What to look for in a sunscreen

Safe to say it’s slowly summer now! Time to whip out your sunscreen and you’re good to go.

Or are you?

consumer reports sunscreen 2016
Among mineral sunscreens, only 26% met their SPF claims.

US American non-profit organization Consumer Reports has recently published their findings on sunscreens. After testing more than 60 different sun protection products from sprays, lotions to creams and sticks, only about 43% turned out to actually offer the levels of SPF protection as claimed on the labels!

Sunscreens predominantly based on mineral sunscreens furthermore fared considerably worse than those using chemical filters. For the individual sunscreen ratings, click here.

Unfortunately, that’s not even half the story

So the findings of these tests in themselves give a bleak outlook on commercial sunscreens indeed. But you know what’s worse? SPF, or sun protection factor, isn’t even all there is to safe sun protection.

You remember my post on proper sun protection from last year, specifically the part about how you should use at least 1/2 teaspoon sunscreen for the whole face including neck? Well, that part is actually pretty important.

The amount of sunscreen applied is essential when it comes to meeting the level of SPF as claimed on the label. In fact, your sunscreen may protect you considerably less than what you are thinking just because you might not have applied enough. Since you’d be by far not the only one, however, experts have even begun discussing whether SPF claims shouldn’t be corrected to finally factor this in. After all, recommendations to re-apply sunscreens every few hours still stand not because modern sun filters are still unstable upon exposure to light. They are administered because consumers still apply far too little in the first place!

Bottomline: just because it says SPF 50+ on the label doesn’t mean that’s what you’re getting – one way or the other. Besides, sunscreens that shield your skin from harmful UV rays at 100% don’t exist anyway, so don’t let high SPFs lull you into false security!

And then what about UVA protection?

Oh yes, and then there’s UVA protection.

You are, of course, well aware that SPF only covers the amount of UVB protection a sunscreen offers, right?

sun spots
Just unearthed this photo from my trip to Viet Nam last year: Brown spots from UV exposure, scary!!

UVB can deal direct damage to DNA causing sunburn, melanoma and skin cancer. So that’s one thing we definitely have to protect ourselves and our skin from.

However, UVA isn’t completely harmless either. Due to deeper oxidative damage in the skin, UVA exposure noticeably accelerates skin aging, can aid in the formation of cancer, melanoma and photo-dermatitis.

But so far, only few sunscreens sufficiently protect against UVB as well as UVA rays as of yet. And considering the emphasis on SPF levels both on product labels or in reports such as the above, awareness surrounding the topic isn’t all there yet either.

To complicate matters, labeling standards regarding UVA protection in skin care are still unregulated. That means there is no standard unit similar to SPF from which consumers can gauge the strength of UVA protection in skin care products. As of now, there are currently two in use.

PA, PPD and other ways to tell whether your sunscreen has UVA protection

The first one you’re likely familiar with already: the PA+/PA++/PA+++/PA++++ system predominantly used in Asia, with the amount of + signs signifying incremental UVA protection.

In Europe, on the other hand, UVA protection is often signified by PPD ratings. So for example, the Consumer Reports’ test winner, La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-In Sunscreen Milk, has a PPD 26. In layman’s terms and according to Wikipedia, that means it should allow you 26 times as much UVA exposure as without protection.

Also, see here how to convert the PA system into PPD ratings.

If you can find neither PA or PPD ratings on your sunscreen product, however, at least make sure it says “broad spectrum” on the label. This is generally a reliable, albeit very vague, marker for the inclusion of UVA filters.

Another method of learning whether or not your sunscreen has sufficient UVA protection is to simply look at the ingredients list! Odds are, of course, they mean nothing to you. Can’t blame you. So bookmark this chart from Skinacea.com now, and use it to countercheck with your sunscreen’s ingredients list.

Does your sunscreen contain at least one or two, possibly even more, UVA filters as active ingredients? And does it also contain sufficient amounts? According to Agata on Magi-Mania.de (German!), those would be

  • 2.0% for Tinosorb S,
  • 2.5% for Mexoryl SX,
  • 2.9% for Avobenzone,
  • 3.3% for Tinosorb M,
  • 4.9% for Mexoryl XL, and
  • 14.6% for Zinc oxide.

