How fast does sunscreen wear off, really?
June 15, 2014 8:31 PM   Subscribe

After a minor bout of skin cancer last year, I am required to wear sunblock every day. I have questions.

First, I detest the feeling of sunscreen. HATE. And I have very sensitive skin, so I can't use most chemical sunblocks. As a result, right now I'm using a combination of physical sunblocks, to minimize how gross I feel at any given time:

* An Oil of Olay SPF 30 moisturizer for face
* A Eucerin SPF 15 body lotion everywhere else
* Or sometimes a Sun Bears SPF 50+/PA+++ for body if it's bright and I'll be running errands (I LOVE it but I'm almost all out and it is spendy)
* For fancy events, an SPF 50+ mineral powder for face
* For those times when I will be Spending Significant Time Outdoors, something in the Neutrogena Dry Touch family, SPF 70+.

My typical use case is working indoors at home all day, possibly near a sunny window; possibly walking 15 minutes to school and back to pick up kids; and maybe running errands in a car, which involves walking to and from the car a few times, and subjecting myself to whatever degree of UV comes through my car windows.

So my questions are: How long do these products last and have any protective effect on my skin? Are they genuinely protective for a whole day? If I apply an SPF face cream in the morning is it basically useless by 3pm without reapplying? Does it matter how much light I get in that time, or whether I exercise? Is it for sure not going to last into the next day, and I definitely have to put more gross stuff on my skin the next morning, even if I haven't washed anything off? Is a parasol an adequate substitute if I can't bear reapplication?

And while I'm at it, are there any lighter, less-goopy yet higher-SPF body lotion products I'm not aware of? Or is lotion a terrible form factor for sunblock in the first place? I don't *think* I need SPF ONE MILLION every single day, but it's super hard to find products that hit that sweet spot of not heavy or smelly, decently protective, and not super expensive. Halp, halp!
posted by Andrhia to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (29 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Not specifically answering your question, but some new research suggests sunscreens can't prevent melanoma. This is almost certainly a conversation you should have with your oncologist, but if you hate the feeling of sunscreen, and you're concerned about having to reapply through the day, maybe wearing more covering layers is a better fit for you?
posted by colin_l at 8:38 PM on June 15, 2014

I have skin that is also sensitive, and turns red with chemical block. I wear Josie Maran's argan oil sunscreen (only physical blockers in it), and have been thrilled with it - it feels light, like a normal facial moisturizer, rather than heavy and sticky like most sunscreens. I put it on in the morning after washing my face, and it does double duty as a moisturizer and sunscreen. I only reapply when going for a walk or something else extended in the sun, and I haven't gotten burnt so far. While I think it's meant for the face, I have a four ounce bottle, so you could conceivably do some body applications with it. I've tried dozens of physical blocker sunscreens, and this is easily one of my top picks. Only caveat is that it just got reformulated, and I confess that I haven't tried the new formulation (here).

I agree with colin_l, though, and think that a more sustainable solution for you might involve light layers while outside. I have some of Ex Officio's Dryflylite clothing, and even in very humid heat, it's pretty comfortable. Most of it doesn't look particularly feminine (if that matters to you), but I have some of their 3/4 sleeve blouses that I think are okay. I wear a tank top at home, and then throw one of those one (or a thin linen shirt) when I go out, if I don't want to slather on the sunscreen.
posted by ClaireBear at 8:46 PM on June 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

it's super hard to find products that hit that sweet spot of not heavy or smelly, decently protective, and not super expensive.

On this note, I was intrigued by a woman I met recently who makes her own sunscreen for her and her kids -- very fair skin with excema problems. She started out making her own detergent at home. Then, when her young daughter started having problems with excema, experimenting with her own soothing lotions. Then she started adding spf type stuff to it and pretty soon came up with a pleasing formula for that at a fairly bargain basement prices. If you're at all DIY, might be worth exploring. She also makes various face creams and balms. I bet there's a forum for people who like to do this and maybe mixing your own would help you find what you like.
posted by amanda at 8:54 PM on June 15, 2014

Paula's Choice make some good sunscreens that have a nice texture and are really good get sensitive skin as they are physical sunscreens, they manage to avoid that greasy feeling. A good quality broad spectrum physical sunblocks applied properly, won't stop working the same way chemical ones do, the main product failure comes from rubbing the product off by touching or washing the area or sweating. Remember glass blocks a lot of uh rays so your typical day sounds fine. I maybe touch up after exercise or if I get hot, and the backs of my hands from hand washing. I will throw a hat on when I go out to garden and a long sleeves shirt just to be sure.
posted by wwax at 9:32 PM on June 15, 2014

For face I would suggest Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Liquid SPF 70. I used to use Neutrogena's Dry Touch line until I found this. It's more like a milky liquid than a typical sunscreen, soaks in easily, doesn't make me feel oily/greasy/sticky/etc. It comes in a little 40 ml/1.4 fl oz bottle. My skin is sensitive but I find this sunscreen to be gentle, no burning feeling or redness.

