It’s important to avoid excessive sun exposure, because it is linked to photoaging—the process through which skin becomes wrinkled, rough, dry, or discolored with age—and it increases skin cancer risk. But for outdoor types, caring for skin after a day at the beach or barbecue is an important part of fun in the sun. Whether you need to sooth a sunburn or moisturize to keep your glow, our guide to after-sun skin care will help you find the right products. Keep the following points in mind as you consider after-sun skin care products:
- Always use sunscreen when out in the sun to prevent sunburns and skin damage.
- If you accidentally end up with a serious sunburn, ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice. Taking an anti-inflammatory pain reliever and applying ice packs or cool compresses can ease the suffering.
- If you or a family member experience fever or chills after time in the sun or after getting a sunburn, seek medical attention. This can signal a serious problem such as sun poisoning, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke.
What they are: After-sun skin care lotions tend to be thick, hydrating products that can seal moisture back into parched skin.
Why to buy: If you enjoy lots of outdoor time, an after-sun lotion may help keep your skin soft and supple.
Things to consider: These products come both with and without fragrance; if you have sensitive skin, opt for one without. These products are heavier than typical lotions, so use sparingly if you tend to have body acne.
What they are: After-sun skin care gels, wipes, and sprays typically are designed for sun-exposed or sunburned skin. They may contain aloe, chamomile, or other sunburn soothers.
Why to buy: Gels, wipes, and sprays are easier to apply than lotions and may be less irritating to sensitive sunburned skin. Gels, wipes, and sprays can be lighter than lotions, so they don’t tend to “seal in” the heat of sunburned skin—a good thing for anyone with a sunburn.
Things to consider: If your main goal is moisturizing, stick with a lotion.
What they are: Tan extenders are highly moisturizing and may contain ingredients that are designed to slow down the turnover and shedding of surface skin cells.
Why to buy: A tan is within the top few layers of skin; slowing down how quickly your body sheds those outer skin layers can lengthen the time you remain tan.
Things to consider: Some tan extenders come in bottles that look similar to sunscreens, but tan extenders are not designed to block the sun’s harmful rays. Read labels carefully to avoid accidentally using a tan extender as a sunscreen, which may lead to a nasty sunburn.
Health experts estimate that much of the sun damage we experience in life comes during childhood, which makes it especially important to keep your kids covered. Fortunately, many kid-friendly sunscreen products are available. Our guide will help you pick what you need to keep your family safe when spending time outdoors. Keep the following in mind when selecting baby and child sun care products:
- Minimize your child’s sun exposure when the sun's rays are the strongest (10 am to 2 pm).
- Cover your child’s head with a hat and cover skin with clothing in addition to sunscreen, whenever possible, especially during midday sun.
- Use a water-resistant sunscreen when your child is swimming or sweating a lot.
- Reapply sunscreen at least every one to two hours, or more often according to your child’s activity level and label directions.
Healthcare professionals generally recommend a broad-spectrum SPF of 30 or higher. As of 2012, product labels, which formerly only measured ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, are being updated to also include ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, another skin-damaging sunlight component. To differentiate, labels will now read:
- Sunscreens that protect only from UVB radiation must state, “This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.”
- Sunscreens that block both UVA and UVB radiation and have an SPF of 15 or higher will be labeled “broad spectrum."
SPF Defined: SPF—“sun protection factor”—is a measure of the time it would take a person to burn in the sun without sunscreen vs. the time it would take them to burn with sunscreen. SPF 30 is not twice the protection of SPF 15. A product with SPF 15 blocks about 94% of ultraviolet rays, an SPF 30 blocks 97%, and an SPF 45 product blocks 98% of rays, but only for a couple of hours. After that, all sunscreens, regardless of SPF, must be reapplied for full protection.
