Shopping for sunscreen can be complicated. Unlike other skin care products that tend to win you over with hydrating, firming, and smoothing claims, sunscreen bottles are plastered with seemingly clinical terms like “broad spectrum” and “UV protection.” And while fixating on the sunscreen labels might give you flashbacks to your days paging through a college chemistry book, decoding the jargon on the packaging of your next SPF can be what saves you from a sunburn, breakout, or chalky complexion this summer. California-based dermatologist Marie Jhin, M.D. breaks it down.
By now, you know that the sun emits harsh rays. But what exactly do the acronyms stand for? Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. “UVA rays go deep into the skin and cause aging,” says Dr. Jhin. “UVB are the most common rays that cause sunburn.” Both, however, can cause skin cancer, she warns.
Try: Origins Dr. Andrew Well For Origins Mega-Defense Advanced Daily UV Defender Broad Spectrum SPF 45 ($41; sephora.com).
“The sun protection factor (SPF) on a sunscreen tells you how long you can stay in the sun before getting a sunburn.” Problem is, according to Dr. Jhin, the SPF value only considers how much you’re protected from UVB rays. “Broad spectrum sunscreens protect you from UVA and UVB rays.” When in doubt, reach for a sunscreen that says “broad spectrum” on the label.
Try: EltaMD UV Facial Broad-Spectrum SPF 30+ ($24; dermstore.com).
Chemical and Physical Blocks
Sunscreens are broken down into two categories: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens incorporate ingredients like oxybenzone and avobenzone into the formula to absorb rays. Physical, which are often mineral sunscreens, do exactly what it sounds like—physically block sun rays from penetrating the skin. “Instead of getting absorbed and causing sun damage, rays bounce off this protective layer.”
If you have sensitive skin, you may want to try a mineral formula to avoid breakouts. According to Dr. Jhin, some are allergic to the chemicals in chemical sunscreens. Mineral sunscreen however, should not be mistaken for natural. “The two minerals that are in physical sunscreens are titanium dioxide and zinc dioxide—which are not natural ingredients. These are chemicals that create a physical barrier [to reflect UV rays]. Additionally, if you’ve got oily skin, Dr. Jhin recommends a non-comedogenic formula. “Comedones are blackheads and whiteheads, so non-comedogenic means non-comedone-forming or non-acne-forming.”
Try: Neutrogena Clear Face Liquid Lotion Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 55 ($12; neutrogena.com).
For a chemical block: Dr. Jhin recommends La Roche-Posay Anthelios 30 Cooling Water-Lotion Sunscreen ($36; laroche-posay.us).
For a physical block: Dr. Jhin recommends Colorescience Sunforgettable Mineral Sunscreen Brush SPF 30 ($57; colorescience.com).
Now that you’re equipped with a comprehensive sunscreen glossary, Dr. Jhin leaves you with one last piece of advice. “It’s most important to apply your sunscreen of choice every day.” Let us reiterate—Every. Single. Day. No exceptions. That includes cloudy days, and even days when you plan to stay indoors from AM to PM. UV rays can penetrate your car and home windows. So, apply, reapply, and reapply often!