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Few things are as confusing as a bottle of sunscreen. For starters, did you know that SPF 30 is not twice as powerful as SPF 15? (But in theory, it will prevent burning for nearly twice as long.) And beyond the SPF numbers, there are things like PA+ ratings, mineral vs. chemical sun-screening ingredients, UVA rays vs. UVB rays (and something about “broad-spectrum protection,” on top of that), water resistance, and more.
These things can make shopping for sunscreen a bit of a maze. But if you’re in that maze to run — or rather, to do any outdoor physical activity in the sun — you probably want to understand the difference between sports sunscreen and regular sunscreen. And that’s a good question because most people assume that sunscreen is sunscreen is sunscreen. Do you really need a sport sunscreen to swim or run in the sun?
To get to the bottom of that question, we spoke with dermatologist Heather Rogers, founder of Doctor Rogers Skincare and Medical Director at Modern Dermatology in Seattle. Here is her expertise (backed by that of the FDA, no less).
The Difference Between Sport Sunscreen and Regular Sunscreen
While certain characteristics make some sports sunscreens superior to others, there is a single trait that they all share — and a trait that many regular sunscreens lack. (Keep in mind here that “sport sunscreen” isn’t anything official, and any brand can slap it on their product label. So, use this information to know what to look out for.)
The absolutely necessary trait of a good sport sunscreen is that it is sweat and water-resistant. And that makes perfect sense, given that you don’t want a product that will rinse away in the ocean, pool or just as you begin to perspire. You’ll fry like a lobster minutes later — and the agony only intensifies with all of that salt and sweat.
Rogers is quick to note that the term is “water-resistant” and not “waterproof” because these products aren’t blocking moisture, and they are, in fact, impacted by it. It’s just that they can stand their ground for 40 or 80 minutes, depending on their efficacy. These two markers — 40 minutes and 80 minutes — are the only two you’ll see on labels since they are the FDA’s designated benchmarks.
“If a sunscreen lasts longer than 80 minutes in testing, all it can be labeled is 80 minutes,” says Rogers. “That is the highest claim they can make.”
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How Water and Sweat Resistance Is Tested In Sunscreen
Here is a pared-down summary of the FDA’s official water-resistance testing for sunscreens:
“The water-resistance component of the test consists of alternating water immersion and drying procedures. After sunscreen application, subjects are immersed in water to cover the test area for 20 minutes, followed by a 15-minute drying period. This sequence is performed twice. Then the sunscreen on the subjects is tested according to the FDA SPF Test method. This sequence must be performed to substantiate a ‘water-resistant (40 minutes)’ claim. To obtain a ‘water-resistant (80 minutes)’ claim, the immersion and drying cycles must be repeated for a total of four immersion-drying sequences.”
Only after this process is the SPF of the sunscreen product measured, so, when you buy a sweat- and water-resistant sunscreen, its SPF is likely stronger than advertised upon application, but it can only advertise itself based on its SPF value after the 40- or 80-minute water immersion, whichever of those two it uses to label itself.
What Makes a Good Sport Sunscreen?
Here are the keys to a good sports sunscreen. Yes, the first tip is a given, but there are other qualities to look out for, too.
- Water/sweat resistant up to 80 minutes
As mentioned before, you want a sports sunscreen to be as resistant as possible against water and sweat. Make 80 minutes your benchmark since it’s the highest resistance advertised.
- SPF 30+
The FDA (and virtually all dermatologists) recommend SPF 30 as the absolute minimum defense against UV rays. This will provide 97% defense against incoming UVB rays, whereas SPF 15 provides 93% defense. If you increase from 30, you incrementally improve your defensiveness. SPF 50 will shield 98% of UVB rays, and SPF 100 will reject 99% of them. (We’ll explain the difference between UVA and UVB rays in the next bullet point.)
You also want a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which means it properly shields you from both types of UV rays — UVA and UVB. UVA rays have longer waves and cause “aging” effects on the skin (loss of moisture, rough texture, wrinkling, hyperpigmentation). They penetrate the skin more deeply than UVB rays. UVBs, with their shorter wavelengths, are what cause sunburn and skin cancer.
Rogers says that brands endure two types of testing when it comes to sun defense. “One test is conducted for sun protection factor (SPF), and one for broad-spectrum abilities. The SPF test provides a clinical measurement of a sunscreen product’s ability to protect against sunburn (which is caused primarily, but not entirely, by UVB). The Broad Spectrum test provides a measurement of a sunscreen drug product’s ability to protect against both UVA and UVB radiation.”
So, look for one advertised as broad-spectrum to ensure that it has passed the test and can shield you against UVA rays, too.
UVA ray defensiveness is measured by its protection grade, which you’ll see listed as PA+ for low protection up to PA++++ for extremely high protection. Not all brands have updated their labels with this measurement system, but if you can find a product that offers broad-spectrum PA++++ protection in addition to SPF 30 (or higher) and water resistance up to 80 minutes, then you’re golden.