What they are: Sunblocks, also called physical sunscreens, consist of finely ground mineral particles such as zinc and titanium, and form a physical “shield” against the sun’s radiation. The two most common physical sunscreen ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Why to buy: Sunblocks are less likely to cause skin irritation and rashes than other sunscreens, which makes them an attractive option for young kids and any child with sensitive skin. For parents who prefer to reduce their child’s chemical exposure, health experts advise using physical sun blocks. Many pediatricians recommend only physical sunscreens for children under two years.
Things to consider: Sunblocks are more expensive than chemical versions and may not be as water- or sweat-resistant, which means they have to be reapplied more frequently to ensure protection. Some physical sunscreens contain fragrance or oils, both of which may irritate skin.
What they are: All-natural sunscreens contain only physical sun blocking ingredients, and may contain herbs and other plant extracts to soothe the skin as well. They do not contain synthetic chemicals, fragrances, or oils.
Why to buy: All-natural sunscreens are a good option for children with extremely sensitive skin, very young children, and babies.
Things to consider: All-natural sunscreens tend to be expensive products. They are not resistant to water and sweat, so they may not appropriate for long days at the beach or pool. Be sure to reapply these products often for full sun protection. Despite the higher price, keep in mind that if an all-natural sunscreen prevents rash or skin irritation, it’s less expensive than rash creams or a trip to the doctor’s office.
What they are: Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that react with the sun’s radiation as it hits the skin, preventing the rays from harming skin. Common chemical sunscreen ingredients include avobenzone, parsol 1789, dioxybenzone, oxybenzone, cinnamates, cinoxate, ensulizole, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, padimate O, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), and salicylates.
Why to buy: Chemical sunscreens are found in many water- and sweat-resistant products, because they tend to have more “staying power” than physical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens tend to be less expensive and come in easy to apply options, such as lotions, gels, sprays, wipes, and sticks.
Things to consider: Children may have allergic reactions to certain chemical sunscreen ingredients. Common offenders include PABA, cinnamates, and salicylates. If your child has had skin reactions to sunscreens in the past, but you still want the staying power of a chemical sunscreen, try a brand that is free of these chemicals. Also try fragrance-free and oil-free products to minimize skin reactions.
What they are: Long-wear and water- and sweat-resistant sunscreens are designed to offer the best protection in active situations, such as during outdoor play or when swimming. These products can provide up to 80 minutes of protection, after which time they must be reapplied for full sun protection.
Why to buy: For active kids, long-wear and water-resistant products may be the only type of sunscreen that truly protects against the sun. If your child is very active, sweats a lot, or is a big swimmer, these products are a good option.
Things to consider: Many kids complain that long-wear sunscreens feel “sticky” or “greasy” on the skin. While this may be annoying, you can explain that this is the reason these products can stand up to sweat and water while still offering sun protection. New labeling requirements allow a product to be called water “resistant,” but not “waterproof” or “sweat-proof.”
Many people feel they look their best when they have that “just back from the beach” glow. Unfortunately, the real-deal tan may come with risks of skin damage, premature aging, or even skin cancer. To get some color and stay safe, our self-tanning guide will help you make some informed decisions. And keep the following in mind when selecting self-tanners:
- Self-tanning products do not provide protection against the sun’s burning rays. Only sunscreen products with SPF—sun protection factor—provide sun protection.
- If you use a self-tanner, the color of your skin is not an indication that you have a “base-tan.” You will still burn in the sun as if your skin had not been previously exposed.
- The key ingredient in all self tanners and sunless tanning products is dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, which is used alone or combined with other tanning components, such as erythrulose, and reacts with surface skin cells to develop into a tan to light brown color.
- The color is only deposited in the outermost layer of skin cells. Most of these skin cells are dead and will be shed within a few days. To make your tan last, exfoliate your skin prior to applying self tanner and moisturize after the tanner dries, to seal in the color.
- DHA is the key ingredient in all self-tanners is the same. The difference in cost is due to other product features, such as added skin-soothing ingredients or pleasant fragrances.
