Sun-Care 101: A Skin-First Guide to SPF & Sun Protection
Hyperpigmentation and the sun
Every kind of light can be measured on the electromagnetic spectrum. with visible light landing between ultraviolet (UV) and infrared. As the Skin Cancer Foundation states, when it comes to the electromagnetic spectrum, “UV light has shorter wavelengths than visible light, so your eyes can’t see UV, but your skin can feel it.” There are two types of UV light: UVA, which has a longer wavelength, can age the skin prematurely via wrinkles and hyperpigmentation, and UBV has a shorter wavelength and is associated with sunburns. Too much of both can contribute to more severe health risks, such as skin cancer.
While sun spots are essentially harmless, it’s important to know what they are. To put it plainly, hyperpigmentation is when small areas of the skin can become darker than the rest of the skin. It can affect anyone regardless of skin color or ethnicity, and can be caused by anything from post-acne scarring, hormonal changes such as pregnancy, medication, trauma to the skin, and, of course, the sun. When skin is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, it triggers the production of melanin as a means to protect it. According to the Mayo Clinic, this process can result in an “uneven increase in melanin production, which produces irregular coloring (pigmentation) of the skin.” Yes, those spots are your skin’s way of defending itself.
There are specific types of hyperpigmentation that happen in areas where the sun hits the skin, such as freckles or sun spots (also called liver spots, age spots, or solar lentigines). The difference between the two? Freckles (which are associated with youth since a lot of people get them from playing outside during childhood) usually are more noticeable in the summer and disappear or fade during colder seasons and over time. Sun spots, which are similar to freckles in that they are brown and flat, but larger in size, don’t fade, and can stick around as you age. Now, if something does look off, it’s important to get your skin examined by a board-certified dermatologist (yearly skin checks are always a good idea!).
The deal with SPF
Because the right amount of sun can do a whole lot of good for our health due to the vitamin D factor, some say not to spend no more than 10 to 15 minutes in the sun before putting on sun protection. The AAD, however, recommends that you instead get your vitamin D from foods that are naturally rich in the nutrient (fatty fish like salmon and tuna is good, as well as egg yolks and some mushrooms), or vitamin D supplements. After all, overexposure can put a person at risk for sunburns and heat rash, for the short term, and premature skin aging and cancer for the long term. Additionally, having five or more sunburns actually doubles your risk for melanoma.
According to the CDC, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, with 1 in 5 Americans developing it by the age of 70. Certain factors, such as where you live, family health history, skin color, among others, can also have an effect on the amount of UV exposure you get. No matter what, the best way to protect yourself is with a good defense: an adequate SPF and other forms of UV protection.
How to choose a sunscreen
When it comes to sun protection, you have many options. First, there are the two types: chemical and mineral (or physical). It’s interesting to point out that while we use the terms interchangeably, sunscreens and sunblock actually refer to the different ways these two work.
Chemical sunscreens absorb the UV rays before they’re able to penetrate the skin, and have to be applied about 20-30 minutes before going into the sun.
Mineral sunblocks actually block and scatter the rays before they get into the skin, and offer protection immediately (like a shield). You can also tell which is which by their ingredients. Many chemical sunscreens can contain oxybenzone, avobenzone, octocrylene, octisalate, homosalate, or octinoxate.
Note: Studies in recent years have raised concerns about homosalate, avobenzone and oxybenzone causing hormone disruption. Meanwhile, mineral sunblocks contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. There are many types of SPF that contain both types of ingredients.
Another emerging concern is the ecological impact certain chemicals found in sunscreens have on marine environments like coral reefs. While many sunscreen brands have adopted the term “reef-friendly,” it isn’t regulated. According to Save the Reef, the best way to know if a sunscreen is safe for reefs is to check the ingredients. Oxybenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octocrylene, 4-methylbenzylidene, camphor, parabens, PABA, and triclosan have all been determined to be harmful to coral reefs, as well as nanoparticles or “nano-sized” zinc or titanium, and microplastic, such as “exfoliating beads.” Some sunscreen brands that have reef-friendly products include Suntegrity, Sun Bum, Beautycounter, Mad Hippie, and EiR.
Another thing to look out for is the term “broad spectrum.” You’ll want to choose this as it protects against both UVA and UVB rays (back in the day most sunscreens only protected against UVB rays. And then there’s the actual SPF number. SPF stands for sun protection factor, and correlates to the level of UVB protection. SPFs can go upwards of 100, and while common sense might point to the higher number being the better, dermatologists usually recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF 30 as being sufficient enough. It’s just important to choose one that has broad spectrum protection and is water resistant, and to apply it properly, reapplying when necessary.
How to incorporate SPF in your beauty routine
One thing’s for sure, not everyone has the same skincare routine. But the one thing that we should all have is a good SPF. When it comes to chemical versus mineral, it’s a matter of what you prefer. Chemicals tend to be easier to apply, and soak into the skin easier without leaving residue. Mineral sunscreens can sometimes take longer to rub into the skin, but tend to be a better choice for those with sensitive or acneic skin. There are also different forms of delivery, ranging from gels, sprays, lotions, solid sticks, and powders. Again, it all comes down to personal preference. The AAD says cream sunscreens are good for people with dry skin, while gels work for hairy areas.
SPF sprays can be helpful for quickly covering a whole area of your body at once, but they're not recommended for the face due to the potential of inhaling small particles, according to EWG and Goop. Some people like to use mineral sunscreen as a sort of touch-up, especially on the face. Overall, use about an ounce, or the equivalent of a shot glass. Add extra protection by wearing lightweight, long-sleeve clothing, UV protective sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat. The most important thing about sunscreen? Choose one that you’ll find easy enough to use every single day.
It’s easy to incorporate SPF into your own OPTE routine. It’ll be your third step, after using the Brightening Concentrate and Optimizing Peptide Moisturizer, and before the final step where you use the OPTE Precision Skincare System. (Just make sure to let your SPF sink in for a few minutes before using your OPTE!)