Sunscreen Safety 101 | Beach Life

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Sunscreen is an important topic we discuss at length at Beach Life Expert.  It’s an essential item for the beach and virtually all outdoor activities.

It can also be used as a daily facial application and the sunscreen ingredients are in many cosmetics.  Even if you aren’t using sunscreen on a daily basis, it’s good to understand how it protects you and your family when visiting the beach.

The reason sunscreen is so important is because excessive sun exposure can lead to short term pain (sunburn), early skin aging, and a significantly increased risk for skin cancer

In this article we’ll discuss ultra violet light exposure as well as ways to monitor and protect yourself.  We’ll try to answer some common questions for sunscreen, application strategies, and its impact on our skin and the environment. sunscreen safety 101 for the beach

Early Age Sun Exposure

Did you know that a large percentage of your sun exposure occurs during childhood?  As a youngster I spent a lot of time with friends and family at the pool and beach.

I remember having a dark tan by mid-summer and playing marathon whiffle ball games in the backyard wearing only a swimsuit.  I have to admit, my childhood summers were full of sun and fun.

Two things stick out in my memory: sunburns and sunscreen (or lack thereof).  I remember being sunburned, especially on my nose.

Early in summer sunburns were common.  My sisters and I would peel skin off our shoulders.  As the summer months passed my tan would develop and I could spend more time in the sun without burning.

Mind you, this was the 1990’s and sunscreen was available but not recommended as strongly as it is today.

As I look at my skin 20 years later I can already see some of the skin damage I accrued early on.  I have more freckles and moles, I suppose those are partly due to the 100’s of sunburns I’ve received.

I’m also more observant of the lines on my face and strength of my skin. I’ve noticed that once we get older and our skin begins to thin (natural part of aging), the sun damage becomes more apparent.

These days I apply facial lotion to my face with SPF that also protects against the harmful exposure of sun.  I also try to wear a hat if I know I’ll be outside during the day.

UVA vs UVB Radiation and Your Skin

UVA stands for ultraviolet radiation longwave while UVB stands for ultraviolet radiation shortwave.  UVA and UVB are commonly discussed in association to human exposure, but there is another ultraviolet light (extra shortwave) that is usually absorbed by the ozone layer and doesn’t reach Earth.

Visible light can be seen in a spectrum of colors. UVA and UVB light cannot be seen by humans and that’s why it’s difficult for us to understand.

You’ll commonly see sunscreens advertising they block UVA radiation, UVB radiation, or both.   Significant exposure to UVA and UVB light over a long period of time can cause cataracts, skin damage or premature aging, and/or skin cancer.

UVA light accounts for the majority of ultraviolet light reaching Earth’s surface.  UVA’s rays are prevalent during the daytime throughout the year, regardless of clouds or rain.  UVA radiation:

  • Causes premature aging
  • Causes wrinkling
  • Goes deep into skin
  • Accounts for 95% of UV light reaching Earth
  • Cumulative damage (over time)

UVB light accounts for a small minority of ultraviolet light, however UVB radiation:

  • Causes sunburn
  • Causes skin redness
  • Highest amount to Earth 10am-4pm (April-October in Northern Hemisphere)
  • Harmful at high altitudes and with reflection (water/snow)

As stated above, UV rays are strongest between 10am and 4pm.  Take extra precaution during these times by wearing long sleeves and hats and take frequent breaks in the shade.

I often go to the beach earlier in the morning and leave by noon (it’s one of my tricks to avoid the beach crowd but also helps with UV exposure).

One helpful tip is to keep eye on the “UV Index“.  This is usually displayed on weather forecasts in a scale from 0-11+.  The number will usually list the daily high index (around noon).

The UV Index will be a local forecast, different for each location. A UV Index of 0-2 means there is little impact from the sun’s UV rays, while 11+ means it is extremely dangerous to be in the sun from 10am-4pm and try to stay out of the sun.

If the UV Index is high and you can’t avoid being outside or at the beach, make sure to apply a high SPF sunscreen every 2 hours and even more frequently if going in and out of the ocean swimming.

Doctors recommend using no less than 1 ounce of sunscreen per application (approximately shot glass amount).  If that seems like a lot of sunscreen you’re right.  Most people apply too little.

