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How to Pick the Best Sunscreen - Get the Most Out of Summer

How to Pick the Best Sunscreen - Get the Most Out of Summer

How to Pick the Best Sunscreens to Get the Most Out of Summer

Summer only comes along once a year. And after a long winter, Canadians love soaking up all the warmth they can. But, as far as your skin is concerned, the sun can sometimes do more harm than good.

Too much sun can lead to sunburns, hyperpigmentation, and in a worst-case scenario, skin cancer. So it’s vital you wear sunscreen whenever you expose yourself to the sun’s lovely warmth and its harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

Safety first, people

Your main priority when picking a sunscreen should be protection. You want a product that will keep you safe. To do it right, you need to consider two factors.

First, what’s the product’s Sun Protection Factor (SPF)? This is the scale of how well it protects you from UV light. The scale goes from low to high. Higher value, better protection. Look for an SPF value of at least 30—if not higher.

Second, look for the term "broad-spectrum"—this means the product offers the best protection possible. There are two forms of UV radiation to worry about—UVA and UVB rays. Some products only protect from one. Be safe. Never buy a product that only does half the job.

And if a product only protects against UVA, put it down and run screaming. UVB is the one that will burn you.

Because summer involves a fair bit of splashing about, try to find a water-resistant sunscreen. Mind you, even the best water resistance will eventually wash off. If you’re in an outdoor pool under direct sunlight, limit your exposure. When you get out of the water, towel off quickly and reapply your sunscreen.

The instructions are there for a reason

Whether it comes in a can or squeeze tube, every sunscreen on the market comes with a boatload of fine print on its label. Sure, some of it’s taking up space for legal reasons. But there’s useful information there, too. Info that helps you take better care of your skin.

Every product is different. Some need you to apply them a certain way. Others need to be reapplied at certain intervals. And there are some you need to apply before heading out. Otherwise, you won’t be protected from those initial rays.

So read the label. And use only as directed. They’re clichés for a reason.

Also, don’t be afraid to slather it on. Always make sure you’re using at least the recommended minimum amount suggested.

If you haven’t taken the time to read the label—again, you should—follow these guidelines. Put your sunscreen on before going outside. Give your skin at least 15 minutes to drink it all in. While out, reapply in another 20 minutes. Then reapply every two hours as necessary.

Pay special attention to areas that get the most sun. But don’t overlook these often-neglected spots:

  • ears
  • nose
  • lips – lip balm or gloss with SPF 30 minimum
  • tops of feet
  • backs of knees
  • backs of hands
  • hairline and part

If you’re doing anything sweaty, reapply your sunscreen even more often.

Other concerns

Many creatures are drawn to the warmth of the sun. Not just humans. As you enjoy the great outdoors, you may also find a legion of insects enjoying it.

Can you protect yourself from bugs and the sun at the same time? Yes, you can. Most sunscreens and insect repellents work well together without side effects. Almost as if the companies that make them foresaw the need to use them together.

If you need both, remember to use sunscreen first. And leave it on for a few minutes before using the bug juice. The repellent won’t diminish the sunscreen’s effectiveness. And having the sunscreen under the insect repellent won’t water down its effects, either.

If your skin is prone to sensitivity, do a test patch before using a new sunscreen. Repeat for a few days to make certain it won’t become a problem. Do it ahead of time, in spring or even winter if you can. Forewarned is forearmed, and all of that.

What sunscreen will and won’t do for you

The important thing to remember is that sunscreen has its limits. There used to be a time when people called it sunblock and thought it made them impervious to UV rays. And just like Icarus flying too close to the sun, they got burned for their hubris. And that’s why no one calls it sunblock anymore.

Wearing sunscreen does not give you carte blanche to play in the sun worry-free. It’s designed to give you more protection while you’re outside, but that’s it.

