What you need to know about protecting skin from the sun’s powerful rays.
Written By FIORELLA VALDESOLO
Quod me nutrit, me destruit. The Latin phrase Angelina Jolie had permanently etched in script across her lower abdomen alongside a giant black cross in the early aughts (her blood vial–wearing years) seems particularly apt when thinking about our relationship to the sun: while nourishing, it can also, ultimately, be destructive. Particularly to our complexions, which will bear the evidence of the sun’s effects long after we’ve retreated from its rays.
Below, dermatologist Dr. Ellen Marmur lays out the rules of engagement for sun care, highlighting the fundamentals for how to treat and shield skin before, during, and after exposure (or, in some cases, overexposure). Essential information to have at hand, not only in these warmest summer months, but all year round.
SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS
First order of business? Be consistent with sunscreen use. “Remembering to put on your sunscreen every day is the number-one challenge with sun protection,” Marmur reports. Her solution? Stash SPF everywhere—in your gym bag, at your desk—so it’s always on hand when you need it. (And read The Violet Files’ primer on building a sunscreen wardrobe here.)
AIM FOR HIGH SPF NUMBERS
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, and the number that follows is meant to indicate the degree of protection provided, so the bigger the number, the better the protection—right? While the FDA-approved labs test only up to SPF 50, Marmur advises her patients to aim high to ensure as much coverage as possible. “The way the FDA labels test sunscreen is by putting it on as thick as vanilla icing, and that’s not how people wear it,” she says. “So we are actually getting just a fraction of what the number is.” Her quick sunscreen math: divide the protection number by two. “So if you put on a 30 you’re really getting a 15, if you’re putting on a 50, you’re getting a 25,” says Marmur. And that SPF 15? “It’s useless,” she claims. So if your foundation has an SPF of 15, it’s not enough—pair it with a primer or sunscreen with higher protection.
When looking at ingredients, “I always prefer mineral ingredients, which are gentler than purely chemical formulas, though water-resistant formulas generally require chemicals,” Marmur reports. Some recent studies have suggested that oxybenzone (a popular sunscreen component whose primary function is to absorb UV light) may be a hormone disruptor, but don’t set it aside just yet; Marmur calls these claims bad science. “The study looked at fish near where people surf and play in the ocean that exhibited hormone disruption, but they have gills so the sunscreen was being ingested by the fish, not sitting on the skin’s surface,” the doctor outlines. If your skin is healthy (a state she compares to a tightly sealed Spanish tile roof), it creates a barrier against such absorption.
SHIELD SENSITIVE SKIN
“If your skin is feeling particularly sensitive, if you have a rash or razor burn, or if you just used a chemical peel or a product with retinoic acid, be careful: when you have irritated skin you’re more prone to sun damage,” cautions Marmur. “Also, sunlight will often deactivate retinol ingredients.” She suggests holding off on sun time for at least three days post peel or retinol. One alternative if you simply must bask: Skin Medica’s Retinol Complex. “It’s the one product I like that’s made for people who want to be outside and still use their retinol. It has a plant-based phyto-corrective shield around the medication so skin is not sensitized.”
DON’T FORGET YOUR LIPS
Our sunscreen aptitude for our face and body may have improved, but many of us still forget our lips, which can burn and be damaged by the sun’s harsh rays just like any other stretch of skin. Today many lip products have a built-in SPF—look for at least a 30, says Marmur, who’s partial to Colorscience LipGloss SPF 35. If your signature lipstick is SPF-less, just layer it with a protectant balm first so you’re still covered.
REAPPLY, REAPPLY, REAPPLY
When it comes to sunscreen, a one-and-done mantra does not hold weight—and even the product instructions may be wanting. “Forget what the bottle says,” insists Marmur. “You should actually be thinking about reapplying every single hour.” You read that right. She gets the point across to her patients with a bit of beauty banking. Because most who require Botox at an earlier age can attribute that to sun-induced damage, she likes to tell patients that every time they put on sunscreen they’re saving five dollars on future injections. “Prevention is money in your wellness bank,” she adds.
REMOVE WITH CARE
Sunscreens, particularly those in the water-resistant category, can leave your skin feeling, in a word, gross. While your natural inclination may be to scrub off the remnants, Marmur counsels a gentler approach. “With the chemicals from the sunscreen, plus sun, if you’re scrubbing or using a Clarisonic you’re going to hurt your skin,” she says. Instead, use a cleanser that contains alpha hydroxy acid (like a 5% glycolic or salicylic acid) or charcoal, like Skin Medica AHA/BHA Cleanser or BeautyCounter Face Bar. “Those are both great because they will draw things out of the skin,” she adds. Then moisturize generously with an extra-nourishing formula that evening.
SOOTHE SUNBURNED SKIN
Remember your grandma telling you to take two aspirin after getting too much sun? She was on to something. “A sunburn is basically a type of rash, so any kind of anti-inflammatory will do a good job of calming it,” says Marmur. And antioxidants will also have a soothing effect, not to mention fortify the skin against sun damage, so stick to a Mediterranean diet (fish, olives, etc.). “It’s delivering all the minerals you need to help heal inflammation,” Marmur explains.
Safe Sunning Essentials
Eau Thermale Avène $24
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Find the ideal sunscreen for every occasion, from strolling through the city to basking on the beach.