If you’re still using sunscreen the way you did two years ago, you could be at risk. New research shows that the type of SPF you choose, and the way you apply it, impacts your protection and ultimately your skin.
1. Antioxidants are essential, not optional
Scientists have long known that free radicals — those evil molecules that damage your skin’s DNA — are produced by UV rays, pollution and cigarette smoke. But now research is showing that certain sunscreens may be to blame as well. A US study found that zinc oxide (one of the most common and effective sunscreen ingredients) undergoes a chemical reaction that may produce free radicals when exposed to sunlight.
But don’t toss your supply just yet. “Any free radicals generated by zinc oxide are going to be less dangerous than those generated by UV exposure,” says WH skin specialist and dermatologist Dr Dagmar Whitaker.
To get the most insurance, slather on an antioxidant serum every morning before your sunscreen. Look for ingredients like vitamin C, green tea and resveratrol, which may help shield the skin from free radicals. Or you could multi-task with a sunscreen with built-in antioxidants like Afari Protecting Day Cream SPF 30.
2. Two coats it the new one coat
For proper protection, you need to apply about 30g of sunscreen from head to toe — picture the amount in a shot glass. But this summer, make it a double. So, while 30g is the recommended amount you should be using for total body application, sadly nobody ever uses this much, says Whitaker. “The problem is that your sun protection declines dramatically if you use less – so applying repeatedly helps,” she explains. (We know this might feel like a chore, but it’s the best thing you can do to stay safe… unless you plan to hang out indoors with the curtains closed all summer).
To ensure you hit every last spot, start on the right side of your body — arms, shoulders, legs etc — then move to the left side, zeroing in on your chest, stomach and back along the way. Once that’s done, go back to the right side and repeat the process. Then take a much-deserved rest on your sun lounger.
3. Your sunscreen should be empty before the expiration date
If you wouldn’t drink expired milk, you shouldn’t hang on to sunscreen from three summers ago. The stuff has an expiration date printed on the bottle for a reason: after that time, there’s no guarantee it’ll do what it says on the label. While sunscreens are usually good for a year, they should be long gone before then. “If you still have sunscreen from last year, you’re not using enough,” says Whitaker. Think about it: if you’re using the proper 30g per application, plus another 30g every two hours when you reapply, a standard-sized tube should disappear in a weekend, not a year (crazy but true!). What’s more, the way we use and abuse our tubes can cause the goop inside to deteriorate faster. Sunscreen can break down and separate over time, says Whitaker, who recommends storing it in your bathroom cupboard as “any cream will separate if kept in the car or exposed to temperatures of over 40 degrees.” If you’re in the sun, make sure your SPF is in the shade. Otherwise you run the risk of speeding up its degradation — and threatening your protection.
4. Nothing is truly waterproof
Or sweat-proof. Your cream should state that it is “water-resistant” for 40 to 80 minutes — the amount of time a particular sunscreen has been tested and proven to offer protection in the water. Also consider this: after taking a quick dip, resist the urge to towel off. “The combination of being in the water and drying yourself afterwards can really take off the sunscreen,” says Dr Mary Lupo, a professor in dermatology. “Let the water bead up and evaporate instead. You’ll cool yourself off and preserve the sunscreen longer.” A good SPF for water-based activities is the Island Tribe Clear Gel range (available at Clicks).
5. Anything under SPF 15 is pointless
If you’ve ever used a wimpy tube of SPF 10, thinking, Hey, at least I’m doing something, you’re fooling yourself. Anything lower than SPF 15 can’t claim to be broad-spectrum, which means it’s offering protection only against UVB rays — the ones that burn. Low-SPF screens provide little to no shield against UVA rays, which are the insidious causes of skin cancer and premature ageing. “The cornerstone of anti-ageing is sun protection and you need protection from UVA rays, which cause up to 90 percent of skin ageing,” says Dr Angelike Galdi, head chemist and assistant vice-president of research and innovation for Kiehl’s.
So with the right measures, you won’t be looking for a miracle cream to reverse damage later on, she adds. “SPF lower than 15 gives a false sense of security. People may not be burning because of the UVB protection, so they think they can stay out longer,” says Lupo. “But then they’re just spending more time getting intense UVA exposure.” Another reason UVA protection is crucial: “UVA decreases the activity of your T cells, which are the skin’s immune system,” says Lupo. “So not only are you introducing DNA damage, you’re also crippling your skin’s ability to fight that damage before it turns into skin cancer.”
READ MORE: 6 Ways To Soothe That REALLY Painful Sunburn
6. SPF benefits from the buddy system
Wearing sunscreen is a must (duh), but it’s just the beginning. “Sunscreen is never enough on intensely sunny days,” says US-based dermatologist Dr Ellen Marmur. To shield yourself thoroughly, she suggests wearing a non-woven wide- brim hat, sunglasses labelled with UVA and UVB protection (“The bigger, the better!” says Marmur) and a UV-protective rash-guard swim shirt over your bathing suit (it’s estimated that a typical suit — without UV protection — has an SPF of around five when wet). And stay inside during midday hours.
“You can also pop an antioxidant pill. I take capsules twice a day when I’m going to be out in the sun for a long time,” says Lupo. “It’s an oral antioxidant that seems to lessen free radical damage from UV exposure.”