I have heard you should re-apply sunscreen every hour when in the sun but for just day to day running around (i.e not the beach or large amounts of time outside) I usually just apply in once in the a.m, maybe again mid afternoon.

For body I've yet to find the perfect non sticky sunscreen. I use Coppertone Water Babies Waterproof SPF 60, I find it less sticky than other brands and it absorbs well. I also recently found Neutrogena Beach Defense, it's very light and non sticky.
posted by Lay Off The Books at 9:53 PM on June 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you live in the US, I will heartily recommend Trader Joe's SPF 30 Refresh Broad Spectrum Face and Body Sunscreen. My BFF and I recently went on holiday together in the States and shared a tube of this while we were there...we both used it on our faces and bodies and found it non-sticky, non-greasy, and only very faintly and pleasantly scented. And it was so reasonably priced! I hate the feeling of sunscreen usually, but this felt more like a nice lotion. I sure wish we had Trader Joe's in Canada.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:29 PM on June 15, 2014

There are two kinds of sunscreen, physical sunscreen and chemical sunscreen. The former usually contains Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Dioxide that physically blocks UV rays, and you don't really need to reapply if you've coated yourself quite liberally in the first place.

Chemical sunscreen contains ingredients like Avobenzene, Octinoxate, Octisalate, Oxybenzone. These act like a sponge and absorb UV rays, so a chemical sunscreen becomes less effective as more rays are soaked up. Consequently, chemical sunscreens will have to be reapplied every two hours or so.

Physical sunscreens, in my experience, feel a little heavier on the skin and tend to leave a white cast on light-medium and darker skin tones. Chemical sunscreens do not, but apart from the reapplication issue, the ones I've used from Anthelios left yellow stains on my white tee shirts.

I use Elta MD UV Clear SPF 46 on my derm's recommendation, and I've also tried CeraVe AM Facial Lotion SPF 30. Both contain physical filters, and have lightweight textures that absorb easily and quickly.

But mostly, I try to stay out of the sun as much as possible. I wear long-sleeved shirts most of the time even in the summer, and wear a pair of long fingerless cotton gloves when I drive. I plan to buy this visor as well as I hate how gross the inside of a hat gets when I sweat.
posted by peripathetic at 10:32 PM on June 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

ETA: In-store, the TJ's sunscreen did not cost the listed price on that Amazon page I linked!! I think it was under $12.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:34 PM on June 15, 2014

Hats are fashionable, wear one. Or make a collection of different types. Adapt yourself to long sleeves and leg coverings, (I know they can be hot, but consider what desert people wear)
posted by Cranberry at 11:32 PM on June 15, 2014

That Trader Joe's sunscreen has oxybenzone in it and thus should be avoided.
posted by persona au gratin at 11:44 PM on June 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is pretty good stuff. It's mainly physical blockers. Though the difference in UV blocked as you go up in SPF is minuscule once you're past 30.
posted by persona au gratin at 11:49 PM on June 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Uh oh. Good to know, persona au gratin.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:08 AM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty picky about stuff on my skin, and can't tolerate the chemical sunscreens. I really like Aveeno Baby. Not greasy, no weird feel IMO.
posted by bolognius maximus at 12:12 AM on June 16, 2014

colin_l, it pays to read the article and not just the headline. In fact in the Nature study, sunscreen offered significant protection against melanoma, but was not as protective as avoiding UV radiation entirely.

The last line of the abstract is "Our study validates public health campaigns that promote sunscreen protection for individuals at risk of melanoma."

Journalists have a lot to answer for.
posted by superfish at 12:29 AM on June 16, 2014 [15 favorites]

Yes, the article linked by colin_l actually says: "[This is] the first experimental evidence that sunscreen actually protects you from melanoma but it also shows that it doesn’t offer complete protection".

It does not say that 'sunscreen can't prevent melanoma', or that you should not bother wearing sunscreen. Quite the opposite!

As for recommendations, I heartily endorse Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Liquid SPF 70, as mentioned by Lay off the Books. It's totally non-greasy and dries to a lovely matte finish. I've just ordered another 4 online to throw in my makeup bag/beach tote/gym bag.

As far as reapplication goes, if you're just doing normal about-town stuff, then a morning application should do. Reapply if you're out in direct sunlight and sweating. The main thing is to make sure you put on enough: start with half a teaspoon just for your face. That means another half for your neck, and couple per arm, etc. You need to layer that stuff on quite thick, and *don't rub it right in*. It should be gently pressed/rubbed into the skin so that the last bit of residue kind of sinks in. Rubbing it in thoroughly until it disappears can break down the chemical structure of the lotion, reducing its effectiveness.
posted by Salamander at 1:03 AM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hi there! Melanoma Lady here.

