Your Burning Sunscreen Questions, Answered (Version 4.0)

Even the best-intentioned sunscreen user may run into questions from time to time…

  • Is it OK to use last year’s sunscreen?
  • Do you need different sunscreen for your face versus body?
  • What is the difference between a mineral sunscreen and a chemical one?! 
  • Is my sun protection bad for the environment??

Naomi Fenlin, owner of Philadelphia-based About Face Skin Care, believes that it is important to always talk about sunscreen, especially in Summer, because even with the increased sun awareness — skin-cancer rates are still on the rise.

Fenlin believes that this occurrence is likely due to simple human error — it is easy to overestimate what suncream can accomplish. (Plus, a lot of skin cancer occurrences are the result of past sun damage. Although there isn’t a way to rewind time and undo past sun violations, making sure to stay as safe as possible for the future is within your control.)

“I know that I preach the virtues of sunscreen and sun protection, all day everyday, but I’m also human. Even I sometimes forget to reapply as often as I should, miss a spot, or accidentally leave my hat at home. It is so easy to apply sunscreen once and then move on with your day — but to be as safe as possible in the sun is an ongoing, all-day process.”

If there are little tricks you can employ to make the process easier for you, go for it! (More on this below.) But ultimately, the topic of sun protection is a conversation that needs to be had frequently, and a little refresher course never hurt anyone.

What number SPF should I use?



The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) in your sunscreen relates to UVB, the rays that burn skin. It multiplies your natural protection against burning. If your bare skin would normally burn after 10-minutes in the sun, SPF 20 will multiply that number by 20 — so if it’s applied properly, it would be about 200-minutes before your skin started to burn. These numbers are approximate however, and if you feel like your skin is burning sooner than the designated timeframe… REAPPLY!

However NO sunscreen provides total protection, says Fenlin. “You can also utilize cover-up clothing and accessories — hats, sunglasses, umbrellas, something over your shoulders — to help give your skin the sun-shielding it needs.”


Can I use last year’s sunscreen?

In theory you probably can. But before you apply it all over your body, check to make sure the expiration date is still good, and verify the consistency of the product. If it smellls funny or appears to have separated, don’t use it! (Some sunscreen bottles will feature little jar symbols with the lid off that shows 6M or 12M. This means that the manufacturer only guarentees the stability of the product for 6x or 12x months after opening. If you know that you opened the product longer ago than the depicted time-frame, it’d be best to use a fresher sunscreen.)

It is best to store Sunscreens in cool, dark places, and in ideal circumstances the products should be good for two years.

Worst case scenario? If you use sunscreen that is well past it’s prime, in addition to getting a sun-burn, it is also possible that the product may have broken down into compounds that will irritate your skin or cause allergic reactions.


Do I need different Sunscreens for face and body?


It’s not just marketing — most people are happiest with  at least two different bottles of sunscreen for their SPF requirements.

While there’s nothing to stop you from using the same product on your face and body, depending on your skin type your may prefer to use something on your face that caters specifically to your skin-type. (For example, if you are acne prone, you may not want to use the pore-clogging, water-resistant formula that works great for your body, on your face. Or if you have sensitive skin, your body product may sting and irritate your face.) No matter what you end up using though, per Fenlin, “The most important thing is to have a product you’re happy to use and re-apply — and with the face, that tends to mean a more sophisticated formulation.”

“It’s important to note,” adds Fenlin, “Price is not neccesarily an indicator of quality, but more expensive products may feel (and smell) more luxurious, making them nicer to use.”

You may need even more extra sunscreen options if you have children.

“When you’re dealing with kids that are likely in and out of the water, you want products that are more water-resistant,” says Fenlin. “These products can cause breakouts if you put them on your face though; they’re designed to temporarily seal the skin, which can clog pores.” Also with children, try to avoid products that have an abundance of fragrance. These chemicals can irritate children’s skin and cause allergic reactions.

Should I trust gimmicky Sunscreens?


For this niche market, some experts (team About Face included!) believe that gimmicks are supremely useful for encouraging people to think about, and appropriately use, sun protection.

Consider sunscreen with glitter in it, eye-catching packaging, interesting consistencies (mousses, oils), and the exploding market of SPF-rated clothing and hats. If altering small product details makes it so that sunscreen application and protection is more interesting, satisfying, or fun, it makes the end-user that much more likely to utilize it.

When it comes to SPF-gadgetry; bracelets that change color with sun exposure, “smart” jewellery that tracks your local UV-exposure, apps that gauge your specific burining times, sun-protection “tech” has a lot of promise but still needs some tweaking to be fully dependable. (Consider, if your braceleted arm is in the shade and your face in the sun, or your Bluetooth connection is spotty, the gadgets cannot perform as promised.)

However, we repeat: Anything that encourages people to proactively think about sun exposure is great!

How much Sunscreen should I be using to protect myself?

Research suggests the biggest impact on sunscreen efficacy is how much you apply. Sunscreen quantity matters even more than which product you choose and how you apply it — generally, people don’t apply enough.

For a standard, full-body application, you should expect to use about a shot glass-full to cover your body, and at least half a teaspoon for face and neck.

Although the Cancer Research Center advises a minimum SPF-15 — the higher the SPF, the more likely it is to make up for the fact that you don’t put enough on. (Don’t feel bad, nobody does).

What is the difference between a Mineral or Chemical block?


Mineral sun protection usually contains zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or iron oxide, which acts like a shield of teeny-tiny rocks sitting on your skin’s surface, preventing the sun from hitting your skin. (The minerals literally form a physical barrier against the sun’s rays.)

Chemical sunscreens, which is what most SPFs are, have ingredients such as homosalate, octocrylene and octinoxate. These protect your skin by absorbing the sun’s UV energy and converting it into heat, which is released from the skin. (Our favorite sunscreens include a combination of physical and chemical blocks, this way your skin gets the most protection available.)

Could my sunscreen be harmful to marine life?


An estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen are washed into the oceans each year, which is bad for the marine environment. This year, Hawaii was the first U.S. state to pass a bill banning sunscreens containing two ingredients — oxybenzone (also known as benzophenone-3) and octinoxate (also known as octyl methoxycinnamate and ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate) — because research has shown these ingredients harm coral reefs.

If this is especially worrisome to you, sunscreens made by Green People and The Organic Pharmacy are marine-friendly.

Which sunscreens are best-sellers at About Face? 


Great question!