How Long Can I Be in the Sun Without Sunscreen

After reading the above section you might be concerned about invisible UVA and UVB radiation damaging your skin.  Believe it or not, it’s actually important that we are in the sun every day because we depend on sunlight for much of our vitamin D needs.

20 minutes of cumulative sunlight is the recommended maximum for people without sunscreen.  The exact amount of time will depend based on your individual shade of skin, however, once you spend more than 20 minutes in the sun, the UV radiation will have a negative effect on the skin.

The maximum time for UV radiation will depend not only on your skin tone, but also elevation, time year, and other factors.

Using a daily application of sunscreen on your face and neck can help reduce UV radiation, allow you to spend more time in the sun, and still provide you with a daily dose of vitamin D.

Sunscreen vs Sunblock

I never knew there was a difference between sunscreen and sunblock until I moved to San Diego where people take their skin protection seriously.  I learned quickly that sunscreen protects primarily from UVB radiation not by “blocking” UV radiation but by absorbing it before it reaches your skin.  Yes, the chemicals in sunscreen actually absorb the UV rays.

Sunblock, on the other hand, uses a thick barrier of protection usually titanium and zinc oxides, that reflect UVB.  If this seems confusing think about it in the following way.

It’s common for lifeguards and surfers to put sunblock on their noses.  The white color is obvious and it’s meant to protect the nose from burning (UVB creates redness).

The white cream on their noses are oxides for UVB.  Most of us use sunscreen which is more like an oil that rubs into the skin.  Sunscreen also protects us from UVB radiation going deep into our skin as the oil absorbs the UVB radiation.

These days many sunscreens have ingredients that protect us from UVA and UVB.  When looking for possible sunscreens make sure they say “UVA and UVB protection” or “broad-spectrum sunscreen”.

What SPF is Best for Sun Protection and What SPF Should I Use

To make matters slightly more complex, we use the term SPF (Sun Protection Factor) to rank the protection of sunscreens, even though SPF refers to UVB protection (notice the lack of UVA protection).

If we consider that redness of the skin takes place after 20 minutes of sun exposure, an SPF of 20 would mean we gain 20x the protection.  Therefore using a sunscreen with SPF 20 should give us 400 minutes before we turn red.

We can also look at SPF another way.  An SPF of 15 will block out 93 percent of harmful UVB radiation.  An SPF 50 protects from 98% UVB radiation.  Although the percentages seem close, a higher SPF helps a lot.

Note that no sunscreen will provide 100% UVB protection and also note that an SPF above 50 will have little benefit over SPF 50.  My advice: go with SPF 50 but no need to buy a higher SPF!

Since SPF refers to UVB protection, we need to be cognizant of UVA radiation.  Sunscreens that include these ingredients will help with UVA protection:

  • oxybenzone
  • sulisobenzone
  • avobenzone
  • ecamsule
  • titanium dioxide
  • zinc oxide

UVB protection commonly used these ingredients:

  • PABA derivatives
  • salicylates
  • cinnamates
  • titanium dioxide
  • zinc oxide

As a general tip, look for sunscreens that are labeled “broad spectrum“.  A broad spectrum sunscreen will provide adequate protection for both UVA and UVB radiation.

How Often Should I Apply Sunscreen + Sunscreen Application Strategies

As a general rule try to apply a broad spectrum sunscreen at least 30 minutes before exposure so it has time to set on your skin.  Then apply every 2 hours and more often if you are swimming or sweating.

Most people tend to put a thin coat of sunscreen on.  I also do the same, however sunscreen application should be generous.  Some recommendations state that 1 person should apply up to 4 ounces of sunscreen throughout the course of 1 day.

I believe this is important especially early for a vacation at the beach.  If you are spending a week at the beach, apply a lot of sunscreen during the first few days as your skin adjusts.  Once you develop a base tan, you can be more relaxed about applications towards the end of a vacation.

Are Chemicals in Sunscreen Safe for Skin

There are 2 primary ingredients in sunscreen, mineral-based ingredients and chemical ingredients.

Mineral-based ingredients are:

  • zinc oxide
  • titanium dioxide
  • These reflect UV rays

Chemical-based ingredients are:

  • oxybenzone
  • avobenzone
  • octisalate
  • octocrylene
  • homosalate
  • octinoxate
  • These chemicals absorb UV Rays

Some people are understandably weary of chemical ingredients so close to their skin.  I am as well.  One chemical in particular, oxybenzone, has been found to be absorbed through the skin and appears in urine days after application.  The long term effects of oxybenzone are still being studied, however, the Environmental Working Group and their toxicology scientists suspect that oxybenzone might be linked to hormone disruption and possibly cell damage which could result in skin cancer (strange that it’s also used to protect from skin cancer).