If so, you are safe, then, congratulations!

Note, however, that Mexoryl SX and XL have been patented by L’Oréal and are therefore exclusively used by L’Oréal brands.

Also note that a lot of commercial UV filters go by a different INCI name. For example, Avobenzone is most often listed as Butyl methoxy-dibenzoyl-methane, Tinosorb S as Bis-ethyl-hexyloxyphenol methoxyphenyl triazine, or Tinosorb M as Methylene bis-benzotriazolyl tetramethylbutyl-phenol.

Speaking of Tinosorb!

Besides six other modern sunscreen filters, Tinosorb S and M are safe, effective and photostable UVA protection filters approved and used all throughout Europe and in many other parts of the world – except the US and Canada.

In the United States, the UVA filters most commonly found in sunscreen include chemicals such as oxybenzone and avobenzone. Those ingredients are effective, dermatologists say, but they either protect against only certain UVA rays or break down too quickly. Other UVA filters such as zinc oxide don’t break down as quickly but cover the skin in a white gunk that only a lifeguard could like.

The pending applications at the FDA include chemical filters such as Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M and Mexoryl SX (also known as ecamsule), which experts say offer stronger UVA protection and could allow manufacturers to create sunscreen formulations that last longer and feel better on consumers’ skin, making people more likely to use them.” – via.

That’s too bad for North America. Yet says nothing about the quality of these new UV filters, so if you can get your hands on them, do it!

However, this is furthermore one of the reason a number of effective sunscreens from Europe don’t appear in the Customer Reports’ report at all. For example, one I am currently using myself.

My newest recommendation: Bioderma Photoderm MAX Milk SPF 50+ / PPD 42

I’ve said before that all my favorite sunscreens so far have been Japanese because they offer high SPF, broad spectrum protection, are lightweight, non-greasy and comfortable to wear. However, I never stop looking for European ones that do a similarly good job nevertheless. And here is one that I actually really like – for a Western sunscreen!

bioderma photoderm max lait
My go-to sunscreen this year.

The Bioderma Photoderm MAX Milk SPF 50+ / PPD 42 boasts impressive specs: an SPF over 50 and ample UVA protection! What’s more, it’s absolutely affordable at around 17 € per 100 ml, and easily available at pharmacies in Germany. Also, I really like that it has a decent texture, finish, wears comfortably, and does not contain alcohol – unlike my favorite Japanese sunscreens from last year.

Texture

The texture of this milk is pretty straight forward sunmilk-like. It goes on and spreads easily without feeling heavy at all. It also dries and absorbs quickly, and I don’t have to wait to continue layering on more – which I normally do to ensure I really apply 1/2 tablespoon of sunscreen to my face.

Finish

Once dry, the finish of this milk leaves my face… well, if we’re being generous, this could still count as “dewy,” but you could also call this greasy if not. Point is, however, that it’s not overly so. If you’re into the matte look – which I am not, by the way – then this will require powder. If you wear make up, it will also give your look some additional dew, that’s for sure.

But again, for a European sunscreen, the finish is good!

White cast

This dries down almost invisible, too. It does, however, leave some white residues where the milk accumulates during application, such as around the nose, brows or along the hair line. Nothing, in short, that a bit of vigorous rubbing won’t solve.

Bonus points for the fact this one does not sting my sensitive eyes – something that makes or breaks a lot of sunscreens for me.

So all in all, my go-to sunscreen this year!

By the way, there are several products in the Photoderma MAX line, including a Cream version specifically marketed as for the face. (The Milk is marketed as for body and face.) Unless you like the thicker texture, the heavier white cast, and almost the same price of 16 € but for only 40 ml, however, don’t bother. I tried the Cream before I found the Milk, and I prefer the Milk by far. Ingredients-wise, they’re also almost identical.

What’s your standard sunscreen this year? Share in the comments!

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