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Shady Choices - Which Type of Sunscreen is Best For Your Skin?

image of Genna Pinnick
Shady Choices - Which Type of Sunscreen is Best For Your Skin?

Turns out, which type of sunscreen is best for your skin depends on several factors and we definitely need to use it more often than we may realize.

Compliance is King

After a year of quarantine, getting back out into the sunlight, and feeling a part of life again, is as essential as the Vitamin D sunlight induces. Turns out Vitamin D is also our best friend for reducing our risk to Covid-19 and for our overall intrinsic health. Good to know.

How to achieve this balancing act of protecting your skin and getting enough Vitamin D?

Ultraviolet radiation and UV rays are also the largest contributing factor to skin skin aging, discoloration, skin cancers, and skin glycation. Glycation is sun-induced oxidative damage to your skin’s collagen and elastin fibers, resulting in a thick, leathery, sun-hardened skin with deep wrinkles. This is the epitome of glycation.

Turns out getting enough Vitamin D3 it’s that trickly.

The Solution: Doctors recommend an oral supplementation of Vitamin D3 , taken with a meal, to cover any nutritional gaps you might have. This, of course, leaves you free to protect your skin from photoaging, aka sun damage, while you enjoy the feeling of the sun on your face.

And then there’s the question of how often do you wear sunscreen?

Some of you might say,

“I don’t wear one. I have an SPF in my makeup.”

”I only use sunscreen when I go to the beach / go running / go camping / etc.”

Thud! (Sound of me banging my head against the wall in despair.)

It’s the incremental, daily micro-doses of UV damage and those larger doses (sunburns) which all accumulate, like a piggy bank stuffed full of pennies full-to-bursting.

It’s the accumulation of daily damage which carries over each day with some of it being healed at night, but not all. And this leftover, unrelenting skin damage which accumulates and shows on your face and skin.

Consistency Counts

The South Koreans have elevated sunscreen to practically a religion.  Reapplying their sunscreen in various forms, every 2 hours, religiously. Yes, they really do reapply every two hours, and as it turns out we all should.

Their pay off is fantastically evident: The breathlessly perfect cult of the Glass Skin attests to.

I have to admit, I desire this impossibly clear and translucent skin, too. The level of maintenance is high and the payoff are free of pigment and appear free from pores. And just adopting some of these intensive habits and maintenance can go a long way, particularly the religious use of sunscreen and products with SPF.

And of course:

  • How much sunscreen do you need to apply to get the stated SPF protection?
  • Can people with acne-prone skins even use an SPF that won’t break them out?
  • Can people with Rosacea, Chemotherapy and Radiation-exposed skin, Auto-Immune Reactive, or Sensitive Skins safely use sunscreens?

Yes to all of this.

But there are different types of sunscreen and some are more specific for your type of skin, your current skin condition, and your length of sun exposure.

And your best sunscreen is one that you’ll use and use enough of. Kind of feels like you’re inputting your data to find the sweet spot and you kind of are.

All Skin Colors Need Sun Protection

All skin colors are equally subject to skin cancer even if natural melatonin coloration filters out the burning rays, the DNA damage still occurs, hence universal susceptibility to the big C (cancer).

2 Types of Sunscreen and How Much to Use

Sunscreens are one of the fastest growing cosmetic segments, coming in two basic types and three popular forms:

  • Chemical Sunscreens or Mineral Sunscreens
  • Lotion or Spray
  • FDA Testing Uses 1 Fl oz Over a Glass Slide (Yes, this is a lot!)

But First, A Quick Primer on UV Light

Sunlight is a mix of many visible and invisible wavelengths of light...many of these wavelengths of light provide healthy, feel-good benefits for us. And we get Vitamin D from UV light hitting our skin. 20 minutes of exposure is all this take.

The culprits who do this crime of UV damage are UVA, UVB and UVC...and they are invisible to our eye.

UVA rays have the longest wavelength, followed by the shorter UVB and UVC.

Now, the shorter UV rays are absorbed by the ozone layer, so by the time UV radiation reaches your body, most of it is filtered out, but still highly present on the surface of our earth in the form of UVA and some UVB.

Two Forms of Damage From UV Light

UVB rays only penetrate the outer layers of your skin, but UVA rays penetrate deeper layers, because of their longer wavelength. Whereas UVB rays cause superficial inflammation and damage (like sunburn), UVA rays can cause deeper damage and increased risks of cellular changes.

The active ingredients in sunscreens work by creating UV filters that keep harmful UV rays from penetrating the skin. There are two types of sunscreens – mineral sunscreens and chemical sunscreens. Each type uses a different mechanism for filtering UV rays and protecting the skin from damage.

Sunlight and oxygen can create unintended chemical changes to your sunscreen...even while it’s on your skin...causing hypersensitive reactions. Formulations for specialized circumstances are key.