Sunscreen only filters UV. It’s not a lead shield. Some rays still get through. And while sunscreens do a decent job protecting you from sunburn, that’s not the whole story. UV light also ages your skin prematurely. And as common-sense dictates, the best anti-aging routine is the habitual avoidance of things that age your skin.

Also, exposure to UV rays can weaken your immune system. Typically, something to avoid.

How to interpret SPF factors correctly

So, you’re about to go to the beach and you check the weather forecast. It says the UV warning is high and unprotected skin will begin to burn in 20 minutes. You look at your sunscreen and it says SPF 30. And you ask yourself what does this all mean?

Okay. The SPF number means the factor by which the begin-to-burn warning is extended if you use as directed. In the above example, you multiply 20 minutes by a factor of 30 to get 600 minutes. Ten hours.

So, you’re safe to play in the sun all day, right? Wrong! (Sorry.)

First, the burn estimate is relative. It varies a fair bit. For instance, people with fairer skin are more likely to burn quicker than people with darker skin.

Also, keep in mind that SPF only refers to the protection you get from UVB rays—the ones trying to burn you. That’s right. It stands for sun protection factor, but it only takes sunburns into account. Granted, sunburns can lead to skin cancer. There’s a good reason this is the primary concern.

Unfortunately, there’s no handy-dandy number to tell you how well you’re protected from UVA rays. Your best bet is to:

  • use a broad-spectrum sunscreen
  • read the label and use as directed
  • don’t overdo it

Types of sunscreen available

Many people think all sunscreens are alike. In reality, there are two distinct ways they work. There are chemical filters, and there are physical filters. There are also hybrids that use both.

Getting the label to straight-up tell you about its filter is easier said than done. To clear up the confusion, let’s break down what to look for, what they do, and why it matters.

Chemical filters absorb sunlight and convert its UV radiation into heat. But more often than not, chemical filter sunscreens only absorb UVB. Great for sunburns, not so great for anti-aging or your immune system.

You can spot chemical sunscreens by their active ingredients. They all have names like octylcrylen, avobenzone, or octinoxate. These are the ones most readily available on the market. Chances are you’re using one right now. They offer better coverage, but they can also irritate your skin. Especially if you’re sensitive. They tend to be thick and oily, too.

Physical filters use tiny particles of naturally occurring compounds like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to scatter and reflect sunlight. And they’re effective against both UVB and UVA rays. They’re more environmentally friendly and less likely to irritate. And they’re not so gloopy—always a plus.

Chemical products might be harsher, but they protect you from UVB better. But they might not be broad-spectrum. If chemical sunscreens irritate you, look for a physical filter. Or maybe a hybrid is your best bet.

Peak times for protection

Sunlight is strongest around midday. From late spring to early fall you should wear sunscreen if you’re out between 11 am and 3 pm. Also remember to use sunscreen if you’re into winter sports, too. When the snow’s all glistening and white, that’s UV rays bouncing off the snow and coming for your face.

If you’re getting closer to the equator or at a higher altitude, you’ll need stronger protection. And be careful if you’re into water sports, as UV rays also reflect off the surface of the water. If you’re at the beach—or stranded in the middle of the Sahara—sand is also a great UV reflector. Stay under your beach umbrella as much as possible.

And mind the expiration date, please

Always check your sunscreen’s expiry date, especially if you’ve just found an old bottle lying around and figured it has to be better than nothing. When the active chemicals in sunscreen break down, you may as well be using nothing.

If you have a habit of leaving your sunscreen in warmer environments, like your glove compartment or a bag left soaking up the sun on the beach, the chemical break down will happen faster. When in doubt, throw it out.


It’s so hard to walk the fine line between fun and safety in summer. On the one hand, it’s hard to have fun if you never go outside. On the other, nothing blocks UV rays like a brick wall.

Just keep in mind that sunscreen needs to be applied early and often—before you leave and at regular intervals afterwards. Find the right sunscreen for you, don’t overdo it in the sun, and keep an eye on that expiry date, and you’ll do just fine.

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