of information concerning their sunscreen products, including responses to many very informative FAQs.
In general, when hiking or doing other outdoor activities you should always have a sunscreen stick on-hand, even if it’s for just-in-case situations; in fact, we recommend carrying one as part of your first aid kit. With its small size a sunscreen stick disappears in your pack yet is right there when you need it. If you’re moving without a sunhat you will typically begin to feel the first signs of burning on your ears, nose, lips and the soft tissue below your eyes. If this happens – and hopefully you’ll never get to that point – pull out the sunscreen stick and cover up. Badger produces sunscreen sticks that are in line with their cream sunscreens as far as quality and performance are concerned; however, there are other good companies on the market that we feel deserve mention, one of which is Elemental Herbs, a lesser known brand that produces some awesome products. Their All Good Unscented Sunstick is a 20% zinc based sunscreen rated for SPF 30 that is made using natural ingredients. It is nano-tech free, waterproof, and great for sensitive, allergy prone skin. Whichever company you go with you can be sure that you will be purchasing one of the absolute best sunscreen products currently available on the market, not to mention safest and environmentally responsible. It’s worth looking around.
Directions for Sunscreen Use: Expiry, Application, And Water Resistance
A sunscreen will only protect you from the sun if it actually works. Huh!? Sunscreens have an expiry date after which they begin to separate chemically. Once that happens the sunscreen will no longer work even if you’re covered head to toe. If you don’t use sunscreen often and you have a three-year-old bottle lying around, dump it and fork out the mullah for a new one. In addition, sunscreens do not cope well with being subject to extreme temperature fluctuations, which causes their ingredients to expire prematurely. This is important, especially if you keep sunscreen in your car on blazing summer days, then cool nights, then hot days again… Do you do that? Sunscreen will last the longest when it is stored in a stable temperature environment, close to room temperature or cooler. Otherwise, replace it at least every year. If you’ve given your tube of sunscreen a good shake and the product is still separated – oil comes out when you squeeze the tube instead of cream – you can add sunscreen replacement costs into that month’s budget.
Manufacturers suggest that you apply a shot glass amount of sunscreen about 15 – 20 minutes before sun exposure, and another round after every 2 hours of exposure. You should also reapply after swimming and towel drying. We stick to our guns, a hat, shirt and sunglasses are generally better, but if you rely on sunscreen and nothing else, than we suggest that you stick to the recommendations of sunscreen manufacturers.
When it comes to sunscreen, water resistance refers to the amount of time that you can spend in the water before a sunscreen begins to loose its SPF rating. After that, reapply. Or put some clothes on.
What About SPF: Sun Protection Factor?
SPF is your benchmark for choosing a sunscreen, right? SPF 5, 15, 30, 50, 50+? More than likely you don’t really know what these refer to, do you? You think that SPF 5 is a good tanning oil (‘Crisco’, let’s call it), SPF 15 is some protection for some time, SPF 30 is starting to sound decent, SPF 50 is damn-killer-all-day-at-the-beach-in-noonday-sun-in-July protection. Well, sorry everyone, but it ain’t so because SPF is non-linear, which means that SPF 15 does not block half as well as SPF 30; au contraire, SPF 15 blocks 93% of the sun’s UVB rays while SPF 30 blocks 97%. So how much does SPF 50 block, you ask? A whopping 1% more, 98% of UVB rays! So, in other words, using an SPF 15 or SPF 30 sunscreen keeps you almost as well protected as using an SPF 50, but without the psychological numbness of thinking that you are now god because you’re using SPF 50. This is no joke. People using SPF 50 sunscreen are often under the illusion of being protected so well that they do not have to worry about the effects of the sun. This is BS. You’re much better off using SPF 15 or even SPF 30 and maintaining your common sense and moderation. And why do we mention that SPF protects from UVB rays? Because the SPF rating only measures UVB rays, UVAs are not included on the scale. Unfortunately, overexposure to UVAs is harmful as well, and choosing a sunscreen based on its SPF rating tells you nothing about what to expect in that regard. So, once again, use common sense and moderation much more intensely than sunscreen, and sunscreen as a last resort.
Spray-on sunscreens are more convenient, but feel free to avoid them like the plague. First of all, spray on sunscreens are usually chemical not physical, so avoid them for that reason. Second, there is a whole issue about inhaling the sunscreen as you are spraying it (and if you can smell it, you are inhaling it), which makes the whole chemical thing a million times worse than simply applying it on your skin. Forget spray on sunscreens. Period.
That’s it. We hope.
If you would like more information about sunscreens, a good resource is the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Search EWG sunscreens, and you will enter a world full on information about the subject. As previously mentioned, Badger also has a lot of information about their products that is worth a quick glance-over, and so does the Livestrong foundation, among other sites.
Read all this and still managed to get burned? You should be reading more carefully, but fortunately for you a follow-up article is coming very soon. It addresses your skin and after sun products – which also means after burn products. Subscribe to TheHikingChild right below this sun-lovin’ picture and stay tuned.
We maintain: Love the Sun!