What’s the Best Sunscreen to Protect Your Skin — and Avoid Aging?

Use a broad spectrum formula every day to protect your skin from the sun's rays
sunscreen water and sunglasses on beach blanket

Sun’s out, SPF’s out! By now you know how important it is to slather on the sunscreen if you’re going outdoors. If you aren’t using sunscreen like you should be, it’s never too late to protect your skin from the sun — especially if you want to know how to prevent your skin from aging.

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While the least amount of sun exposure is the best for your skin overall, most of us do go outside. That’s exactly why you should get in the good habit of wrapping sun protection into your daily skincare routine.

Understanding sun exposure

SPF stands for sun protection factor. To understand how sunscreen works on your skin, it helps to know more about the sun’s rays.

“Sunlight contains two types of ultraviolet (UV) light that can harm your skin — UV-A and UV-B,” says dermatologist Melissa Piliang, MD. “While UV-B causes sunburn, it’s the UV-A rays that cause aging of the skin — but both types cause skin cancer.”

The SPF number on a sunscreen bottle only tells you how well the sunscreen deflects UV-B rays. Therefore, higher SPF values are only directly correlated with increased protection against sunburn and skin cancer. Manufacturers calculate SPF based on how long it takes for skin to sunburn with the sunscreen applied compared with skin without sunscreen.

“That said, while SPF can’t tell you how much protection your sunscreen offers against aging skin from UV-A rays, it’s enough to know that any SPF value can delay the damaging and premature aging effects of sun exposure — that means any sunscreen is always better than none at all,” Dr Piliang says.

Which sunscreen is best?

“The brand of sunscreen you choose is not as important as how you use it,“ Dr. Piliang says. “And there are some best practices that will give you the protection you need to prevent damage to your skin.”

Use SPF 30 to 50 SPF

The higher the SPF, the greater the protection. If you’ve had skin cancer or a precancer, opt for SPF 45 or higher.

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Opt for formulas that prevent both UVA and UVB

“What’s equally  important for the best protection against aging – and skin cancer — is a broad spectrum sunscreen designed to protect you from both types  of damaging ultraviolet rays,” Dr. Piliang says.

Plan ahead and always carry it with you

Most people forget about sunscreen until they’re ready to hit the beach or park. Who wants to make a last minute trip back home when you’re excited for a nice day? Carry a small container with you just in case you’re outside when you least expect it in your car, bag or purse.

Apply all over and in advance

Apply a generous amount of sunscreen all over your body – use at least the amount that would fill a shot glass. Sunscreen works best if it has had time to soak in. Apply at least 15 to 30 minutes in advance of sun exposure for best protection.

“Don’t forget to put sunscreen on your face, ears, hands, arms, lips and scalp, especially if you don’t have much hair on the top of your head  — or wear a hat,” she says.

Reapply evenly and often

Your skin will soak up sunscreen product over time, reducing its effectiveness, and sweat can break it down or wash it off. 

Apply every two hours as a general rule. If you’re swimming, doing water activities or exercising and producing sweat, choose a waterproof or water-resistant sunscreen. Be aware these formulas generally last 40 to 80 minutes, so apply after each 40 minutes of activity for best protection.

Use daily under makeup

Develop the good habit of applying sunscreen under your makeup every day to prevent premature wrinkling of your skin due to sun exposure. You can also choose makeup, foundation or tinted serums with sunscreen already in them. Try to source one that has SPF 30 or higher.

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Also apply on cloudy days and all year long

“Always be sure to use sunscreen even when it’s overcast,” Dr. Piliang says, “because UV rays can pass through clouds. So get into the habit of using it every day, not just in spring or summer but in colder weather, too. The sun’s rays can be just as damaging even in colder temperatures.”

Double your protection with accessories

A wide-brimmed at goes all the way around you head is best as it protects the sides of your face, your neck and your ears. A baseball cap is better then nothing, but it protects your central face leaving the other areas vulnerable to the sun’s damaging rays.

Also remember to wear UV-resistant sunglasses to protect your eyes.

Stay out of the strongest sun

While the sun is always damaging, it’s your best bet to avoid the sun when it’s the hottest, strongest and most damaging. This is from 10 a.m. through 3 p.m. every day.

If you missed a spot and feel the burn

Try aloe or cool compresses if you notice a burn where you skipped the sunscreen. For pain relief from a sunburn, try the recommended amount of ibuprofen or acetaminophen if needed. See your doctor for any blisters that form or skin that looks white.

When it comes to the kiddos

Sunscreen is safe for anyone over 6 months old. A specific sunscreen formula for kids isn’t necessary but opt for titanium dioxide and zinc oxide formulas instead of chemical sunscreens.

“Getting into the habit of thinking about your skin may take time, but protecting yourself is worth the daily effort,” Dr. Piliang emphasizes.

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