Being blond haired, blue eyed, and relatively fair skinned, I’ve been hip to the sun, the skin and the deleterious things can happen when the two meet, for a long time. Still, like many people, I definitely could be more attentive than I am when it comes to protecting my skin. Far too often sunscreen is an afterthought (yes, you’ll often find me at a trailhead digging through the depths of my backpack for one of those small, free sample packets or a crusty, near-empty bottle).
I know, however, that sunscreen selection should be a priority for everyone. It should be approached with the same critical mindset you would employ when choosing any technical, life-sustaining gear carried along on your adventures. It’s that important.
In the short term, sunscreens are meant to stave off sunburn. Over the long haul, sunscreens help prevent premature aging of the skin and, most importantly, lessen your risk of getting all forms of skin cancer. So just what should you be looking for in a sunscreen? For an answer I talked to Steve Johnson, a self-proclaimed surfer-of-Irish descent, sufferer of stinging eyes and founder of Sol Sunguard (solsunguard.com), a small pharmaceuticals-grade sunscreen company based in less-than-overly sunny Seattle.
“Buy a good broad spectrum UVA and UVB sunscreen and always shop ingredients, not numbers,” he explained. “Buy a sunscreen with at least a sun protection factor (SPF) 30, but also, don’t obsess on high numbers as they are not accurate and can be misleading.”
A quality broad-spectrum sunscreen will include two types of filters (sunscreens filter, they do not block): organics and inorganics. Inorganics, like zinc oxide, are minerals that simply reflect light. As long as they are on your skin they are working. Organics absorb light, converting much of it into heat, thereby preventing it from penetrating the skin. Organics, like avobenzone and omc octinoxate, fatigue over time as they work thus requiring reapplication.
Don’t forget your lips and eyes. Choose an SPF lip balm of at least 15 and preferably 30. To protect delicate eye tissue, select sunglasses that block 100 percent of all UV light. You should also be sure to lube up liberally, often and at least 20 minutes prior to exposure.
The best sunscreens also add components that tailor their performance to a given sport or environment. For example, Sol Sunscreen builds its sunscreens specifically to do things like avoid eye sting, reduce slippery hands, not interact with ski goggle foam, not be water soluble, ward off water loss through the skin at high altitude or prevent the wicking action of the wind on skiers. Johnson says to avoid sunscreens with oxibenzones. These culprits sting the eyes, stain and they are transdermal—meaning they’ll show up in your urine sometimes in as little as 30 minutes and they are known to cause allergies.
After considering all of this, I am ready to start using the good stuff, because with sunscreen an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.