- Mineral > Chemical
Which type of sunscreen you prefer is a matter of preference. In the “how does sunscreen work” section, we’ll explain the difference between these two options. However, just know for now that mineral or physical options sit atop the skin while chemical options are absorbed into the skin. Dermatologists and ecologists both prefer mineral sunscreen because we reduce any kinds of chemical deposits in the body and the oceans.
As for mineral protection, there are two primary ingredient options: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. You’ll often see both used, though one is decidedly superior: “Zinc oxide is better than titanium,” Rogers says. “It provides broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB (whereas titanium dioxide isn’t as effective against UVA long waves). Look for products with at least 10% zinc.”
- Reef/eco friendly
While mineral ingredients are generally less damaging to the environment than chemical options, both types of products have a sliding scale of “ideal” ingredients — at least when it comes to eco-friendliness.
“Reef/eco friendly is an unregulated term without a specific definition,” Rogers warns. “To me, reef-friendly means it is made with only physical sunscreens (zinc and titanium) vs. chemical sunscreen. This is because the safest sunscreen for reefs, people and the world, in general, is biodegradable. I recommend using brands with non-nano zinc oxide as the active ingredient. ‘Non-nano’ sunscreen is made up of particles larger than 100 nanometers in diameter and is safer for marine life than ‘nano’ sunscreen, containing particles smaller than 100 nanometers.”
In other words, the smaller nanoparticles can negatively impact marine life, while the larger ones are not so easily absorbed.
As for chemical options: While you’d be best to avoid any and all in order to benefit marine life, there is a scale of harmfulness yet. “The chemical sunscreen ingredients to avoid are Oxybenzone and Octinoxate,” Rogers says. “Also, Benzophenone-1, Benzophenone-8, OD-PABA, 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor, 3-Benzylidene camphor, and Octocrylene have studies to show they too can affect corals’ reproductive cycle, damage DNA, and worsen the effects of coral bleaching. Yet, big picture here, sunscreen is bad for coral reefs, but global warming is far worse. So, yes, this is important. But bigger, planet-wide action is necessary as well.”
- Consider your personal application preference
Not all sports sunscreens are liquid, and some are even sprayed on. So, what makes one “good” to you might be a matter of preference on this front: Many people prefer a roll-on application, especially for the face. You also have the traditional rub-in options and some powder options (particularly for scalp protection or makeup wearers). Just know that these options exist for you, and consider finding one that fits your preference. The best sunscreen is the one you’ll wear.
Can You Wear Sport Sunscreen on Your Face?
In the sunscreen category, there are many products engineered specifically for the face in that they won’t clog the pores and lead to excess sweating and breakouts. Where do sports sunscreens fall in terms of their face friendliness? “It is ok to use sports sunscreen on your face,” Rogers says. “Water-resistant sunscreen is made to stay on, so the risk of blocked pores and acne is real. In normal settings, I try to use my regular face sunscreen every day (which is not water-resistant). However, if I am going into the water (or exercising outdoors), I will apply water-resistant sunscreen to my body and face.”
How Does Sunscreen Work?
Sunscreen thwarts the sun’s UV rays in one of two ways. If it is a mineral/physical ingredient (like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide), then it reflects (blocks) the rays from entering the body. Again, zinc oxide is the preferred ingredient of the two for its increased effectiveness in blocking both types of UV rays.
If it is a chemical ingredient, then it seeps into the skin, where it later absorbs the UV rays as they enter. It neutralizes the rays here and prevents them from doing their damage.
Rogers says that it’s important not to refer to sunscreen as “sunblock,” even if it is the physical/reflecting option. That’s because few sunscreens (even SPF 100 PA++++ options) can stop all UV rays from entering. So, you’re not fully blocking them; you’re significantly screening them.
Does Sunscreen Expire?
Per FDA regulations, all sunscreen must remain effective for three years from its origin date. So, unless you’re shopping at a deep discount or overstock store, the product you buy should last you through the season (and should get you through the start of the following, until you buy a new bottle). While some products will list an expiration date (which should be adhered to), many will not. So, if you’re not sure how old a bottle is (and it’s erring on 2+ years), toss it.
The Best Sport Sunscreens
Per our parameters above, we will pick our favorite sport-friendly sunscreens, even if they aren’t advertised as sports options. Remember, “sport sunscreen” is a marketing phrase. Bottom line, you want water resistance up to 80 minutes, and the rest falls in line with our recommendations above. Even then, we’ll include one chemical sunscreen option since some people have no preference in that matter (as opposed to mineral/physical defense).
THE BEST SPORT SUNSCREEN FOR FACE (MINERAL)
Cetaphil Sheer 100% Mineral Face Sunscreen SPF 50, Broad Spectrum
Cetaphil Sheer 100% Mineral Face Sunscreen SPF 50, Broad Spectrum
THE BEST SPORT SUNSCREEN FOR BODY (MINERAL)
Supergoop PLAY 100% Mineral Body Mist SPF 30, Broad Spectrum