What Does SPF Mean? A Crash Course in Sunscreen and Sun Safety

Applying SPF on your face and body, as well as under makeup, should be a ritual you don’t have to think twice about every morning, but with the abundance of options out there, sometimes deciding what SPF is right for you is tricky. Ahead, we broke down exactly how different types of sunscreen work and included some of our favorites to try. Keep reading to learn more about your everyday SPF

How Does Sunscreen Work?

Sunscreen is one of the most important — if not the most important —  skin-care product you’ll ever have in your arsenal. Choosing one with broad-spectrum protection and an SPF of at least 30 can help reduce the appearance of early skin aging caused by the sun’s harmful UV rays, as well as reduce the risk of skin cancer. Speaking of skin cancer, did you know that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime? With an incredibly high probability like that, why wouldn’t you apply (and reapply) sunscreen day in and day out? Just be sure to check the expiration date on the label — according to the Mayo Clinic, most sunscreens are formulated to perform for up to three years.

UV Rays 101

While warm sun rays may feel good on your skin, they’re actually doing way more harm than good — especially if you’re not wearing sunscreen. From wrinkles and sunspots to more serious consequences like skin cancer, the side effects of UV rays are nothing to joke about, which is why you should be wearing sunscreen. Every. Single. Day. Even on cloudy days, when the sun feels like it’s taking a break, it still has the potential to do major damage. 

What Does SPF Mean?

SPF — which stands for Sun Protection Factor — is based on time. That means that the SPF number you see on your sunscreen is a measure of how long your skin can be in direct sunlight without beginning to get red or getting a sunburn. Another important thing to know about SPF is that it measures UVB rays — the type that burn the skin — but the sun also emits UVA rays, which can be equally as dangerous. When it comes to protecting your skin, cover your bases and go with a broad-spectrum SPF-packed sunscreen like the Skinceuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50 that will protect against both UVB and UVA rays. 


There Are Chemical and Physical Sunscreens

Sun protection comes in two main forms: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreen (also known as mineral sunscreen) contains active mineral ingredients like zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. These two ingredients offer broad-spectrum coverage against both UVA and UVB rays. Chemical sunscreen contains organic (carbon-based) active ingredients, such as octocrylene and avobenzone, which absorb UV light. For example, the La Roche-Posay Anthelios Zinc Oxide Sunscreen SPF 50 and the Coola Mineral Body Sunscreen Spray are both physical sunscreen formulas, while the TK TK are chemical versions. 

How Much Sunscreen Do I Need to Use?

Has your sunscreen bottle lasted you for years and years? There’s a good chance you’re not applying the recommended amount. You’ll want to apply at least one ounce — enough to fill up a shot glass — to cover all exposed parts of the body. Reapply at least every two hours, especially if you plan to sweat excessively or go for a dip. If you anticipate a day spent at the beach or pool, it’s a good idea to reach for water-resistant sunscreen. Water-resistant means that the sunscreen is maintained for up to 40 or 80 minutes while swimming or sweating.

Should I Use a Spray Sunscreen or a Lotion?

With a plethora of sunscreen options on the market, it can seem daunting to pick the best formula type for you. Here’s a good guide to follow:

Creams: If you have dry skin, you might have a better experience with a cream-based sunscreen like the Kiehl’s Ultra Light Daily Defense SPF 50.

Lotions: Lotions are great for use on larger areas of skin. They also tend to be thinner and less greasy compared to creams. Our go-to lotion is the La Roche-Posay Anthelios Melt in Sunscreen Milk. 

Gels: Gels are great for hairy and delicate areas. Try Glossier Invisible Shield.

Sticks: For the skin around your eyes, a sunscreen in stick-form like the CeraVe Sunscreen Stick SPF 50 can be useful. 

Sprays: For hard-to-reach areas, a spray sunscreen can make application easier. A good way to ensure you’ve covered every spot is by applying sunscreen with a cream or lotion-based formula, and following up with a spray like the Coola Sport Continuous Spray SPF 30 as a backup.   

Read More:

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6 Must-Have Products for Acne-Prone Skin

The Best Pore-Minimizing Skin-Care Products, Hands Down


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