- Different products give slightly different color tones, so if one product leaves you feeling too “orangey,” try a different product or switch to a product designed to give less color next time around.
- To remove too-intense color, gently exfoliate skin with a washcloth or exfoliating brush.
- Self-tanning products can stain hands, clothing, sheets, towels, and bathmats, so use with caution. Follow the label instructions carefully.
- Before using any new product, do a patch test on a small area to ensure the product agrees with your skin.
What they are: Face self-tanners come as gels, lotions, creams, and towelettes. They deposit DHA, the key “tanning ingredient,” onto the skin. Products for the face often give a more subtle color than those designed for the body. Face self-tanners tend to be of thinner consistency and come in oil-free and non-comedogenic (non-acne-causing) varieties, to minimize the risk of skin breakouts.
Why to buy: Any tan that you achieve naturally, with sun exposure, causes skin damage; a self-tanner is the only “safe tan.” Products are available that develop into a variety of colors, from light to dark tan, so you can customize the color. Many products can be applied for several days in a row, so the color deepens slowly over time, allowing you to control the end result.
Things to consider: Fragrance is one of the most common culprits in causing negative skin reactions to new products. If you have sensitive skin, opt for an unscented product with the fewest ingredients. If you get no sun, you may want to consider taking a vitamin D supplement to avoid deficiency.
What they are: Body self-tanners come as oils, gels, lotions, creams, and towelettes. They are used to deposit DHA, the key “tanning” ingredient, onto the skin. Products for the body often give more color than those that are designed for the face. Body self-tanner lotions and creams often have a thicker consistency, since body skin tends to be dryer than face skin.
Why to buy: As with the face, the only safe tan on the body is one that comes from a self-tanner. Sun exposure to achieve a tan can increase the risk of premature skin aging and skin cancer. Products come in such a wide variety of forms so that nearly everyone can find a product that works well and gives the desired color result.
Things to consider: Exfoliating and shaving, both of which may remove the outermost layer of skin cells, will speed up how quickly your tan fades. Try exfoliating and shaving your legs before applying self-tanning products to get the longest-lasting result. Moisturizing frequently will prolong the length of your self-applied tan as well.
From the summer months when we are outdoors in wind and sun, to wintertime when indoor heating and frigid temperatures result in overly dry air, we’ve all experienced flaky skin and dry patches. Finding the right products to nourish dry skin is key to keeping your outermost layer happy and healthy. Keep the following points in mind as you consider skin moisturizers:
- If you’ve never had severely dry skin in the past and develop it suddenly, talk to your doctor about this. Overly dry skin can signal other health issues such as hormone imbalances or an underactive thyroid gland, which require medical attention.
- Many people confuse rosacea, a chronic condition involving facial skin inflammation, which can appear as redness, broken blood vessels, or acne-like skin eruptions, with true acne. Rosacea may look like acne that needs to be dried out with acne products, but a moisturizing rosacea-specialty product is a better option.
- If you’re pregnant, avoid moisturizing products that contain vitamin A–derived substances, such as retinol, retinal, or retinoids. These are not safe for use during pregnancy, and prescription vitamin A versions may even cause birth defects.
What they are: Facial moisturizers are designed specifically for use on delicate facial skin. Some may be designed for specific areas of the face, such as around the eyes or mouth.
Why to buy: Facial moisturizers are the right option to properly hydrate facial skin and keep it supple. Hand creams and other body moisturizing products tend to be too heavy; resist the temptation to use these instead of face-specific products.
Things to consider: Pay attention to labels and use only as directed. For example, many products are not designed for use on eyelids or close to the eyes, and will sting if applied to these areas. Pick products to meet your needs. Facial moisturizers range from items to treat very dry faces to light moisturizers for acne-prone skin. Expensive may not be better. Ask your doctor or friends and family members for suggestions.
What they are: Body moisturizers come in lotions and thick creams and tend to be heavier than facial products and lighter than hand and foot moisturizers. They often contain humectants—substances to seal moisture into skin, and come with or without fragrance.
