Much like consuming Brussels sprouts and completing my homework in a perfunctory manner, I had a strong aversion to sunscreen growing up. This may be in part thanks to the heavy hand my mother used when she slathered the stuff onto every square inch of my body. Picture this: a small, freckled human in a long-sleeved rash vest and a hat with a neck flap covered in a very visible layer of (probably Banana Boat) SPF 50+ sunscreen, cutting doughnuts on the sand. Very *cool guy emoji*, no?
I hated the smell of sunscreen, I hated the feeling of it on my salty skin, and I hated the bright, ugly bottles from whence it came. I wanted to be tan like the surfer girls from Blue Crush, whose pictures adorned my bedroom walls. I didn’t want to be a slave to no bottle, damnit!
Once I had (heartbrokenly) accepted that my skin was, in fact, prone to freckling and near-third degree burns, and that surfing for hours on end in the blistering summer sun did not sit will with my chalky epidermis, I started to warm to the idea of sunscreen. This acceptance was further fuelled by my pale-skinned on-screen crushes (Rose McGowan, Cate Blanchett, and Drew Barrymore, mainly), and was all but cemented once I entered my emo phase (whereby the pursuit of an anaemic glow kept me indoors and out of the sun for two entire summers). When I wasn’t indoors apathetically writing in my diary, blaring My Chemical Romance to piss my mum/the neighbourhood off, or musing about all the ways in which no one understood me, you can bet I was outside covered head-to-toe in an all-black ensemble and a (banana) boatload of sunblock. Despite all the shameful photos this era spawned, I’m still grateful that it kick-started my appreciation for sun safety.
Nowadays, I’d go so far as to say that I love sunscreen. I eagerly slather it on myself on a daily basis. The search for the perfect sunscreen has superseded my quest to find my mascara soul mate. The fact that we need to wear sunscreen daily—rain, hail, or shine—isn’t revelatory information, but with an increasing amount of sunscreens (both chemical and physical) on offer, the sojourn towards optimum sun safety has become an intimidating one. As such, I enlisted the help of natural skin expert Richie Angelo to help me find out what type of sunscreen is best for each skin type. No matter whether you’re still in your emo phase, spend your downtime inside watching Netflix, or work outdoors and relax by sprawling out on Bondi beach, this is what you should be looking for the next time you reach for the bottle.
Why do I need protection?
Routinely being outdoors without sunscreen causes premature ageing, wrinkles, solar keratosis (little dry crusts on the surface of the skin), uneven skin tone, pigmentation, and, worst of all, skin cancer. According to Richie, “Prolonged exposure to UV causes the skin to age prematurely because of the constant and repeated cell damage at a deep level from UVA.” While the damage from UVA rays “may not show up instantly,” it will definitely getcha later on in life.
The two types of sunscreen
Next up, let’s nut out the difference between physical and chemical sunscreen. According to Richie, a physical sunscreen is one that “reflects light/UV rays and has mineral-based ingredients, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.” Conversely, a chemical sunscreen “absorbs and neutralises UV rays and has ingredients such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, and methoxycinnamate.” While she personally prefers a physical sunblock (especially for the face), both are fine to use so long as “they are water resistant and broad spectrum (protecting your skin from both UVA and UVB rays).”
Which one is right for me, tho?
Both are perfectly safe and effective options, but there are pros and cons for each. Physical sunscreens are great—they block both UVA and UVB rays, and are less likely to irritate skin, being mineral-based. However, they also tend to have a thicker consistency, meaning they can clog pores (and are notoriously hard to cleanse and remove). While physical sunscreens leave a nasty white residue, there’s a plethora of chemical sunscreens on the market, each with differing textures. Chemical sunscreens also help us absorb vitamin D as they allow the sun’s rays to make physical contact with our skin. The downside is that, being made up of mostly synthetic ingredients, they tend to irritate certain skin types. Another thing to keep in mind is that there is no wait time between applying physical sunscreen and safely going out in the sun, whereas it takes about 20 minutes for a chemical sunscreen to start working. If your skin is sensitive or fair, Richie highly recommends a physical sunscreen—one that’s high in SPF. If you’ve been blessed with an olive or dark complexion, opt for a chemical sunscreen, especially on your face, neck, décolletage, and hands, as “complexions like these are more prone to pigmentation.”
What’s the difference between UVA and UVB rays?
UVA rays penetrate the skin at a deeper level than UVB rays, and are the main culprits in skin photoaging. Richie goes deep on explaining the differences in a language we can understand using the metaphor of a mattress: “If you think of our skin as a bed or mattress, UVA radiates down to the springs, and damages the skin cells on this level. That’s why sun damage of the skin shows up much later in life, as it takes time for these damaged cells to show up. UVB rays are the baddies that burn our skin and cause it go red and tan. UVB radiates on the blanket level of the bed. It plays a big role in the development of skin cancer, and also in premature ageing.”
What really is SPF, and what number should I be going for?
SPF stands for “sun protective factor.” In winter, Richie recommends using (at the very least) SPF 15+ and 30+ if you’re hitting the slopes. In summer, you should be using at least SPF 30+ and, optimally, SPF 50+.
Words, Madeleine Woon. Photography, Ellen Virgona.