Sunscreen for Dummies: What is Sunscreen, What Does It Do, and How to Choose the Best One

There are millions of people in the world lucky enough to have darker skin tones. They can spend hours beneath the hot sun, and they just look tanned. For the rest of us, half an hour or so of sun leaves us looking like nothing so much as a freshly-boiled lobster.

It’s thanks to people like me that there is a sunscreen industry at all. With the summer just around the corner, it’s time for us to break the bank and prepare to invest heavily in sunscreen.

Sunscreen lotion on a woman's back in the form of a sun with rays.

Sunscreen 101

The purpose of sunscreen isn’t only to protect delicate white skin from the sun, but it’s also meant as a protection against the UV rays of the sun. Those ultraviolet rays can cause cancer along with the sunburn, so it’s essential to use sunscreen to prevent the UV rays from being absorbed into your skin.

Years ago, there were perhaps a dozen different sunscreens floating around the market. You had Banana Republic and Coppertone as the two big brands, with a few smaller brands competing for a share. Now, however, there are HUNDREDS of different sunscreens on supermarket shelves and online stores. Nearly every big name-brand cosmetics manufacturer has their own line of sunscreen, and there are just too many choices out there.

A smiling young woman putting a little sunscreen on her nose while holding a bottle of lotion.

How to Find the Best Sunscreen

Not sure which sunscreens are the best for you? There are a lot of things to take into account, so let’s get started with the most important factor: UV protection.

UVB and UVA Protection

When you read the label “SPF” on a bottle of sunscreen, it refers to the UV protection the goopy stuff provides. However, and this is important, it’s ONLY TALKING ABOUT UVB PROTECTION. What does that mean?

The term “UV rays” refers to two different types of ultraviolet waves:

  1. UVA
  2. UVB

UVB rays are the nasty ones that you really need to worry about, as they are the ones that cause cancer. They also cause your skin to burn, hence giving you that nasty red sunburn.

However, UVA rays are also known to cause cancer, so you want to protect your skin from them as well. However, not all sunscreens provide protection from UVA rays, particularly older products. You should find a sunscreen that provides BOTH UVA and UVB protection.

Important: The number “15” or “30” in SPF15 or SPF30 refers to the amount of time the sunscreen protects your skin from burning. For example, if your skin would normally turn red after just 10 minutes in the sun, an SPF15 sunscreen will multiply that time by a factor of 15–ergo 150 minutes of sun without burning. It’s not an exact number, but it gives you an idea of what to expect.

For protection from UVB rays:

  • The average person is good with SPF15. SPF15 filters out about 93% of UVB rays, which is more than enough to keep your skin safe.
  • A person with very delicate skin should use SPF30. SPF30 isn’t twice the strength of SPF15, but the effects simply last longer. Also, SPF30 filters out 97% of UVB rays–not a very drastic increase from SPF15.
  • Those with a family history of skin cancer or disorders like lupus should also use SPF30.

Any higher than SPF30 is essentially a waste of money, as the higher SPF doesn’t add greater protection against UVB rays.

When it comes to protection against UVA rays, things get a bit more complicated. Sunscreens don’t come with a rating that tells you how good the product is at protecting your skin from UVA rays, so you have to look for the ingredients that will provide the right protection.

Some of the ingredients to look for include:

  • Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — Both of these ingredients have been used in sunscreens for decades, but they left a pallid sheen on the wearer that made them look “ghostly”. Still, they provide great UVA protection.
  • Ecamsule — This is a fairly new ingredient in the U.S., though it has been in Europe and Canada for over two decades. It’s found in the more expensive sunscreens.
  • Avobenzone and oxybenzone — These two ingredients also raise the price of the sunscreen, and you can get better UVA protection at a lower price with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

As long as your sunscreen contains any of the ingredients listed above, you’ll get good protection from the UVA rays.

Hint: Look for the words “broad spectrum” on the label. This means the sunscreen is able to protect you from both UVA and UVB rays.

A woman applying sun lotion to her legs on a beach.

Sweat and Water Resistance

Plan on moving around at all during your time in the sun? If you’re going to play around, you can bet you’ll sweat in no time. You may also decide to get in the pool, lake, or ocean, which involves a lot of water. If you don’t get the right sunscreen, the water could wash it off–leaving your skin exposed to the sun!

Disclaimer: There is no such thing as “waterproof” sunscreen! Any product labeled “waterproof” is lying to you!

The FDA has classified sunscreen into two categories:

  • Resistant — This means that the SPF protection is still good after 40 minutes of contact with water.
  • Very Resistant –– This means the SPF protection is still good after 80 minutes of contact with water.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re swimming or just sweating, make sure you find the right water resistant sunscreen to protect your skin!


The FDA has approved 17 ingredients for use in sunscreen, which you can see on the table below:

A clipboard about FDA approved sunscreens

There are two types of ingredients in your average sunscreen:

  1. Mineral — Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the two active mineral ingredients.
  2. Chemical –– All of the other ingredients on the above list are made from chemicals.

What’s the difference between chemical and mineral ingredients?

Chemical ingredients have been around for decades, and they’re used by people who need an affordable, reliable sunscreen. There have been questions raised about the damage done to the skin by these chemicals, and they have been known to irritate sensitive skin.

Mineral ingredients tend to be more difficult to apply, and they often leave a white sheen on your skin that makes you look pale. However, they are preferred by people with sensitive skin, as well as anyone who worries about the damage that chemicals can do to the skin.