I impressed my dermatologist by purchasing a parasol recently. I use the parasol in addition to sunblock, BTW.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 1:07 AM on June 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In answer to some more questions:

How long do these products last and have any protective effect on my skin?
You really have to read the fine print on each product. The product will last as long as it isn't sweated off, washed off or worn off. All these things will happen to some degree over the course of a day, whether you're very active or not. However, how long the product protects your skin depends totally on the SPF combined with your skin type. Read up on how SPF works, if you're not sure, but basically there is no SPF that will protect you indefinitely.

Are they genuinely protective for a whole day?
Yes, if you are not sweating or rubbing your skin much, one (thorough, generous) application of a high-SPF (at least 30+) should protect you for a whole day.

If I apply an SPF face cream in the morning is it basically useless by 3pm without reapplying?
No, unless you're swimming or sweating a lot. If you're just sitting at your desk and walking to and from an air-conditioned car, it should be fine.

Does it matter how much light I get in that time, or whether I exercise?
Light? I don't think so. Not if we're talking about the ambient light from, say, office windows. It's the UV intensity that burns you, not the level of visual light (which is why you can still get burnt on overcast days.) Exercise, yes, because you will sweat. Even water-resistant sunscreen will wear off with sweat.

Is it for sure not going to last into the next day, and I definitely have to put more gross stuff on my skin the next morning, even if I haven't washed anything off?
It will wear off on your bedsheets, and through mild sweating and friction during the night. If I was remotely concerned about effectiveness, I'd be reapplying the next day, sorry.

Is a parasol an adequate substitute if I can't bear reapplication?
Not really. It's a good addition, but not a perfect substitute, because UV rays go around corners (IYSWIM). as a point of comparison, if you go to the beach on a hot day at midday and sit under a beach umbrella the whole time, in full shade, you will still get burnt. This is because UV rays bounce off surfaces at all different angles, and penetrate your skin.

Hope this helps. I am not any kind of doctor, just someone who is very skin-cancer wary who has done her own research. I use SPF30+ daily on my body, and at least SPF70+ on my face, 365 days a year. I'm a white-skinned person in a very hot climate, and haven't had a sunburn for 10+ years, despite spending a lot of time outdoors.
posted by Salamander at 1:35 AM on June 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

Are you sure you're applying enough? You need 1/4 of a teaspoon for your face alone to reach the protection stated on the package, do you really apply that much moisturizer or powder?

If you dislike greasy sunscreens (which I understand!), I'd say look into Japanese formulas, but most of them are chemical. That said, I thought I couldn't wear chemical sunscreens either and do really well with Japanese formulas. They're a bit pricey for the small bottles they come in, though.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 3:29 AM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I want to point out that while clothes, hats, etc are effective there are areas of your body that you are unlikely to have covered completely - your hands, your neck, and your face. That's where sunblock comes in.
posted by Aranquis at 4:28 AM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was intrigued by a woman I met recently who makes her own sunscreen for her and her kids

Just a warning, this is not recommended. There is no way to calculate SPF, no way to ensure the SPF is evenly distributed, basically no way to check it works the way you want it to, particularly if you're trying to avoid the subtle changes that cause melanoma rather than frank sunburn - and even with that, the only way you'll know you made a dud batch is if you burn. I'm a big fan of making things by hand, but sunscreen is one of the few things best left to the professionals.
posted by Acheman at 5:37 AM on June 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

You might want to try the Shisheido line of sunblocks. I still use an old one that has recently been discontinued (mine feels milky and not heavy -- newer versions apparently are heavier and thicker in consistency).

I've also tried drugstore brand sunblocks (physical blockers only), and while they are thicker and leave a white cast on my skin, it's really not a big deal for me. Not sure what kind of skin cancer you had to deal with, but if it's basal cell carcinoma, adequate coverage with physical blockers should be enough to reduce your chances of future occurrences.

You can use the oil cleansing method to get sunscreen off at the end of the day if you can't stand the feel of sunblock! I know it clogs my pores so I need to thoroughly remove it before bed.
posted by extramundane at 6:24 AM on June 16, 2014

That Trader Joe's sunscreen has oxybenzone in it and thus should be avoided.

It's not as clear cut as that. I think there's definitely an argument to be made that EWG (which condemned oxybenzone with particular zeal this year) traffics in chemophobia (e.g. their recent campaign to remove a negligible amount of formaldehyde from a baby shampoo.)

I had a melanoma in situ removed a few years ago; I still use sunscreens with oxybenzone. I use them on my kid too, although we also wear long sleeves and hats.
posted by purpleclover at 6:58 AM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Just a few things: I'm not actually getting *sunburned* at any point, this is purely preventive measures. I had a squamous cell carcinoma on my chest, right at the point where a scoop neckline might rub your sunblock off. Heh.

