Do We Really Need Sunscreen?

Antica Farmacista - Hana Lei

We deep dive into the science behind sunscreen. For our fave products can be found at the bottom.


As we get ready to celebrate the birth of a nation, something that becomes glaringly more - well, more glaring - is the sun. Starting June 21st, the Northern Hemisphere experiences summer where we are titled closer to the sun. This means that our skin is even more exposed to UV (ultraviolet) rays than other times of the year.

Summer is often the trigger to most of us being a little more diligent with our SPF but UV exposure happens all year round.

Let’s start at the beginning: SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and is a formula used to denote how strongly and for how long you’ll be protected. The number associated with the SPF (15, 30, etc) denotes how long it will protect you from UV rays burning your skin depending on how you regularly burn (the fairer you are the quicker you burn). Additionally, a higher SPF does not mean that you get more protection but that you just get it for longer. In fact, SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays and SPF 100 will block out 99%.

Phew, well the main takeaway becomes: have at least an SPF 50 and use a teaspoon amount for every body part (including the face).

Unfortunately, this means that your foundation/tinted moisturizer is probably not giving you the coverage you need to actually protect your skin from the sun’s rays - sorry not sorry. The reason is that most face makeup has a low SPF (15 is the most common) and you’re not using enough of it to fight the damage.


Physical v. Chemical

(also known as Mineral v. Synthetic)

There are two types of sun protection, which is determined by the way that they protect from UV rays. First, let’s take a moment to discuss the difference between UV rays. As mentioned above, the SPF strength is applicable to protection against UVB rays.

UVB rays affect the outermost layer of skin and causes the burning you might experience. UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and are responsible for wrinkling and discoloration.

Since UVA rays penetrate deeper, the damage they inflict is often unseen until later in life, when the skin layers have been regenerated and lower layers have been pushed to the top. This is why sunscreens tabled as broad spectrum are the best for protecting against both UV types.

But how do these sunscreens work?

Physical (aka mineral) sunscreens sit on top of the skin and block UV rays from being absorbed. The active sunscreen ingredients in these are titanium dioxide and/or zinc dioxide. Since these sit on top of the skin, they often leave a white cast on the skin. While this is less than ideal it is even more unflattering for those with darker skin tones as it may cause the skin to look ashen.

Chemical (aka synthetic) sunscreens are absorbed into the skin and, in turn, absorb the UV rays to convert them to heat in the body. The active ingredients in these are avobenzone, octinoxate, and/or oxybenzone. There are a few concerns for these sunscreens currently in debate.

What about safety (and the reefs)?

Chemical sunscreens have been in the news lately for certain issues.

One of these is the concern that the FDA has not been able to confirm the safety of these ingredients being absorbing into the skin (since anything absorbed through the skin ends up in the bloodstream to some extent). The FDA published a report in May of this year talking about these uncertainties and how they will continue to research the data. Now they did not confirm that these sunscreens were bad necessarily but just that they aren’t sure of the effects of prolonged absorption.

The other big issue around some of these sunscreens is their destruction to the coral reef systems. Coral reefs are living organisms that have also been absorbing the sunscreens as they rinse off human bodies during a swim. This has led to the reefs becoming bleached and dying out - leading to a disruption in the oceanic ecosystem and, in turn, our world’s ecosystem, say scientists. The ingredients that have been proven to affect the reef systems most are octinoxate and oxybenzone.

So if you want to err on the side of caution, opt for mineral sunscreens. Many brands have heard the call and are working on formulas to prevent the white cast on skin.


Apply some of our faves and then reapply!

So while you’re brunchin’ al fresco or flirting with your newest summer fling, remember to pack the SPF.

Cover photo by Brooke Cagle.

The Honest Company