Sunscreen 411: How To Decode What’s On Your Bottle

Can you trust your sunscreen? Here’s how to find the option that’s right for you

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Here is your guide to finding the perfect sun protection with these sunscreen facts inline

Are you wearing the sunscreen that’s right for you? (Photo: Erik Putz)

It’s no great secret that sunscreen is one of the hardest-working products in our beauty arsenal, protecting us from skin damage as well as wrinkles, dark spots, sagginess and other signs of aging. But for some mysterious reason, many of us still skimp on SPF or skip it altogether.

Let’s all resolve that this is the summer we faithfully practice safe skincare. Here’s how to decode what exactly the label on your bottle of sunscreen is saying and how to find the option that’s right for you.

The Lingo: Broad Spectrum

The Lowdown: The sun emits a spectrum of harmful radiation, and each filter in a product protects you against a specific part of that range. Some defend against UVB (sunburn-causing rays) and others against UVA (skin-aging rays). To keep you covered, the majority of sunscreens mix multiple filters. According to Dr. Sonya Cook of Toronto’s Compass Dermatology, a consulting dermatologist for La Roche-Posay, “The ideal sunscreen will contain either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and some of the organic filters.” Instead of trying to calculate which combo you want (there’s no quick method), look for broad spectrum. To get away with putting that term on its packaging, a product must sufficiently protect against both UVB and UVA.

The Lingo: SPF 15 (or 30, or 85)

The Lowdown: The number here reveals how long the product will delay a sunburn — so if your bare skin normally scorches after 10 minutes, multiply that by the number on your SPF (10 minutes x SPF 15 means 150 minutes without burning). The Canadian Dermatology Association endorses SPF 30 as the minimum, but “most of the time we recommend SPF 50+,” says Dr. Miriam Hakim, a dermatologist at Victoria Park Medispa in Montreal. The catch: You get the protection only if you use sufficient sunscreen, which is roughly a teaspoonful on your face and a full ounce on your body. “Most people use half the dose they’re supposed to,” Hakim says. It’s also why the SPF in your foundation isn’t enough to save your skin — you’re not slathering on that much makeup.

The Lingo: 100% Mineral Filters

The Lowdown: Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide — the two minerals in sunscreen — work by forming a layer of protection, deflecting UV light. “They just sit on the surface of the skin and really have no irritation potential,” says Cook. The only downside? If not made well, mineral sunscreens can feel pasty and look opaque. But the quality ones are often made with micronized minerals for stealthier protection. The lack of possible irritation makes these filters ideal for children and people with sensitive skin or rosacea.

The Lingo: Organic or Chemical Filters

The Lowdown: If your sunscreen doesn’t name- check titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, the SPF comes from organic or chemical filters, which work by absorbing UV energy and converting it into heat. There are 17 more of these filters approved in Canada. Although the word chemical has developed a negative connotation, Cook says that “all the organic filters we now have on the market have been proven to be very safe.” Chemical sunscreens tend to beat mineral ones when it comes to texture: The filters allow the sunscreen to be thinner and lighter, easier to spread and invisible once applied.

The Lingo: Sunblock

The Lowdown: Actually, you shouldn’t see “sunblock” in stores anymore. That’s because Health Canada considers the term misleading, since no sunscreen is 100 percent effective; you’ll still get skin damage if you soak up the rays. Likewise, the word waterproof is off limits, because a sunscreen at best can be only water-resistant, and only for a little while. If you’re sweating or swimming, reapply after 40 or 80 minutes (check the label). And no matter which sunscreen you pick, Cook suggests that it shouldn’t be your first line of defence: As much as possible, cover up with clothes, duck into the shade and minimize your time outside when the UV index hits 3 or higher.

Below, 12 mighty sunscreen lotions to apply every. single. day.

Related:
Lightweight Foundations & Concealers That Are Perfect For Hot Summer Days
16 Beauty Products That’ll Keep You Cooler Than Cool All Summer
Don’t Forget to Slap Sunscreen on These Commonly Missed Spots

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