The FDA endorses both types of ingredients, and the American Academy of Dermatology concurs. Both have their advantages, and the only way to determine which ingredients are the best are by testing the various brands of sunscreen on your skin.

Remember: There is no such thing as the “perfect” sunscreen. The “best” sunscreen is one that you like, that works for you, and that you use regularly.

A young child with sunscreen on it's back in the form of a sun.

Sunscreen for Special Skin

Not everyone can wear the same sunscreen. Some people have sensitive skin, while others are prone to developing acne or rosacea thanks to their sunscreen. Babies cannot use the same sunscreen as adults, and those with disorders like Lupus need special sunscreen.

For those with special skin, here’s what you need to know:

Sensitive Skin

If your skin is prone to allergies, acne, or rosacea, it’s important that you avoid using any sunscreen with fragrances in them. Anything containing oxybenzone and PABA can also cause skin irritation, and those with sensitive skin should avoid sunscreens with alcohol. The best sunscreen for those with delicate skin: mineral-based products. If acne is a problem, stick with a gel-based sunscreen instead of a cream.


Strong chemicals can irritate the sensitive skin of small children, so it’s best to stick with mineral-based sunscreens. (Hint: Kids will get fussy if you try to slather cream all over them, so try a spray sunscreen. You’re welcome!)

Cancer Risk

Those with very fair skin have a higher risk of skin cancer, as do those with a family history of melanoma or melasma (blotchy, brown skin discolorations). ALWAYS use SPF30 or higher, and reapply regularly to ensure the sunscreen provides protection. Both chemical and mineral sunscreen work well.

Dry Skin

For those with dry skin, being out in the sun can be problematic. Thankfully, many sunscreen lotions are also moisturizing lotions, so they’ll hydrate the skin while protecting it from the sun.


Older skin tends to wrinkle and age more quickly under the sun, so it’s important to apply sunscreen. Spray sunscreen may be easier to apply than cream, especially for seniors with limited mobility and flexibility.

Dark Skin

Just because you have dark skin, that doesn’t mean you should avoid using sunscreen. You can use SPF15 to protect your skin, but be careful with mineral-based sunscreens that can leave a chalky white film on your skin.

Sunscreen lotion on a woman's back in the form of smiley face.

Quick Tips

Don’t forget your hands and face

You may want to use an SPF50 or SPF60 sunscreen on your face and hands. The skin there is much thinner, meaning the skin can be seriously burned more easily.

Cover up when high up

If you’re at a high altitude (mountains, hills, etc.) or any place where there is intense exposure to the sun, make sure to use a stronger sunscreen. SPF60 is a good choice.

Use the shade

Exposure to the sun doesn’t only lead to sunburn, but also heat stroke. Try to spend more time in the shade, especially if you have small kids.

Be careful around coral reefs

National Geographic reported that mineral-based sunscreens can bleach coral reefs. If you’re going diving near a coral reef, stick with chemical sunscreens.

Consider a spray

Children, adults, and seniors will find that sprays are much easier to use than creams. It’s worth trying out at least!

Sunscreen Allergies

It’s not all that common, but the truth is that there is a very real risk of your skin developing an allergic reaction to the sunscreen. In most of the cases, it will be a form of contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is essentially a rash that breaks out on your skin. The rash is itchy and annoying, and blisters often form.

Both chemical and mineral-based sunscreens can cause contact dermatitis, depending on which ingredients cause a negative skin reaction. The active ingredients in both types of sunscreen can cause allergic reactions or rashes, so it’s important to avoid using any sunscreens that cause this skin problem.

Various bottles on sunscreen on a beach.

Top-Rated Sunscreens

The good news is that you have TONS of options to choose from. You don’t have to stick with just one type of sunscreen, but you can try as many products as you want.

Below is Total Beauty’s list of the best user-rated sunscreens around:

#1: La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid— This sunscreen was described by users as “light, smooth, and soaking into the skin”. It’s not a heavy cream like most sunscreens, but it’s almost like a sun-protective serum. The powder finish of the sunscreen is ideal for those with oily skin, and it makes for a great primer for applying cosmetics.

#2: Jan Marini Skin Research Antioxidant Daily Face Protectant — It’s the scent of this sunscreen that netted it the silver medal, along with the oil control properties. Those with oily skin will find that this not only offers great sun protection, but can reduce sebum production. It absorbs quickly into the skin, and it has a weightless feel. It may be pricey, but consumers seem to love it.

#3: SkinCeuticals Daily Sun Defense SPF 20 — The lightweight sunscreen is ideal for those who worry about clogged pores, as it’s made with a “non-greasy” feel. It’s a mineral-based sunscreen, and a number of consumers have reported seeing improvement in the health of their skin thanks to the nutrients in the cream.

#4: Obagi Nu-Derm Healthy Skin Protection SPF — Another mineral-based sunscreen, this one is particularly adept at protecting your skin from both UVA and UVB rays. It’s easily absorbed into the skin, and works nicely as a base for makeup. It leaves your skin with a fresh feeling, so those worried about the oily feel of most sunscreens will love this cream.

#5: Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen — Not only does this sunscreen offer great sun protection, but the water resistance is surprisingly good. The texture is a bit thick, but you can feel it on your skin all day long. It’s irritation-free for most people, and it’s recommended for people planning to spend 8 to 10 hours in the hot sun.

Well, that’s everything you need to know about choosing the right sunscreen for your summer vacations. Good luck, happy travels, and for your own sake, apply a WHOLE LOT of your new favorite sunscreen!


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