Look no further for the ultimate guide to sunscreen

If you only crack out the sunscreen when the sun’s shining or you’re going on holiday, then it’s time to rethink your routine. Because if there’s one thing a skincare regime shouldn’t be without, it’s sunscreen.

In our books, wearing sunscreen every day is non-negotiable. Our skin is exposed to the sun and its harmful UV rays on many occasions, from that two-minute walk to the corner shop, to driving to work or even sitting near a window at home. It all adds up. UV rays spell damage for the skin (more on those later), which is why sunscreen is a must, even on cloudy days and in the winter.

But with so many sunscreens out there nowadays, not to mention moisturisers and make-up products with added SPF, it’s understandable if you’re a tad confused. We’ve enlisted the help of Sun Care Scientific Adviser, Clare O’Connor, to answer your questions around sunscreen.

But first, here are some important tips on sun safety. Don’t forget to spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm when the sun is strongest between March and October, stay hydrated, take extra care with children, and cover up with suitable clothing, hats and sunglasses to protect even further from UV radiation. Now, on to the questions…

First up, what are the different types of sunscreens?

Ready for some science? Sunscreens fall into two camps: organic (more commonly known as absorbers or chemical sunscreens) and inorganic (commonly referred to as reflectors or mineral sunscreens).

Organic sunscreens “absorb the UV light before it enters the skin,” explains Clare, whilst inorganic sunscreens “reflect the UV light away before it enters the skin.” Which one you choose all depends on what works best for your skin type and tone. For example, inorganic sunscreens contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide which tend to cause a white cast, so those with a darker skin tone may prefer an organic sunscreen.

Sunscreens are available in a whole host of formats from gels and creams, to sprays and roll-ons. When it comes to finding one that works for you, “choosing a product that you like and will want to reapply is the most important thing here, which is why the industry offers so much choice,” says Clare.

Sunscreens won’t always be clearly labelled as organic or inorganic so here’s what to look out for in the ingredients list to tell the difference between the two and whether they protect the skin from the effects of UVA or UVB rays:

Organic filters include:

• Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane (UVA)

• Octoctylene (UVB)

• Octyl Salicylate (UVB)

• Diethylhexyl Butamido Triazine (UVB)

Inorganic filters include:

• Titanium Dioxide

• Zinc Oxide

• Iron Oxide

What’s the difference between UVA & UVB rays?

“UVB rays penetrate into the top layers of our skin and are responsible for most of the burning we get from over exposure to the sun,” explains Clare. But “they still contribute to longer-term damage and skin cancer,” she advises. On the other hand, “whilst UVA rays only cause a fraction of the burning, they penetrate much more deeply into our skin and cause premature skin ageing as well as cancer,” states Clare.

To protect your skin from both UVB and UVA radiation, “choose a sunscreen with an appropriate SPF for your skin type and with high levels of UVA protection as well.” 5-star UVA protection is the highest level and it’s recommended to go no lower than four stars. Not all brands use the star rating system but can have an equal level of protection. Some show the letters “UVA” in a circle which indicates that it meets EU standards.

So, how do I know what SPF number to use?

If you’re confused by SPF numbers, you’re not alone. “The SPF number indicates how much protection against sunburn you’ll get compared to being in the sun without sunscreen. The higher the number, the greater amount of protection against sunburn,” confirms Clare.

In moderate climates like the UK and Ireland, SPF15 is the suggested minimum for adults with medium to dark skin, whilst SPF30 is the suggested minimum for children and those with pale or sensitive skin who are all more vulnerable to the effects of the sun.

If you’re going away to a hot climate like the Mediterranean, SPF30 is the minimum recommended for dark skin and SPF50 is the minimum for children and people with medium, pale or sensitive skin. For very hot climates like Australia, SPF30 is recommended for brown and black skin and SPF50+ is recommended for other skin types.

Remember to choose a sunscreen with UVA protection as well.

How much sunscreen should I actually use & how often should I reapply it?

If you scrimp on the amount of sunscreen you put on, then you won’t be getting the full levels of protection you need. Clare advises using “two to three tablespoonsful of sunscreen for an entire adult body.” Or if only some of your body is exposed to the sun such as the face, neck and arms, “use a teaspoon for your face and neck and a teaspoon for each arm.”

