Note from Auntie Snail: This post was updated on 4/23/2015 to reflect some new information I’ve read about effective sunscreen quantities.
I spent most of my twenties wondering why my face was still getting tanned (sun damage) and why I was still getting dark spots on my cheeks (sun damage) even though I tried to wear a moisturizer with SPF every day and sometimes even a CC cream with SPF. Then my thirties hit, and all that SUN DAMAGE (and my one really, really misguided year working in a tanning salon and using the tanning beds after closing up several nights a week) caught up to me.
The thing I didn’t know–and that a lot of people don’t yet know–is that when it comes to sunscreen, quantity matters. The bottle might say SPF 15, but unless you’re using at least the correct amount, you aren’t getting anywhere close to SPF 15 protection. You’re not going to get SPF 15 if you only use a few drops of your SPF 15 daily moisturizer, and you’re not going to get SPF 15 just because you dabbed on a bit of SPF 15 foundation or powder. Also: You’re not going to get SPF 15 (let alone 30, or 45, or 50) by layering on a little drop of SPF lotion here and a little swipe of SPF powder there. It doesn’t add up that way.
If you want to prevent wrinkles and sunspots, you need to protect yourself from the sun, and if you want to protect yourself from the sun, you should be protecting yourself with adequate amounts of sunscreen every time you expose your face to the sun.
How much sunscreen do I need?
What’s an adequate amount of sunscreen?
It’s a lot.
To get the advertised amount of SPF protection on a product’s label, whether it’s foundation or moisturizer or dedicated sunscreen, you need to wear about 2 mg/square centimeter of it just for your face. Hoojoo Beauty has a great, in-depth explanation of sun protection to prevent sun damage, complete with graphs and discussion of other sunscreen technicalities, but what it boils down to is this: The general guidelines suggest that you need about 1/4 tsp of sunscreen for your face. These calculations were done using the facial surface area of men whose face sizes are in the 95th percentile, however. It is entirely possible that you could need less due to having a small face. In my opinion, though, it’s better to be safe than sorry (and sun damaged), and there isn’t that much variance in face sizes unless you’ve got a gigantic giant face or a teeny tiny itty witty bitty little pixie face, but keep it in mind and don’t get stressed if you think you’ve put on less.
1/4 tsp can really seem like a lot the first few times. Get a 1/4 tsp measuring spoon and measure out any kind of lotion you have on hand.
I’m used to it by now, so I just eyeball about a nickel-sized amount every day and apply it at the end of my morning skincare routine. I rub it between my hands to distribute it on my palms, then swipe it over my face, avoiding my eyes, rub it in a bit, then let it absorb for about 15 minutes or so.
Unfortunately, many people find that the sunscreens available to them at the drugstore just aren’t pleasant to use in the correct quantities. Thanks in part to the FDA’s slowness at approving newer sunscreen ingredients and in part to Western culture’s appreciation of a good tan, US sunscreen formulations tend to be less advanced and less cosmetically elegant than their counterparts manufactured by the Japanese and Korean skin care industries. Mass-market US sunscreens are often thick, greasy-feeling, and smell strongly of sunscreen. They also often leave a chalky white cast that just really doesn’t look right on anyone who’s not currently performing as a geisha.
This is why many Asian skin care fans choose to import Japanese and Korean sunscreens by buying them online or having friends and family in Asia ship the good stuff over. Asian sunscreens are generally more pleasant to use in the recommended quantities: less greasy (some are even strongly mattifying), with less white cast or no white cast at all, and without that distinctive sunscreen smell that screams “I just went to the pool and my mom dumped a bottle of Coppertone on me.” I’m no expert, but I’m guessing that the reason Japanese and Korean sunscreens are so much better is due at least in part to the fanatical East Asian love of fair skin, which is in direct conflict with many Asian complexions’ tendency to tan easily.
Another reason to look at Asian sunscreens is the fact that UVA protection is measured and printed on the labels. You’ll find it expressed as a PA rating with one or more plus signs after it, from PA+ up to PA++++.
UVA protection and PA ratings: Why do they matter?
In the US, sunscreens only need to show their SPF rating. SPF is a metric used to measure a sunscreen’s level of UVB protection. UVB rays are responsible for tanning, burning, and skin cancer, so SPF certainly is important. But UVA is also important, and apart from the “broad spectrum” designation that shows that a sunscreen has some UVA protection, US sunscreens don’t give any indication of just how much UVA protection they provide.
Like UVB rays, UVA rays cause skin cancer. They’re also a prime contributor to sun damage and photoaging, so if you want to prevent wrinkles and slow down your skin’s aging process, you absolutely must have a good level of UVA protection. Also, UVA is still present in bad weather, since UVA rays penetrate cloud cover, so keep that in mind when you’re tempted to skip the sunscreen because it’s raining out.
Hoojoo Beauty explains UV rays in more depth here. For our purposes, the key takeaway should be to look at the PA rating on the Japanese or Korean sunscreen bottle. More pluses equals more protection. Japanese sunscreens go up to PA++++; Korean sunscreens only label up to PA+++, though that is more thanks to regulatory reasons and not because there are no Korean sunscreens with PA++++-equivalent protection. Since there’s not really a reliable way of knowing which Korean sunscreens are labeled PA+++ but actually equivalent to PA++++, however, I stick to Japanese sunscreens like Biore and Hada Labo for now. (Also, Biore and Hada Labo sunscreens are easily found on Amazon.)
How do the different levels of PA protection break down? Here’s my take:
- PA+: I wouldn’t wear this unless it was my last option and the zombie apocalypse had already happened so the state of my skin doesn’t matter anymore because I’m about to die. (Though I would like to know how Glenn is maintaining his smooth and undamaged skin in those zombie-riddled Atlanta summers.)
- PA++: I guess it’s okay, if I’m in a pinch and have literally no higher sunscreen options to choose from. I’d definitely be sticking to the shade as much as possible.
- PA+++: This is decent. I’d be afraid that the sunscreen I have is on the lower end of the spectrum, though, so I still avoid this.
- PA++++: Ride or die.
To sum it all up: If you want to prevent wrinkles, don’t rely on half-assed measures like a pearl-sized amount of SPF lotion. Cover your face in 1/4 tsp of a high-SPF, high-PA sunscreen every, rain or shine. I’ve been doing that for over a year now, and my skin condition has improved by leaps and bounds, with no new sun damage as far as I can see, while the rest of my routine assists in repairing the old sun damage I accumulated during my Lost Decade.
And don’t forget to wear your shades! They’re the easiest way to prevent sunspots around your eyes and crow’s feet from squinting in bright light.
Do you wear sunscreen every day? What’s your favorite brand?