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The summer reveal: trendy facial sunscreen myths you should ignore

Is reef safe SPF the best eco option? And do you need to rub in that oh-so convenient mist on product? We separate the facts from the myths...

With more facial sunscreens than ever hitting the market, it seems that this essential skincare staple is finally getting the love (and usage) it deserves. But with popularity comes internet myths, and there are a hell of a lot of those doing the rounds.

Some are brand-new, some decades old – but all peddle misinformation. So allow us to set the record straight once and for all...

Myth: ‘Reef-safe’ SPF is a must-buy for conscious consumers

Hawaii has officially banned the use of chemical sun filters oxybenzone and octinoxate for their apparent contribution to coral bleaching, something shown to be possible in a number of lab studies. That has prompted cosmetics brands employing every other sun filter (there are about 15 commonly used ones and almost 30 in total) to declare their sunscreens are ‘reef-safe’, giving us all a chance to polish our halo by selecting the ‘right’ filters.

But, Chemistry PhD, Science Educator and skincare enthusiast Michelle Wong of, shows in a careful assessment of the science behind these claims, we’d do well not to jump to facile conclusions here. For starters, the amounts of sunscreen ingredients tested and shown to have an impact, although miniscule, are still much higher than you would expect to find when vastly diluted in the sea. The levels are also based on the assumption that people apply far more sunscreen than they actually do.

Furthermore, under these lab-based testing circumstances, many of the tested sun filters besides the two banned ones including uncoated zinc oxide, avobenzone, octocrylene, octisalate, 4-MBC and titanium dioxide, are also shown to cause some level of bleaching. In other words, none, or at least very few, sun filters come off scot-free, making it somewhat of a nonsense to declare some sunscreens ‘reef-safe’ and others, by inference, a threat to the planet.

It may be best, suggests Wong, to heed the thoughts of a number of eminent coral experts, who point out there is no direct evidence that sun filters exacerbate coral bleaching – climate change and bad reef management do. “This misguided distraction... is taking the spotlight off the scientifically proven concerns over reef decline that need urgent tackling,” comment Coral Scientists Carys Mitchelmore and Doug Fenner.

In other words, the only cause you may be supporting by investing in ‘reef-safe‘ sun lotion is that of your sunscreen brand’s bottom line. Avene Intense Protect 50+ Face & Body, is great, irrespective of its ‘ocean respect’ label.

Myth: On the beach, only sun creams by dedicated sunscreen brands are safe 

Moisturisers and anti-ageing creams with added sunscreen have long been a no-no for the beach, at least in the opinion of skin cancer experts and dermatologists. “Not only was the SPF level habitually low, there often was very little UVA protection, or none at all,” says Consultant Dermatologist Dr. Anjali Mahto.

But that was before the recent influx of daily facial sunscreens with added skin-conditioning and age-busting active ingredients. “If a cream or lotion has a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF [SPF30 at least for UVB protection], plus a high level of UVA protection [go PA+++ as a minimum] and comes with added antioxidants to mop up the free radicals that make it past the sun filters, it’s suitable for the beach,” says Mahto.

“Don’t forget, though, to use enough (a generous half teaspoon for your face and neck), and to re-apply every two hours and every time you’ve been in the water.” You won’t even have to go for a moisturiser texture: Mahto likes Charlotte Tilbury Invisible UV Flawless Poreless Primer SPF50 PA++++,  which, as the name says, is a primer. Other great options are Skingredients Skin Shield SPF50 PA+++  and SOS SPF50 Moisturising Protecting Sun Serum.

Myth: Chemical filters absorb UV, physical ones deflect them

This widely reported factoid is simply not true: both physical (ie. mineral-based) sun filters such as zinc oxide, and chemical filters such as octocrylene, protect mainly by absorbing dangerous UV radiation on the surface of the skin and turning it into an innocuous form of energy such as heat.

Another popular untruth is that chemical filters need time on the skin to ‘sink in and activate’, hence the rule to apply sunscreen 20 minutes before hitting the beach. The fact is, explains Wong, that any sunscreen, whether chemical or mineral, needs this time to dry down and form an even, gap-free layer that adheres properly to the skin to fully protect you.

The wait time also allows you to safely top your sunscreen with makeup, as there is less chance of the latter diluting or removing the former. But it’s a step you can skip with Priori Tetra fx251 Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Sunscreen Lotion, which is tinted.

Myth: A high SPF means a white cast

Nope. A particular issue for dark skin tones, the dreaded ‘white cast’, or ghostly appearance just after you’ve applied your sunscreen is  not a consequence of a high SPF number – at least not always. It’s caused by physical sun filters zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (the only two such filters available), which are mineral particles that don’t dissolve in a fluid base the way chemical sun filters do, so reflect light and therefore throw a milky cast.

Modern mineral filters are so finely milled that the cast is becoming increasingly undetectable, but very high mineral SPF levels, which require a large percentage of the particles, make formulating a truly ‘invisible’ sunscreen quite hard. There’s no such problem with chemical sun filters, which can be entirely clear even at SPF100, as evidenced by Eucerin Actinic Control Fluid SPF100.

Myth: You don’t need to rub in mist-on sunscreen 

Sunscreen mists and sprays, whether watery, milky or oil-based, are most definitely not a ‘spritz ‘n go’ proposition, no matter how much everyone (especially husbands on the beach) would like them to be. “They must always be rubbed in evenly every time you apply them, or you won’t get proper coverage and risk burning and DNA damage,” says Abi Cleeve, Founder and CEO of Ultrasun.

This also, to an extent, goes for the ‘no-rub’ facial sunscreen mists, despite what they often claim on the bottle. “Unlike UV body sprays, these mists, including our Ultrasun SPF50 Hydrating UV Face & Scalp Mist are so fine they give decent coverage when you simply mist them on as a top-up throughout the day,” says Cleeve. “But on first application, you should rub the product in well to ensure a solidly distributed base layer of protection.” Heed her words – it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to UV.

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