Every summer when I was a kid the Italian side of my family would fly in from New York for a few weeks to soak up some west coast sun. They were summers that smelled of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Hawaiian Tropic Tanning Oil. Because “soaking up some west coast sun” was something they dedicated quite a bit of time to, ranged around my grandmother’s pool from 10 to 2 every day, passing around tanning oil as frequently as they passed out beer.
Thankfully, my mother had enough sense to keep me out of the sun as much as possible with my Fitzpatrick Type II skin, though even that didn’t stop me from getting a few bad – as lobster red, painful peeling skin – sun burns during my adolescence (and once in my early 20’s). It didn’t help either that I grew up at a time when the highest SPF you could find was 15, and it really was something that was used on babies because adults could get a “healthy tan”.
But getting serious about skincare, learning my Fitzpatrick skin type, and above all finding a sunscreen I could use on my face without the looming threat of cystic acne or contact dermatitis has really motivated me to do more than the bare minimum when it comes to protecting myself. Also, when you read stuff like this:
You almost always burn and rarely tan in the sun. You are highly susceptible to skin damage as well as cancers like basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. You are also at high risk for melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer.
Skin Cancer Foundation – Fitzpatrick Type II Skin
it’s a little hard to be so casual about sun protection anymore. Especially when you live in an area that routinely has a UV Index of 9 or 10, and frequently 11+ during the summer. To put that in perspective:
But making the decision to start wearing sunscreen on my body as well as my face was a lot easier than actually finding said sunscreen. Because I wanted these things out of it:
- Provides good UVA protection
- Provides an SPF of at least 30
- Is cosmetically elegant
- Is water/sweat resistant
If I was shopping for an Asian or European sunscreen this would be super easy. All I’d need to do is look PA or PPD ratings to figure out the UVA protectiveness and SPF for the UVB. Simple. Done.
Unfortunately, I am not made of money. As much as I love Asian sunscreen it simply isn’t cost effective enough for me to use all over. Because for proper protection you’ve got to use an ounce of product to cover your body adequately. Even my beloved Missha All Around Safe Block Essence Sun only comes in a 1.7oz tube, which is generously sized for an AB sunscreen. I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford $14 a day in sunscreen. Frankly European sunscreens aren’t much better.
So that leaves us with Western sunscreen, probably of the drugstore variety. Of which I literally know nothing about. Ugh.
And a quick Google search turned up another problem: a lot of US sunscreens don’t live up to the SPF claims listed on the bottle. The worst offenders seem to be sunscreens that rely on the “physical” filters zinc and titanium, or that are applied via a spray. To make it easier on myself I decided to stick to chemical filters (or a mix of chemical and physical) and lotion/cream type sunscreens.
And yes, I know the Environmental Working Group likes to shout about how awful chemical sunscreens are, and we should only use all natural, organic filters, and I’m just going to cut to the chase here because I don’t have the patience for this: it’s bullshit. You can read more about how it’s bullshit here, and here, and here (not about sunscreen, but informative about EWG).
Next, I had to familiarize myself with the chemical filters generally available on drugstore shelves.
An important note about avobenzone:
Avobenzone, introduced in the early 1990s, extended chemical sunscreen protection into the UVA1 range (340–400 nm); it is currently the best UVA1 filter available in the US. It also offers some absorption across the UVA2 range. However, it does not provide adequate UVB protection, so it must be used in combination with UVB-absorbing ingredients. Until recently, the effectiveness of avobenzone was limited by its being photounstable, degrading by over 50 percent after one hour of sun exposure. Now, it has been photostablilized by combining it with other, photostable UV filters, such as octocrylene and/or oxybenzone.21 In patented new technologies such as HelioplexTM or Active Barrier Complex, diethylhexyl 2,6-naphthalate (DEHN), an electron acceptor, is used as another stabilizer of avobenzone.
OH, AND A SUPER IMPORTANT THING YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT UVA:
Sunscreen should not be neglected on overcast days, as 70-80 percent of the sun’s rays – above all, long-spectrum UVA rays – go through clouds and fog. In addition, according to the World Health Organization, UVR levels rise by about 4 to 5 percent for every 1000 feet of altitude, and reflection from sand, water, snow or concrete magnifies their effects by up to 80 percent.
So… I probably shouldn’t have been bypassing sunscreen for a lot of this winter. Whoops.
Anyway, moving on.
So with all that in mind I opened up a spread sheet so I could easily compare filters and percentages and started hunting. After a few hours I narrowed it down to 6 different products:
- Hawaiian Tropic Island Sport Broad Spectrum SPF 30
- Hawaiian Tropic Silk Hydration Broad Spectrum SPF 30
- No-AD Broad Spectrum Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30
- No-AD Sport Active Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50
- Coppertone Ultra Guard Lotion SPF 50
- Banana Boat Protect & Hydrate Broad Spectrum SPF 50
The two Hawaiian Tropic sunscreens have the exact same percentage of chemical filters though the base is different. I’ve used them both in past and liked them; they weren’t greasy, smelled good, and I didn’t burn while wearing them. Worst case scenario I go back to using them, just consistently. Something is better than nothing, after all.
After comparing ingredients I decided on No-AD Sport Active Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 for daily wear, and Coppertone Ultra Guard Lotion SPF 50 for beach/outdoor days. Why?
The No-AD SPF 50 made Consumer Reports list of best performing sunscreens, is easily available, is water and sweat resistant, and has the best price per ounce. It contains the maximum amount of homosalate and octisalate, and almost the maximum amount of avobenzone and oxybenzone.
The Coppertone Ultra Guard SPF 50 improves on the No-AD by having the maximum amount of avobenzone and adds octocrylene in addition to homosalate, octisalate, and oxybenzone. For beach/outdoor days I want the most protection possible, and it seems like the Coppertone will provide it.
Now I just need to find an SPF lip balm. Lord, help me.