Don't Get Burned by Using the Wrong Sunscreen

Time was, I could grab a container of Coppertone from a rack at the grocery store and feel I was making a smart choice – it was far cry from my high school years, when my friends and I would slather ourselves with baby oil, then bake on the beach using sun reflectors made of Fleetwood Mac album covers and Reynolds Wrap. (Though mostly I remember the cute lifeguard the next beach club over who my father called “a thug” and forbade me from talking to, who ended up being a wildly successful investment banker and married an actress from Dallas.)

Now, I’m learning all sunscreens are not created equal, a lesson that might have come in handier back in June, but better late than never. And in any case, you’re supposed to be wearing sunscreen all year round, unless you’re a fan of premature wrinkling and radiation. (Some experts are suggesting even the infrared light from computers and phone screens can damage skin, but...I can’t even go there.)

It was my teenaged daughter who informed me that in addition to the fact that chemical sunscreen ingredients aren’t as effective as mineral (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) sunscreens at protecting skin from the sun, even products labeled “mineral” can contain ingredients that mean well, but might have unwanted side effects.

The no-nos’s: silicones, which offer water resistance but can clog pores; same goes for petrochemicals like petrolatum, which have a moisturizing quality but can irritate the skin. Synthetic preservatives like parabens can cause an allergic reaction, and retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, could increase skin aging.

What you want to look for are antioxidants, natural plant oils, which hydrate the skin, and anti-inflammatories like jojoba oil and shea butter that soothe the skin. And, of course, remember to check that the product is labeled “broad spectrum,” so it protects against UVA rays, which don’t cause sunburn but are related to an increased of skin cancer, as well as UVB rays.

Doing a little homework to make sure you buy a sunscreen that’s right for you might not be as much fun as surreptitiously checking lifeguard chairs and inventing reasons to swim at the next beach club over, but it will pay off in healthier skin.

And it won’t get you grounded.