Sunscreen featured image with floating umbrellas
Albinism,  Beach & Sun,  Everyday Life,  Hair & Beauty

Sunscreen: How to Choose the Right Sunscreen & Apply It Properly

One of the most obvious aspects of albinism is having little to no pigment in the skin. Pigment normally protects the body from some of the harmful UVA/UVB rays. That’s not to say that people with darker skin should not use sun protection, but it means that those of us with albinism need to be much more careful than people with an average amount of pigment.

In this post, I’m going to share with you my tips and tricks for choosing and applying sunscreen. I’ve done quite a lot of research for this post and will be providing links to some resources here. I’ve learned a lot about my own personal choices in sunscreen and application, and I will be sharing those below.

Also, I have placed a list of reliable and helpful resources at the end of this article if you’d like to learn more.

Do Not Rely on Sunscreen Alone

I have personally had the best experiences when I’ve spent my time outside in the shade or brought my own shade, especially at the beach where shade is often lacking. I recommend a combinations of hats, UPF clothing, a long sleeve rash guard, and generally utilizing shade whenever possible. Not only are those UVA and UVB rays harmful, the bright sun is exhausting for those of us with fair skin and photophobia. Shade and cover really make spending time outdoors more manageable and more fun. I’ll have another post out soon about my recommendations for making the beach more enjoyable. It’ll be linked here when it’s finished.

Choosing a Sunscreen

I have been asked so many times if I recommend a specific sunscreen. I do not. I recommend whatever sunscreen you feel comfortable in that you will keep using. You don’t want to pick a sunscreen that feels too sticky or too creamy or that smells unpleasant, but below I will be outlining some other factors that will help you choose the right sunscreen for you and your family.

Say Yes to Broad Spectrum

UVA and UVB rays are both harmful, but they affect the body in slightly different ways. Generally, UVA rays are responsible for sunburn while UVB rays cause aging, wrinkles, and other types of photoaging. Both UVA and UVB rays contribute to the formation of skin cancer.

Not all sunscreens protect from both UVA and UVB rays, so be sure to check the label of any sunscreen you plan to use for the words “broad spectrum.”

Does SPF Matter?

Does SPF matter? The short answer is no. You do not need to spend twice the money on a 100 SPF sunscreen when a 50 SPF will work just as well. You’re going to reapply them every hour or two regardless of the SPF, so 30 – 50 SPF is sufficient. More on reapplying later.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has an article highlighting why sunscreens with SPF higher than 50-60 can actually be harmful for consumers. I highly recommend you read this one. The FDA has been attempting to place a ban on products with an SPF over 60 for the reasons listed in this article. Find the article here.

Cream versus Spray

Two bottles of sunscreen, one cream and one spray, on a wooden deck

Sunscreens come in many forms including creams, sprays, and solid sticks. There are definitely pros and cons to each, so this decision will be a personal one.

Creams will absolutely give you full coverage that you can trust. Sprays may seem like the convenient choice, but if you have wiggly children, taking the time to rub in a cream may insure a more thorough coating of sun protection.

With sprays, there is a margin of error in the application process. I am extra thorough when I use these, but my beach companions and I have certainly missed spots resulting in random splotches of sunburn. I know sprays seem easier and quicker if you have children, but there are important considerations here. Wiggly children make for an uneven spraying application. Also, this stuff is not edible and absolutely burns if you get it in your eyes. The EWG and the FDA believe these sprays should be more strongly regulated for safety. Those regulations have been delayed due to current events (Covid-19).

FDA-Proposes-Suncreen-Regulation-Changes-Infographic

I do find sprays most useful for areas like my scalp, where rubbing in a cream would be challenging, but I absolutely always prefer a cream or stick for my face.

The one type of sunscreen that all groups seem to find ineffective is powder sunscreen. This includes sun protection found in powder foundations as well.

Chemical versus Mineral

Chemical sunscreens are so prevalent in the US market. They’re the easiest to find, but in recent years, brands have been adding mineral sunscreens or products with a combination of mineral and chemical ingredients to their product lineup.

Chemical sunscreens are typically cheaper and easier to find. These are also less likely to leave a white caste than mineral sunscreen ingredients.

Several of these chemical sun protection ingredients can be absorbed into the bloodstream and may be hormone disruptors, which have been found to cause a myriad of issues in recent years. More research needs to be done on many of these ingredients to see if absorption amounts are harmful, but chemical sunscreen ingredients that have been found to be hormone disruptors include: oxybenzone, octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate), and homosalate.

For more detailed information on this topic and a listing and categorization of sunscreen ingredients, check out this article by the EWG.

Applying Sunscreen Properly

Use plenty! I know sunscreen can be expensive (especially the good stuff), but this is the time to be better safe than sorry. Be sure to thoroughly coat all exposed skin in sunscreen. On average, you’ll need at least an ounce (a shot glass full) of sunscreen to cover the average adult or child from head to toe according to the FDA.

Apply before you get in the sun. It’s important to apply sunscreens before you get out in the sun especially for little ones. Children are excitable especially when play is involved, so it’s important to get that thorough coat of sunscreen on while they’re still (if that ever happens). The sunscreen also needs a few minutes to dry in place before playing, sweating, or jumping in the water.

Reapply every hour or two that you spend in the sun, whether that time is direct or indirect. Sunscreen only offers protection for so long. It can also shift on the skin as you move, sweat, or swim.

Let the sunscreen dry fully before jumping into the water. I mentioned this one already, but it is worth repeating. Both chemical and mineral sunscreens need time to dry down. Until they’re dry, they won’t be as effective, because they can shift around and be rinsed off with sweat and water.

Apply under the edges of clothing. Clothing shifts, especially if you’re outside being acting or playing in the water, so it is important to lift the edges of clothing and apply underneath them.

Don’t forget to cover your scalp and ears. These are such important areas to cover, because they’re so easy to forget! If you’ve ever had sunburn on your scalp or ears, you understand what I mean. It seems to hurt more than other places, and the skin in these areas is thinner. Ears, scalp, and face are also three of the most common areas where skin cancer is found.

Cover areas even if they’re shaded by a hat or other clothing. This is important because sunlight reflects off sand, water, asphalt, and some other ground surfaces and can burn those areas of your face and body that appear to be shaded.

Reapply!

This tip needs its own heading because so many people either don’t know or forget that you need to reapply sunscreen throughout the day for it to be effective. If you’re spending lots of time in the sun, reapply every two hours or sooner if you’re active, sweating, or swimming. Reapply after you get out of the water as well.

Replace Sunscreen Every Year

The ingredients in sunscreen become less effective over time, so it is absolutely important to heed those expiration dates. I know some sunscreens are expensive, but this is an important one. What is the point in wearing sunscreen if it is ineffective? Get a new bottle.

Resources

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – “Sunscreen: How to Help Protect Your Skin from the Sun”

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) – “2020 Guide to Sunscreen”

The EWG – “What’s Wrong with Higher SPF”

The EWG – “The Trouble with Sunscreen Chemicals”

The EWG’s approved list of sunscreens.

Conclusion

We are learning new things every day about ingredients in sunscreens and how they may or may not affect the body and our environment in the long term, so this article is just the beginning. Be sure to check back on the resources listed above as they are updated each year as things change and more study results come out.

Stay safe and don’t forget to also have a good time.

Stay curious.

I have Albinism and am legally blind. I have a Master's degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I'm currently pursuing my passion of writing through this blog and for the Albinism InSight magazine.

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