Why to buy: Body moisturizers provide the right weight to keep you feeling soft and velvety all over. Many like to keep a good body moisturizer around so it’s always there to use when needed. Some people use them year round, while others only need them during specific dry seasons.
Things to consider: Fragrances in lotions and creams are the most common culprit for allergic reactions. If you’ve had problems with moisturizers in the past, try a product formulated for sensitive skin or that is fragrance-free.
What they are: Moisturizers for hands and feet tend to be the heaviest, most moisturizing products available. Skin on hands and feet is thicker, tougher, and may be more exposed than other areas; these body parts may need a heartier product.
Why to buy: These products are reasonably priced and can address serious dryness, such as cracked heels and chapped, irritated hands. They provide the deepest moisturizing for the areas that need it.
Things to consider: These products are best for thicker, tougher skin, so avoid using on the face or other sensitive body areas where they may clog pores.
What they are: Specialty moisturizers for dry patches are formulated to address a specific concern, such as dry elbows or knees. These products may contain substances that speed up cell turnover in the skin, so the outer layers of dead skin are shed more quickly. This allows the moisturizer to penetrate to where it is most needed.
Why to buy: If you have a very dry body area, especially elbows, knees, heels, or hands, a specialty product can help get the problem under control.
Things to consider: As with hand and feet moisturizers, these products are formulated for very tough, dry skin. They often do not work well on delicate facial skin.
Excessive sun exposure causes photoaging—a cumulative process through which our skin becomes wrinkled, rough, dry, and discolored. Even more concerning is that too much exposure can cause skin cancer. Yet, time in the sun is often part of a healthy and active lifestyle, and our bodies need sun in order to make vitamin D, a biomolecule with many essential functions. Fortunately, an array of sunscreen products are available that can help protect your skin when spending time outdoors. Keep the following points in mind as you consider sunscreen products:
- Even if you are trying to get a small amount of sun exposure to allow your body to make vitamin D—experts agree that 15 minutes of early morning or late afternoon sun is plenty for most people—minimize or avoid midday sun, when rays are the strongest (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
- When in the midday sun, wear a broad-brimmed hat and cover skin with clothing, whenever possible. A plain white t-shirt offers an SPF of about 8 (not much). Darker colors typically offer more protection.
- Use a water-resistant sunscreen if swimming or sweating.
- Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, or more often, according to activity level and label directions.
- If your skin is never exposed to sunlight without sunscreen, consider taking a vitamin D supplement to avoid deficiency.
- Sunscreens that only block ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation are fine for preventing sunburn, but don't protect against skin cancer or early photoaging.
- Sunscreens that block both UVA and UVB radiation and have an SPF of 15 or higher are labeled “broad spectrum” and may help protect against more of the harmful effects of sunlight.
- Healthcare professionals generally recommend a broad-spectrum SPF of 30 or higher.
SPF—“sun protection factor”—is a measure of the time it would take a person to burn in the sun without sunscreen vs. the time it would take them to burn with sunscreen. The scale is not linear, so SPF 30 does not offer twice the protection of SPF 15: SPF 15 blocks about 94% of UV rays, SPF 30 blocks 97%, and SPF 45 product blocks 98% of rays, but only for a couple of hours. After that, all sunscreens, regardless of SPF, must be reapplied for full protection.
Another kind of burn risk
Spray-on sunscreens often contain flammable ingredients. Several incidents of significant burns in people wearing spray-on sunscreens near open flames have led the FDA to issue a warning about the use of these products, directing people to stay away from flames, sparks, and ignition sources while applying and wearing spray-on sunscreens.
What they are: Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that react with the sun’s radiation as it hits your skin, preventing the rays from harming skin.
Why to buy: Chemical sunscreens are found in many water-resistant products because they tend to have more “staying power” than other sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens tend to be less expensive and come in easy-to-apply options, such as lotions, gels, sprays, wipes, and sticks.