With that said, oxybenzone has been approved by the FDA since 1978 and they recommend it safe to use as an ingredient for ages 6 months and older.

A simple suggestion of mine is to be mindful of the chemicals you apply to your skin and make sure to thoroughly wash your skin at the end of the day.  I would also be extra careful with sunscreen on young children and babies as their bodies are still developing.

Chemical-Free Sunscreen for Face

If you need a chemical-free sunscreen for everyday life, there are many excellent options on the market.  Many of them are mineral based oxides (mentioned above) and others use a combination of other products like coconut oil that have very low SPF ratings (coconut SPF 4).

If you’re working in the backyard or walking to the office these will suffice, however for a day at the beach I believe you’ll want to incorporate a stronger SPF that might involve a chemical.  If not, you can also add a wide hat and umbrella to your time at the beach to reduce sun exposure.  It comes down to personal preference.

What Sunscreen is Safe for Babies

One thing is certain: babies shouldn’t be in the sun very long at all.  Their skin is soft and more susceptible to sunburn.  More-over, their bodies my be more reactive to the chemicals in sunscreens.

If you really need sunscreen for your baby, take a look first at the mineral oxides sunscreens that are natural.  Long sleeves, hats, and umbrellas are also good to babies to give them added protection.

If your baby is over 6 months, the FDA does allow use of some chemical-based sunscreens.  If you do apply them, you’ll want a “broad spectrum” sunscreen with an SPF of 50.  Wash your baby as soon as they finish their day in the sun.  Even if there is an unknown chance of harm from chemical-based sunscreens, I believe there might be a greater risk with sunburn.

Environmental Impacts of Sunscreen

It turns out that sunscreen can also negatively impact our oceans.  Coral reefs, which have an already delicate ecosystem with global warming, are sensitive to oxybenzone (same chemical that scientists found in urine after sunscreen application).

Oxybenzone lowers the temperature at which coral will bleach.  It was found that oxybenzone was a genotoxic.  This means it has the ability to change DNA to induce deformities as well as an endocrine disrupter for coral (read more about the study here).

From an observational stand point, I’ve witnessed the oily residue of sunscreen in my pool after children’s parties.  The sunscreen that came off the children in the water actually ruined our pool filters.

The filters were cleaned but remained oily which inhibited their usefulness.  Now imagine the same oily sunscreen on 1000’s of beach goers.  There will likely be sunscreen residue that remains in the ocean.  I’m not sure where it goes but I can understand how it could impact coral and other sensitive ecosystems.

How Can I Protect My Skin From the Sun Without Sunscreen

The best way to protect your skin without using sunscreen is to use an integrated approach.

  1. Wear lightweight long sleeves.  I recommend wearing a super thin long sleeve shirt.  This can be silk or something else lightweight.
  2. Wear a wide-brimmed hat.  A hat with cloth in the back will also protect your neck.
  3. Wear sand socks – these work great for walking on hot sand, protecting your feet on rocks in the ocean, and for sunburns
  4. Use an umbrella.  Umbrella’s are perfect for relaxing on the beach in between swimming and provide your skin a nice break from the sun.
  5. Use a beach tent.  Beach tents are fairly lightweight and many of them set-up quickly (pop-up).  They are great for beach camping trips too.
  6. You can use organic products like coconut oil, but it’s only SPF 4 so do not rely on it to protect you.

The best advice I can give is: Don’t avoid sunscreen.  It is extremely helpful and protects your skin from aging and cancer.  If you’re worried about the harmful effects of chemicals on your family’s body, consider using mineral sunscreens with other protective options like frequent breaks under an umbrella.  You can also visit the beach before 10am or after 4pm when harmful UV radiation is lower.


We hope you learned something from the article on sunscreen.  For anyone going to the beach, it’s important to understand UV rays.  Consider the best time to visit the beach for UV protection and learn how to find the UV Index forecast.

Also, understand the differences between sunscreen and sunblock, and try to find a “broad spectrum” sunscreen that will protect from both UVA and UVB radiation.  Stay sunburn free and enjoy your time at the beach!