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What sunscreen should I use? A guide to everything you need to know before you buy

Don't know the difference between your UVA and your SPF? We're here to answer all your questions

Whether you’re going on holiday or planning a staycation, you’re going to need some sun protection. Even on one of the UK’s cloudiest days, the sun’s rays will still be present. This means you’re being exposed to damaging UVA and UVB rays (there’s more on this later) and you’re at greater risk of developing skin cancer or experiencing premature ageing, including wrinkles, dark spots and fine lines. So to avoid all this, slap on some sunscreen before you head out the door, ideally every day.

There’s lots of terminology when it comes to sunscreen though and brands make big claims like their lotions being “water resistant” or “once a day” (meaning you only need to apply it once for full day protection). So we’ve created a complete guide to sunscreen to help you understand what you need to know and, more importantly, what specs to look out for when you buy, and what to avoid. We’ve also reviewed a range of sunscreens ourselves, from ones best-suited to babies over six-months-old (if your tiny tot is younger than this they shouldn't be in direct sunlight at all) to ones formulated specifically for your face. We’ve also got after-sun covered for those who fall foul of burning. 

UVA and UVB rays

UV rays are what cause the damage and are the ones you need to protect your skin from, with both types being linked to skin cancer. Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays are responsible for skin reddening and sunburn. It’s also the main culprit for skin cancer but also causes tanning and premature ageing. UVB rays vary in strength depending on location, the time of day and the time of year.

Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays penetrate deeper into your skin and are responsible for tanning. They also cause premature ageing such as wrinkles. UVA rays are normally fairly consistent all year round and at any time of the day.

When buying sunscreen you want to look out for a broad spectrum version, which protects you against both types of UV rays.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent. 

What does SPF mean?

Sun protection factor (SPF) measures the amount of protection you’ll receive from the sun’s UVB rays. Rated on a scale from 2 to 50+ (the higher the number, the stronger the protection), it tells you how much longer your skin will take to turn red in response to UVB compared to if you weren’t using any protection. For example, if you normally burn after 30 minutes without sunscreen, an SPF 30 will protect you for 30 times longer, which is 15 hours. Most people use a minimum of SPF 30. 

How good is your sunscreen?

Sunscreens are rated for their level of UVA protection. When you see “UVA” inside a circle, it’s confirming the UVA protection you’ve bought is at least one third of the SPF value and therefore meets EU recommendations.

Some products may display a star rating instead, which is also a measure of the amount of protection you receive from UVA radiation. The rating is from one to five stars, where more stars mean more protection. This system requires a higher minimum level of protection than the EU recommendations. 

Different types of sunscreen

Once a day sunscreen – these claim to protect you from the sun all day with only one application. Tests completed on these sunscreens have shown otherwise though, so we recommend you stick to the normal guidelines when it comes to application. 

Water-resistant sunscreen – these are for those who are always in the pool or sea, as it means your sunscreen will keep you protected in water. Always check how long your sunscreen claims to be water resistant for and reapply once you get out the water – towel drying will rub off your lotion.

Sunscreen with insect repellent – this sounds appealing if you’re experiencing bugs at the beach but studies have shown sunscreens containing DEET see a reduction in the effectiveness of SPF protection. And you’ll need to reapply sunscreen more often than insect repellent. Experts recommend sticking to two separate products.

Facial sunscreen – these creams are often moisturisers containing SPF, so are usually lightweight, non-greasy and great for delicate or sensitive skin. Prices range from around £10 to £150, with many including anti-ageing properties too. Make sure you apply them liberally to your face and reapply every two hours in the sun. Take a look at our facial sunscreens round-up for more details.

Anti-ageing sunscreen – most now claim to contain anti-ageing properties or protection from free radicals. Free radicals are created from environmental factors such as pollution and dust and contribute to premature ageing. City dwellers should look out for this type as you’ll need daily protection from the surrounding smog. 

How much sunscreen should you apply and how often?

It’s a pain to apply and reapply sunscreen but it’s vital if you’re planning on sitting out in the sun. A good rule to follow is one teaspoon per body part that’s exposed to the sun. For example, one teaspoon for the face, one for each arm and leg and so on. Remember, if you don’t apply enough sun cream, your level of protection is reduced. 

Always apply sunscreen 30 minutes before you’re out in the sun and top up just before. Once in the sun reapply every couple of hours or immediately if you’ve been swimming or sweating – even if your sun cream claims to be water resistant. 

Sunscreen for babies and kids

Children under six-months-old should be kept out of direct, strong sunlight altogether by staying in the shade and using a hat and long-sleeved clothing to help keep skin covered.

If your little ones are older than six months, make sure they cover up with suitable clothing, stay out of the sun from 11am to 3pm and wear SPF 30 or higher on exposed skin such as the face, shoulders and neck. There are a whole range of sunscreens for kids for you to consider.

Sunscreen shelf life

Thinking about using up the sunscreen in the back of the cupboard? Don’t. Most bottles last 12 to 18 months but if they’ve been exposed to a high temperatures or direct sunlight, this will be reduced. If it has been a while since you bought it or you can’t remember when you did, it’s better to buy new. 

Sunscreen reviews

Now you know the facts, it’s time to pick the product. We’ve selected a few of our favourite sunscreens below to help kick of your search. Make sure to check out our full round-ups though by following the links. 

1. Clarins Sun Wrinkle Control Cream for Face UVB/UVA 30, 75ml: £18.90, Clarins

  • Suitable for all skin types
  • Lightweight, doesn’t clog pores and absorbs quickly
  • Leave no white marks
  • UVA/UVB protection and SPF 30
  • Contains anti-ageing properties to help reduce wrinkles
  • Highly moisturising 
  • Can wear under make-up

Find out more about facial sunscreens

2. Organic Children Sun Lotion SPF30, 150ml: £18.50, Green People

  • Natural sunscreen
  • Designed especially for kids and babies
  • UVA/UVB protection and SPF30
  • Good for sensitive skin (including eczema and psoriasis)
  • Rubs in well
  • 30p from each sale is donated to the Marine Conservation Society

Find out more about sunscreens for babies

3. Darphin Soleil Plaisir SPF 30, 125ml: £29, Darphin

  • UVA/UVB protection and SPF 30
  • Super moisturising 
  • Contains anti-ageing properties
  • Lightweight and non-greasy
  • Leaves no white marks
  • Paraben-free
  • Lightly fragranced

Find out more about sunscreens for the body

This article was first published in April 2017

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.

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