Mineral Sunscreens

Mineral sunscreens sit on top of the skin’s surface, acting as a physical blocker by deflecting and scattering UV rays away from the skin like tiny mirrors. Because they block UV rays at the surface level, mineral sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB rays.

Also, because mineral sunscreens create a physical barrier, they are effective as soon as they are applied, so there is no need to wait.

Dosage size is generous. The FDA testing for effectiveness is literally a large 1 oz dollop and you should use this amount, too. Many formulas are greaseless, have a dry finish and feel weightless on your skin even when liberally applied. I love these formulas.

This Is the only type of sunscreen my husband will wear.

Men, unlike women, don’t like to feel moisturized skin. Hydrated, yet lightweight in how it feels, is the only sunscreen I could gain daily compliance from my very fussy, lighter-skinned Asian husband.

And I am still fighting with him to use a therapeutic amount. You know that 1 oz size.

Conveniently or not so conveniently, mineral sunscreens tend to have a white-ish cast to them, even when micronized, and they can be visible on your skin. Bummer if you have darker skin. Also, because they sit on the skin’s surface, mineral sunscreens can be rubbed, sweated, or rinsed off easily, which makes frequent reapplication a necessity.

Mineral sunscreen is the hands-down favorite in Asian and this is part of the reason Koreans rampantly re-apply their sunscreen even right over their foundation every two hours. They know the protection is limited and what the time limit is: 2 Hours

And they’re all doing it, so no one stares in the bathroom at work.

They also must be applied liberally to ensure adequate protection. Because the nanoparticles in mineral sunscreens should not be inhaled, it is best to avoid spray and powder formulations to minimize lung exposure. Mineral sunscreens contain the active ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc dioxide or a combination of the two.

Sensitive Skins, reactive skins, people with auto-immune skin sensitivities, and those going through chemotherapy and radiation are best off with the mineral sunscreen. But even this formula should be from a specialized line specifically formulated for the least oxidative reactions while sitting on your skin.

  • Pros: full protection from UVA and UVB rays; effective immediately; will not clog pores, preferred type for sensitive, reactive or immune-compromsied skins like those going through chemotherapy or radiation.
  • Cons: frequent reapplication is needed; may leave a white cast on the skin; spray and loose powder formulations should be avoided

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens are absorbed into your skin and sit in the deeper layers. They absorb UV rays and change them into heat, then release the heat from the skin.

Since UV rays must penetrate the skin to reach these chemicals, chemical sunscreens may not protect against all UVA rays, which still causes damage to the deeper layers of the skin.

Because chemical sunscreens take about 20 minutes to be effective, planning is required.

Also, direct sunlight causes the chemicals to be used up more quickly, so re-application must be more frequent when you are in direct sunlight.

Does this sound familiar?

And the heat-releasing nature of chemical sunscreens can be problematic for sensitive and rosacea-prone skin, as well as for individuals with hyperpigmentation.

In fact, many sensitive-skinned individuals cannot wear chemical sunscreen because of this very chemical reaction from the sunlight degrading the sunscreen.

The heated skin can cause an increase in existing brown spots. Darker skins are way too familiar with this vicious cycle. Chemical sunscreens can also clog pores and can be problematic for acne-prone skin.

Lastly, chemical sunscreens contain oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, octisalate, homosalate, or combinations thereof.  Avoid these if you can as they are not good being absorbed into the waters of the reefs of the ocean and they're not good being absorbed into your skin.

  • Pros: less product is needed per application to offer protection; thinner and easier to spread on the skin; applies invisibly
  • Cons: allows some UVA exposure; requires time to be effective; can exacerbate acne, rosacea, and hyperpigmentation; frequent application required

The Problem with Chemical Sunscreens...

Yes, you heard correctly, active sunscreen chemicals have been found to be absorbed into the skins of users.

Earlier this year, the FDA proposed a rule for over-the-counter sunscreen products that would require any active ingredient absorbed into the bloodstream at concentrations over 0.5 ng/mL to undergo toxicology testing, including carcinogenicity, developmental, and reproductive studies.

FDA researchers report that multiple active ingredients found in sunscreens find their way into the bloodstream and recommend toxicology testing to investigate the clinical significance of these findings.

A recent study investigated the plasma concentration of sunscreen active ingredients after application in maximal use conditions.1 In the study, 24 healthy volunteers applied one of four sunscreens on 75 percent of their skin, four times daily for four days. Four active ingredients were measured for blood concentration: avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule.

All four ingredients exceeded the 0.5 ng/mL threshold limit after just one day of use.

In some formulations, oxybenzone maximum plasma levels were recorded at concentrations over 200 ng/mL.

The mineral sunscreens zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have enough safety data to be designated as safe and effective by the FDA, partly due to not being absorbed through the skin and entering the bloodstream.

