Stay Sun-Safe: Essential Tips for Choosing and Applying Sunscreen

Woman applying sunscreen during a hike

Members of our pharmacy team share their expert advice for protecting your skin from the sun.

As we are spending more of our time outside basking in the warmer days, it’s important to be vigilant in protecting our skin from the sun. But this leads to the question, what exactly should we be looking for in sunscreen? We spoke with members of our pharmacy team, Kristen Hildebrand and Kevin Stark, to get the scoop. Pharmacists are great resources for learning how to protect and heal our bodies with products and medicines. 

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends these essentials when buying sunscreen:

  • Broad-spectrum protection. Meaning it protects against UVA and UVB rays. “UVA rays are considered aging rays while UVB are burning rays,” adds Kristen.
  • SPF 30 or higher. Kristen notes that no sunscreen can filter out 100 percent of UVB rays, which makes it important to seek shade and wear protective clothing, especially during the peak hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
  • Water resistance. When labeled as water-resistant, labels must include how long the sunscreen remains effective when swimming or sweating. It is important to note that the FDA has stated that no sunscreens are waterproof.

Types of Sunscreens

There are many different types of sunscreens to choose from, so it’s important to be aware of the different formulas available and what might be the best choice for you. “The important part is finding a sunscreen that you are going to use time and time again. Although each type lends its own uses… the key is to find one that you prefer,” says Kevin.

Physical (Mineral) Sunscreens: Physical sunscreens are not absorbed, instead they stay on top of the skin to deflect the sun’s rays. These often include ingredients such as titanium dioxide and or zinc oxide. Physical sunscreens are often a better choice for sensitive skin types, including babies or toddlers. Because physical sunscreens are not absorbed, they may not blend in as well and leave a white cast behind. However, there are many different options to try which may blend in better. 

Chemical Sunscreens: Chemical sunscreens blend into the skin without leaving a white cast. These often include ingredients such avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone. In recent years, the FDA has noted that chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the body and have been detected in the blood. However, there are no current long-term studies on the side effects of this absorption. (There have also been recent concerns with environmental exposures with these ingredients harming marine life). Also, chemical sunscreens may be more irritating to sensitive skin and can block pores compared to physical sunscreens. 

Creams are best for dry skin and applying to the face.

Gels are good for oily complexions and hairy areas.

Sticks are easy to apply around the eyes.

Sprays are popular choices, especially for applying to children, but it’s sometimes difficult to judge how much coverage is being provided, so follow the steps below:

  • Spray until the skin glistens and always rub it in to ensure complete coverage.
  • Never spray it near the face or mouth, rather spray it into your hands and apply it to those sensitive areas.
  • Never apply while near heat, open flame, or while smoking, and check which direction the wind may be blowing to help avoid accidental inhalation.

Sunscreen recommendations from our pharmacy team:

  • Neutrogena Ultra sheer dry touch sunscreen (chemical) 
  • Blue Lizard (physical/mineral sunscreen)
  • EltaMd UV Clear broad-spectrum SPF (pricier, face sunscreen) 
  • Badger unscented sunscreen, SPF 30 (physical/mineral)

Tip: If you have an Health Savings Account (HSA), Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA), or Flexible Spending Account (FSA), consider using your funds to cover your sunscreen!

Applying Sunscreen 

Once you’ve purchased your sunscreen, read the instructions on the label. You should apply sunscreen to dry skin 15 minutes before walking out the door, making sure to cover parts of skin that won’t be covered by clothing. Pay particular attention to the tops of your feet, neck, ears, the top of your head, as well as your lips. “They even make lip balm or lipsticks with SPF 30 in it,” adds Kevin. Insect repellent should be used after your sunscreen is applied.

It is recommended to apply 1 oz of sunscreen to the entire body for the best coverage and reapply after every two hours of sun exposure. If wearing a water-resistant sunscreen as mentioned above, it should be reapplied 40-80 minutes after sweating or swimming.

Don't forget your skincare routine in winter. Even during Vermont's colder months, when the sun may not feel as intense, your skin still needs protection. You can incorporate a moisturizer or foundation with SPF into your daily skincare routine to ensure year-round sun protection.

How to Know if Your Sunscreen is Expired

If you’re using your sunscreen appropriately, it shouldn’t last years. However, the FDA requires manufacturers to have their products retain original strength for at least three years. So, if you happen to have one that you bought late in the season last year, you should be fine. 

Some products may have an expiration date on them, and if that date has passed, you should invest in a new one. If your product didn’t come with an expiration date, write down the date you purchased it so that you’ll know when to throw it out. You can also judge if your sunscreen is no longer useable if it has changed in color or consistency. Storing these products in your car or in direct sunlight should be avoided as it can degrade the ingredients faster.

If you have any further questions about sunscreen, don’t hesitate to reach out to your primary care provider or dermatologist, or speak to a pharmacist.