I spent much of this summer on a quest to find the perfect sunscreen. They are so often too sticky or stinky, thick or loaded with chemicals. But there's no doubt what an important part of our beauty routine they are. In a bid to understand why it’s so hard to find the perfect sunscreen, I called cosmetic chemist and founder of Synergie Skin, Terri Vinson, who cracked that her favourite sunscreen is "four walls and a roof". But when you have to go outside, she says she prefers wearing physical blockers by way of mineral makeup - which does make sense. But first let me explain…
You’ve probably heard about the two types of sunscreen – physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens, which contain tiny particles of the minerals Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide are still my preference. They literally form a barrier on the skin and prevent the sun from burning AND ageing you. Sunscreens that use these two ingredients tend to be much simpler and contain fewer ingredients as they naturally protect you against a broader spectrum of light. The downside is they are often thicker, and you have to make sure you’re covering every inch of your skin. Also - hands off your face. "You have to remember that this is a physical barrier, so if you think you've touched your face, you might have rubbed it off and you will need to reapply," warns Terri.
On the other hand you have your chemical sunscreens (weirdly they’re also known as organic as they are carbon based). The problem is that, to get a ‘broad spectrum’ rating, they need a lot more ingredients – including stacks of chemicals, some of which have question marks around their safety and sensitivity – including oxybenzone and avobenzone. That said, some sunscreen is always better than no sunscreen, so, while it’s not ideal, if it’s all you’ve got to hand, then it’s not going to kill you. The worry with questionable ingredients is that they build up in your system over time, so it’s more about decreasing your chemical load, rather than avoiding them completely.
The other thing you need to remember is that SPF only applies to UVB rays (the ones which burn) not UVA rays (the ones that age you and cause skin cancer). And that SPF is only an equation. "Sun Protection Factor is just a number that says how long it takes for a person to burn with the sunscreen on, divided by how long it takes the person to burn without sunscreen on," explains Terri. "For example, SPF15 means that it takes 15 times longer than a person to burn with that particular product on. But it only protects against about about 93% of the UVB rays, whereas an SPF of 60, protects you from 98%. So it’s only an extra 5% protection - not four times the protection, as you might think," says Terri, adding that people are often led into a false sense of security with SPF ratings. "You’re better off using an SPF 15 and reapplying it after a couple of hours rather than SPF 100, staying out in the sun all day, and getting melanoma."
The upshot? For the sunscreen I’m using every day, I want it contain the least amount of chemicals possible, so where possible – like Terri - I go for minerals and physical blocks. However if I’m going to be outdoors for more than an hour in the day then I’ll choose a nice, light chemical formula that suits whatever I’m doing – because it’s more likely to stay put in my skin, or be easy to apply. Here’s my round up of the best I’ve tried and what occasions they suit…
Best for: swimming or sport
When you’re going to be perspiring or getting wet you need to look for a broadspectrum, water resistant formula. Chemical formulas need to be applied to clean skin at least 20 minutes before going outside.
Best for: the family
It’s hard pinning kids down to get sunscreen on them. I find sprays or fun roll ons a good way to get them involved. Chemical are usually easier to spread but physical is better for younger babies.
Best for: daily face
If I’m not going to be in the sun for more than 10 minutes at a time I don’t wear any sunscreen (shocking, I know, but I do wear hats). For incidental exposure, I like mineral makeup or physical blocks like these...
Best for: occasional face
These are heavy duty sunscreens that I would use if I was going to the beach or going to be out in the sun all day. They contain chemical sunscreens but are generally nice, light formulations that can work well with foundation.
Best for: social occasions
These are the nice-smelling, beautifully packaged sunscreens that you’ll enjoy pulling out of your handbag. Perfect for brandishing at a barbecue or arranging in a flat lay by the pool.