It’s a good idea to apply it 15 minutes before going outside to give the sunscreen time to absorb before getting dressed and don’t forget to reapply it throughout the day. The back of the packaging should tell you how often to do this, but it should usually be reapplied every two hours and always after swimming.

If you don’t want to ruin your make-up when reapplying sunscreen, Clare’s top tip is “to apply it evenly across the face with small dots to ensure full coverage and pat it into the skin gently – don’t over rub – and allow it to sink in.” And voila, make-up still intact!

Should I wear SPF inside?

It’s a popular question, so let’s get to the bottom of this once and for all. “Window glass filters out UVB light, so you aren’t going to burn indoors, but UVA rays can still penetrate,” clarifies Clare. ‘If you’re working next to a window, make sure you’re using a product with 5-star UVA protection on your face and any exposed skin to prevent the long-term damaging effect of UVA radiation,” she recommends.

Remember, many of us pop outside for some fresh air or to do a few chores throughout the day, and Clare explains, “UV damage is cumulative, meaning all of those quick five minutes outside add up.” Our sun exposure may be much higher than we realise, so ask yourself if you’re really going to be indoors throughout all the hours of daylight? If not, apply sunscreen as part of your daily routine.

Is the sun protection in my make-up enough?

Remember when we said you need a teaspoon of sunscreen for your face and neck? Now imagine putting a whole teaspoon of foundation on. It’s probably going to be a cakey mess, right? Clare confirms that “foundation with SPF won’t be sufficient to protect your skin due to the lower amount of product typically applied.”

All is not lost, however, as she further suggests that “we’re all inclined to miss patches when we apply products like sunscreen to our skin,” so make-up with SPF “does give an additional layer of protection on top of your daily sunscreen and also helps cover up any missed bits.”

Is sunscreen safe for sensitive or acne-prone skin?

We get it, finding products that work for sensitive or acne-prone skin can feel nigh-on impossible sometimes, and many people are wary of adding sunscreen into the mix. But what if we told you that the sun could actually be making things worse? Clare explains that “UV light itself can exacerbate sensitive skin and acne and, contrary to popular belief, the sun isn’t good for acne. It’s common for skin reactions to be linked to products rather than the actual culprit, which is the UV light.”

Some medicines prescribed to treat acne make skin more sensitive to sunlight, so it’s particularly important for these people to avoid too much sun and sources of UV light (such as sunbeds), and always wear sunscreen.

Her best advice is to “use sunscreens that are labelled suitable for sensitive skin and non-pore blocking.” As everyone's skin triggers are different, it can be a matter of trial and error finding one that works for your skin type. Soltan Sensitive, Avène, La Roche-Posay and Eucerin  are a great place to start if you’ve got sensitive skin.

Do children & babies need different sun protection to adults?

Younger skin is more vulnerable to the sunlight and Clare says that “sunscreen is only part of the story for protecting skin when it comes to children and babies. Hats, sunglasses and sun suits are recommended for children along with time in the shade between 11am and 3pm. Babies under six months should be kept out of direct sunlight.”

Sunscreen for children tends to have a higher degree of water-resistance because they like to spend a large amount of time playing in the water, so Clare recommends gearing them up with “a full body sun suit and hat to protect as much skin as possible and then use an appropriate SPF50 and 5-star UVA rated product on exposed areas.”

Which sunscreens are best for avoiding a white cast on darker skin?

“Mineral sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide will usually leave a white cast on the skin,” explains Clare, so avoid these if you have a darker skin tone. There are many sunscreens out there now which are labelled ‘invisible’ and formulated as clear sprays or transparent gels, so these would be a great option.

Can I use the same sunscreen on my face & hair as on the body?

In theory, a body sunscreen can be used all over, however when it comes to protecting hair these can leave it looking white and can be difficult to spread. Clare recommends using Soltan Head & Scalp Spray  which is “a good option to prevent the scalp burning and protect the colour-fade caused by UV light.”

Lips are also very sensitive to sunlight and Clare suggests “using a sun stick like Soltan Active Lip Suncare Stick  to protect them whilst outside as sun sticks tend to be a more solid waxy format that stays put, whereas a normal lotion won’t stay on your lips very long.”

When it comes to specialist facial sunscreens, they often contain vitamins, antioxidants and other similar features to complement your skincare routine and Clare says, “there’s no need to use a separate facial sunscreen if you’re not looking for these benefits, as the same can be applied to the body and face.”

And there you go, your queries about sunscreen solved!