Things to consider: Some people have allergic reactions to certain chemical sunscreen ingredients. Common offenders include PABA, cinnamates, oxybenzone, and salicylates. If you’ve had skin reactions to chemical sunscreens, try a brand that is free of the chemicals to which you've reacted (if known). Also, try fragrance- and oil-free products to minimize skin reactions.
When sunscreens wash off the skin, they enter the environment. Some chemicals used in sunscreens have been shown to damage coral, and to accumulate in fish and other marine life, where they act as hormone disrupters.
In 2011, the FDA expressed concerns about spray-on sunscreens, especially for children, since it is unclear whether this method of application leads to inhalation of unsafe chemicals, or adequately protects against sun damage.
What they are: Physical sunscreens contain finely ground mineral particles, such as zinc and titanium salts, that form a physical “shield” against the sun’s radiation. The two most common physical sunscreen ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Why to buy: Physical sunscreens are less likely to cause skin irritation and rashes than chemical sunscreens, making them an attractive option for young kids and adults with sensitive skin. For consumers who prefer to reduce chemical exposure, many health experts advise using physical sunscreens and many pediatricians recommend them for children under two years.
Things to consider: Physical sunscreens, when properly applied, usually give a white appearance to the skin. To reduce this effect, some manufacturers have developed more transparent zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sunscreens using so-called nanoparticles. Although concerns have arisen regarding the potential harms of nanoparticles of zinc and titanium salts, the research so far indicates that they do not pose health dangers.
Physical sunscreens are likely to cost more by volume than chemical sunscreens. In addition, some people find that physical sunscreens “sweat off” more easily, which means they have to be reapplied more frequently to ensure protection.
Keep in mind that even physical sunscreens can contain fragrances or oils, both of which may irritate skin.
What they are: All-natural sunscreens contain only physical sun-blocking ingredients, and may contain herbs and other plant extracts to soothe the skin as well. They do not contain synthetic chemicals, fragrances, or oils.
Why to buy: For those who have children with extremely sensitive skin or very young children, all-natural sunscreens can be a good option.
Things to consider: Because these sunscreens contain physical sun-blocking agents, all of the concerns associated with physical sunscreens apply to all-natural sunscreens. All-natural sunscreens are not as resistant to water and sweat, so a single application may not provide enough protection for a long day at the beach or pool. Be sure to reapply them often to maximize the benefits.
What they are: Long-wear and water-resistant sunscreens are designed to offer the best protection in active situations, such as during exercise or when swimming. Product labels will tell you whether they have been rated for 40 or 80 minutes of protection. After that time they must be reapplied for full sun protection.
Why to buy: For active people, long-wear and water-resistant products may be the only type of sunscreen that truly protects against sun damage. If you tend to sweat a lot or like to swim, these products can be a good option.
Things to consider: Many people find long-wear sunscreens feel “sticky” or “greasy” on the skin. While this may be annoying, this is the reason these products can stand up to sweat and water while still offering sun protection. Labeling requirements allow a product to be called water “resistant,” but not “water-proof” or “sweat-proof.”
What they are: Sunscreens marketed for kids can contain chemical or physical sun-blocking ingredients, or sometimes a combination of the two. These products are usually designed to be safer and gentler on the skin, and often do not contain the chemical ingredients most likely to cause irritation or allergic reactions or pose health harms (PABA, cinnamates, oxybenzone, and salicylates).
Why to buy: Try a kid-friendly sunscreen for your family, especially for children younger than 12 years. The most kid-friendly products contain only physical sun-blocking ingredients.
Things to consider: There are no regulations guiding the use of the words “children,” “kids,” and “family” in product names or marketing—in some cases, these products are no different than those marketed for general use. Sunscreens marketed as kid-friendly tend to cost more, so be sure the formula is truly gentle and safe.
Sunscreens are not recommended for babies under six months old. Babies should be protected from the sun by keeping them in the shade or covered up if they have to be in the sun.