However, for 12 of 16 chemical sunscreen ingredients allowed for use in the United States, there is not enough data for the FDA to make similar determinations. There is particular concern about oxybenzone and its potential to affect hormone levels and cause allergic reactions.

Oxybenzone has been linked to numerous health risks, including endometriosis 2 and poor sperm quality.3 There may be a particular risk to pregnant women, because other studies report statistically significant associations between oxybenzone exposure and adverse birth outcomes, including shorter pregnancies, altered birth weights,4 and increased risk of Hirshsprung’s disease.5

A Swiss study found sunscreen ingredients, including oxybenzone, in women’s breast milk.6 At least one sunscreen chemical was detected in an astonishing 85 percent of the breast milk samples tested. And in terms of the environment, oxybenzone has also been shown to be harmful to the ocean’s coral reefs.7

Making the Best Choice

Various factors influence the type of sunscreen best suited for your needs and uses. Here are some basic guidelines to keep you healthy and sunburn free:

Look at ingredients

The most studied for clinical safety and effectiveness are the mineral sunscreens, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. You’ll find the most options at an outdoor store or a health food store. If you opt for a chemical sunscreen, then avoid oxybenzone, if possible.

Choose lotions

Although spray sunscreen options are more convenient, use a lotion-based sunscreen to reduce inhalation and lung exposure.

Consider usage

If you will be in direct sun much of the day, then a mineral sunscreen is the best bet, especially if you have a skin condition like acne, rosacea, or sensitive skin. If you will be sweating or swimming, then you will need to reapply a mineral sunscreen frequently, so you might want to consider a chemical sunscreen.

Don’t focus on SPF numbers

The SPF rating can lead to misuse and an assumption of safety. It is far more effective to apply a low SPF product properly than to rely on poor application of a high SPF product.

Apply properly

Apply a solid layer of a mineral sunscreen for optimal coverage that is effective immediately; apply a chemical sunscreen at least 20 minutes before sun exposure.

Reapply

Every sunscreen wears off, so reapply at least every two hours. This is particularly true when sweating or swimming with mineral sunscreens and with direct sun exposure with chemical sunscreens.

Don’t skip it

Any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen for protecting your skin from harmful UV rays.

Sunscreen Recommendation for Various Skin Types

Sensitive Skin

Heavy Mineral Opacity for Post-Procedure

Rosacea or Reddened Skin

For Those Going Through Chemotherapy or Radiation

Immune-Compromised Skin

Normal Skin

Extremely Dry Skin

Oily Skin

Light Skin

Dark Skin

References

  1. Matta M, Zusterzeel R, Pilli NR, et al. Effect of sunscreen application under maximal use conditions on plasma concentration of sunscreen active ingredients: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA 2019; 321(21):2082-2091.
  2. Kunisue T, Chen Z, Buck Louis G, et al. Urinary concentrations of benzophenone-type UV filters in women and their association with endometriosis. Environ Sci Tchnol 2012; 46(8):4624-4632.
  3. Louis G, Chen Z, Kim S, et al. Urinary concentrations of benzophenone-type ultraviolet light filters and semen quality. Fertil Steril 2015;104(4):989-996.
  4. Ghazipura M, McGowan R, Arslan A, Hossain T. Exposure to benzophenone-3 and reproductive toxicity: a systematic review of human and animal studies. Reprod Toxicol 2017;73:175-183.
  5. Huo W, Cai P, Chen M, et al. The relationship between prenatal exposure to BP-3 and Hirschsprung’s disease. Chemosphere 2016;144:1091-1097.
  6. Schlumpf M, Kypke K, Vokt C, et al. Endocrine active UV filters: developmental toxicity and exposure through breast milk. CHIMIA 2008;62(5):345-351.
  7. Downs C, Kramarsky-Winter E, Segal R, et al. Toxicopathological effects of the sunscreen UV filter, oxybenzone (benzophenone-3), on coral planulae and cultured primary cells and its environmental contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 2016;70(2):265-288.

About Genna Pinnick

Genna holds a degree in Biology and an accomplished Concierge Esthetician currently serving Silicon Valley's high-power female entrepreneurs. In 1990, she earned the Premiere European Esthetics Certification of CIDESCO Diplomat in International Esthetics.

Since 1990, she founded and managed her own skincare clinic, growing it through referrals, newspaper, TV and Radio appearances, and as a guest writer in the local Health & Beauty section of the newspaper.

As an early member of the NCA's Esthetics America Education & Trends Team, she offered professional development at the national, state and local level, immersing herself in advanced training from such industry greats as Erica Miller, Robert Lees, and Rebecca James Gadberry.

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Disclaimer: The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images and information, contained on or available through this web site is for general information purposes only.

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