LoonyLovegood: I've been shocked at how good the powder stuff is, actually. It's a Korres Mineral Foundation, and it's kept me from so much as pinking up while out and about for hours on a visit to Texas. It's... kind of amazing. But it can feel cakey and heavy, and obviously doesn't scale to the whole body, which is a bigger concern for me.

Also: Regardless of how oxybenzone does in terms of causing cancer or whatever, chemical sunblocks make me break out and/or give me terrible eczema. Especially avobenzone, but really all of them are a no-go for me. Alas, many of the products you guys are recommending to me contain avobenzone.

Thank you, this is all very helpful so far!
posted by Andrhia at 7:16 AM on June 16, 2014

On the topic of cover ups, you might want to check out Coolibar which specializes in UV-protective clothing.
posted by alms at 7:37 AM on June 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: For an inexpensive way to make cotton, rayon, or real silk clothing highly protective against ultraviolet, use Rit Sun Guard or Jacquard iDye Sun Blocker (two brands of the same excellent product). It is an invisible uv-blocking dye that you can apply to an entire load of clothing at a time in the washing machine. It gradually wears off in the wash, so you should reapply it after about twenty launderings. My family has found it to be very effective even on clothing that would otherwise allow a sunburn (e.g., a wet white cotton t-shirt). I apply it to a load of clothes every year before we go on vacation, marking the year inside the collar with a Sharpie pen so we know which ones have been treated recently enough.
posted by artistic verisimilitude at 8:13 AM on June 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Since souring on chemical sunscreens, I've been using this all-physical sunscreen — ThinkBaby (or its cousin ThinkSport, which is exactly the same) for myself and the babe. I've found it to be very effective, non-sticky, and it smells like creamsicles. It gets a great safety rating from EWG also.
posted by tigerbelly at 8:49 AM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was just diagnosed with PMLE, so sunscreen is something I've become very interested in. Chemical sunscreens don't work for it, and they make my skin unhappy, so it is physical all the way. More zinc is better, as zinc blocks all of the bad rays. My eyes are sensitive and also where I have the worst rash, so I think that when I say Elta MD Physical SPF 41+ is very good you might want to consider it. No eye or skin burning from chemicals or sun. The tint is enough to counter the sickly ghost effect of most physical sunscreens and kind of helps you to figure out when you're adequately covered. Put on a non-SPF moisturizer first to help with getting dryer skin over the day. CeraVe's physical SPF face sun lotion was horrid and made my eyes burn and managed to make me even paler than I am, which says a lot as Bare Essentuals doesn't make a powder pale enough for me. I've been using it up on my arms, but have now picked up some Vanicream 50+ for my arms and chest and back of neck, the places where the slight white cast will not be noticed. Neutrogena always uses something that bothers my princess skin.

Also, Tarte BB cream is also made without fragrance or chemical sunscreens and feels lovely. I have some as a back up. Planning on getting some powder sunscreen for on the go use. And now a couple of sun shirts and several scarves... It is a good thing I live in a place where eccentric dress is common.
posted by monopas at 11:13 AM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I put it on every time I leave the house. And wash it off at night before I go to bed because it is still there, but I would re-apply it in the morning even if I hadn't washed it off the night before.

And I should say that with non-sport usage, I haven't bothered to re-apply during the day. Though I can't spend more than a couple of hours in the sun (inside or out) anyway without The Rash coming back.
posted by monopas at 11:21 AM on June 16, 2014

I am a huge sunscreen proponent and would recommend everyone wears it. I'm super vested in sun protection because I have melasma and if I get much sun/don't wear sunscreen I end up with very dark patches on my face. I wear a European sunscreen that has mexoplex in it (not available in the U.S. but an awesome, awesome ingredient for sun protection) which is moderately goopy but I like. Anyway, my point is to not really recommend a sunscreen, but to mention that there is some decent evidence that some carotenoids up your own natural spf. In particular, astaxanthin has a lot of peer reviewed scholarly literature behind its ability to help with upping people's natural spf. Here's a popular article about it (link below), but google scholar is worth a look as well if you're seriously interested in knowing about it. I am not in anyway a supplement taking, woowoo holistic kind of person at all, this just seems to have some actual science behind it with respect to anti-ageing/sun damage prevention. Also, it's cheap enough (I think I paid 20.00 on amazon for 120 pills, taking 1 per day). It's worth noting that this might have a similar effect as the more well-marketed Heliocare pill, which also has evidence as working, using a different supplement, but is incredibly more expensive. Heliocare's active ingredient can also be purchased as the non-patented version, it's some sort of fern extract, can easily be googled as well. I'd say still wear sunscreen as well, but this can be a bit of a help too.
posted by PinkPoodle at 3:55 PM on June 16, 2014

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