Sunscreen 101: Lessons from a Lupie

While some sunshine is healthy, most people know that they need to protect themselves from the sun in order to prevent sunburns, premature aging, and skin cancers.  However, there are people for who sunshine is dangerous to their health, even non-solar sources of UV light can cause an immune response. The latter folks are photosensitive, for example, people with lupus (like myself) need to be extra vigilant to cover up not only to prevent unsightly sores on the skin but to prevent exacerbating the condition in other organs. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t understand what types of sunscreens are available or how to use them most effectively.

Not just skin either. Eyes too.


uv tester
I used one like this but there are electronic ones too.

UV is divided into two types, UVA is the light (radiation) that causes cellular damage, while UVB is the light (radiation) that causes burns. It is important to protect skin from both UVA and UVB and sunscreen that do this may claim to be broad-spectrum. Along with the daily weather forecast, there is a UV forecast that gives the UV index for the day on a scale from 0 to 11+ and it’s important to be aware of year round if you are photosensitive. People may show more skin in the summer months, but even in the winter the UV index can be quite high and if there is snow on the ground the light reflects back up so skin is exposed from above and below. If you are in doubt of the UV exposure indoors or out, you can get a UV tester.

Most people don’t consider the hidden sources of UV, such as fluorescent lamps and black lights. At my local grocery store I have to pay attention to the open refrigerated section with it’s low, bare fluorescent bulbs, and if I get water refilled there is a UV light under the spigot to kill microbes. At bars and nightclubs, I need to be aware of black lights, if I see white clothes glowing I know that need to cover up or scram.

NYE 2012 I got SO burned, lace top design seared into my skin. Good times!

SPF, or sun protection factor, is another thing that isn’t well understood (and for good reason, it’s a terrible system). SPF is number associated with how much UVB is being blocked, so SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB, or 15x more sun protection factor than nothing at all. But that really depends on how old the product is, how much is used, and how long since it was applied, and what activities the person has been doing (see below). Consumer Reports recommends getting SPF 40 minimum just to make sure you’ll be getting close to SPF 30 in actuality.  No amount of SPF is going to block all UVB and SPF has nothing to do with UVA.

Chemical Sunscreen

As the name implies chemical sunscreens use chemicals (xybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octinoxate, octocrylene, and/or homosalate) that absorb UVA and UVB light, preventing your skin from absorbing it. When filmed with a UV filter, white sunscreen lotion looks black because it has absorbed all the UV light.

neutrogenaThe Pros:

The Cons:

  • Requires a lot for proper coverage, ~ a shot glass worth per limb for an average sized adult.
  • Takes 30-45 minutes after application to start working and stops working after a couple hours as the chemicals degrade with UV exposure.
  • Stains clothing, especially white clothing as it oxidizes (and bleaching methods make it worse).
  • The chemicals mimic hormones causing endocrine disruption not just for the people using it, but also for anything living in waterways. (This is why Hawaii banned certain types of chemical sunscreen this year).
  • Product degrades quickly so can’t be used over multiple seasons.

Physical Sunscreens

This class of sunscreen use light reflecting minerals to, well, reflect the UV light away from the skin. Zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide are the most common minerals used in physical sunscreens. Physical sunscreens are often marketed as “baby” or “natural” sunscreens because they use minerals as UV filters rather than chemicals.


  • Start working immediately upon application.
  • Depending on other ingredients in the product, it can last for years.
  • Doesn’t leave yellow stains in clothing.

badger balmCons:

  • Non-nano formulations can feel heavy and greasy.
  • They may leave white film or haze to the skin or other surfaces, though Badger Balm offers a tinted formula.
  • Nanoformulations may get absorbed into the body which may cause health risks or contribute to skin reactions.
  • Need to be reapplied after sweating, swimming or contact with clothing or towels.

Other Options

There are other things to consider in addition to or instead of sunscreen that is applied to the skin– this is especially useful for people who have very sensitive skin, for babies younger than six months, or for people with limited mobility for proper application (and reapplication) of sunscreen.


rit sun guard
Love this stuff.

There are fabrics created with UV filters in them (UPF) and are often used in hats, though there are a few clothing companies that use them for all kinds of clothing from semi-casual to athletic wear. I’ve purchased a few items from Coolibar but the high price was not reflected in the quality of most of the items I bought. There are more affordable brands available on Amazon. Alternatively, you can use a laundry additive, such as Rit Sun Guard to enhance the UV filter of regular clothing. Though keep in mind the UV blocking the ability of cloth is significantly reduced if the clothing gets wet– and if you are near light colored sands or water remember that UV is reflected back up so even if you are wearing a UPF wide-brimmed hat, your face and neck may still get burned. I recommend sun sleeves for driving, even with the windows up (I buy a couple pairs, keep one in the car and another in my purse).

so tempting


If you are photosensitive it is wise to plan outdoor time in non-peak sun hours. I try to do outdoor errands and chores before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. in the summer. Not only is it usually cooler out but the UV index isn’t at its peak. There are sun sails, tents, and umbrellas made with UV blocking materials that can be set up in outdoor areas for people who want to get out but need protection.

UV blockers

Driving in the summer like…

Treated glass can block the majority of UVB rays but they don’t block UVA unless they are treated, for example, car windows (even untinted) will block UVB but only windshields are treated to block UVA. Side and rear windows may need to be treated with UVA-blocking tint or film (which aren’t necessarily very dark). The same goes for homes or offices with a lot of windows, especially older windows, that catch the sun. There are UV blocking window films that can be applied. For auto and functional home windows, I recommend Gila brand they come in permanent and removable options.  I use a decorative window film by Cotton Colors that throws rainbows all around the room (don’t be fooled by cheaper imitations that steal product photos, I did that once and it was terrible).  If you have to spend a lot of time around florescent lights (including CFLs) make sure they are covered with a lampshade, or plastic cover to block the UV.

cotton colors 1
It blocks UV while throwing prisms around the room.

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