Sunscreen Saga

June 17, 2016 @ 6:05 pm | Filed under: ,

Note: this is a very long post about sunscreen. YMMV.

Okay so wayyyyy back in 2007 (about a year after we moved to San Diego, which is no coincidence) I wrote a post about my quest for the perfect sunscreen. By which I meant: a tolerable sunscreen. I am no fan of that typical sunscreen smell, and I can’t tolerate it at ALL on my face. And in my distracted 30s, I mostly didn’t bother. Which: big regrets. There came a point when I realized my freckles were starting to merge into sunspots. Use sunblock, y’all. Every day, in all weathers.

That 2007 post turned up few leads. I was, at the time, feeling uncomfortable about chemical sunscreens like those with oxybenzone as the active ingredient. But mineral sunscreens (active ingredients zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, about which more later) have their own down sides: mostly notably a tendency toward leaving a white cast on skin, especially darker skin tones. But to be honest, my British Isles ancestry renders it pretty hard to tell if I have a zinc oxide sheen. My skin tone has been referred to affectionately by certain friends as “fish-belly white.” A whole lot of these sunspots supersized freckles are the result of a doomed effort to achieve the merest shred of tan in my early teens. (What can I say? It was the 80s.)

Sorry, kid, that tan ain't happening

Sorry, kid, that tan ain’t happening

PSA: Don’t rely on makeup for your sun protection

The longer I lived in SoCal, the less I cared about sunscreen ingredients. That sounds crazy, but it’s just that I learned pretty quickly that in this übersunny climate, the critical thing was that I wear sunblock, no matter what’s in it. I know, I know, hats are our friends, but I have always hated wearing a hat. Just can’t do it. (To Scott’s dismay.) Which means: sun on my face, even if it’s just in the intervals between house and car, car and shop. Which means: sunblock. I tried so many brands, hoping for an odorless kind, or any-odor-but-sunscreen. So many brands. For a while I was interested in mineral foundations containing SPF, but in reading up on them I learned that: 1) they don’t offer sufficient coverage (you would need a heavier layer than anyone wears as foundation); 2) you’re inhaling those tiny particles of active sunscreen ingredients (and bismuth and whatever else is in them), which can’t be good; 3) I can’t stand wearing foundation anyway, even the mineral kind. I am not a makeup person. A swipe of mascara, maybe, if I’m feeling fancy?

My choice from 2012-2016

pc resist cellular defenseEventually I landed on an option I had considered too pricey at first: Paula’s Choice Resist Cellular Defense Daily Moisturizer SPF 25. This next bit is going to sound like a commercial, but really it’s just an honest account of my experience. I’ve been using this sunscreen since 2012 (according to my order history). It’s a broad-spectrum mineral sunscreen* with active ingredient titanium dioxide (8%). *(Seriously, more on this in a minute.) Why I landed on it: NO AROMA TO SPEAK OF. Definitely no trademark sunscreen smell. And I like its creamy consistency (it has decent moisturizer ingredients but that’s not why I buy it—I use it over a regular moisturizer) and (for me at least) lack of white cast.

I did (and do) wince at the price tag, but as I mentioned, I spend next to nothing on makeup, and nearly all my clothes are purchased with rewards points off the clearance rack. I get four moderately priced haircuts a year and don’t color my hair. (Yet.) So I figured I could justify spending a little more on sunscreen. Plus Paula’s Choice offers frequent sales, free shipping over a minimum order total, and free samples. (For the record, the PC links in this post are not affiliate links, but if you are a new customer and you use my Refer-a-Friend link, we’ll each get a $10 reward code.)

For four years, I’ve been pretty content with this product. It leaves my face a little shiny after application, perhaps? If you wear makeup, that wouldn’t be a problem, but: see above. If I pat it in well and wait a few minutes, the shininess diminishes. I mostly don’t think about it. Can we just call it dewy?

But SPF 25, you’re saying. That’s not high enough. Well, the thing is, the SPF number refers to an amount of time you are protected from UVB rays—the kind of UV exposure that causes sunburn. If you would normally burn after 10 minutes (hello, fishbelly), SPF 25 means you won’t burn until after 250 minutes. So for continuous coverage, you need to reapply.

But you should be doing that anyway, every three hours or so. The active ingredients in chemical sunscreens become ineffective after a while, and both chemical and physical sunscreens simply wear off our skin due to sweat and absorption. So for really thorough sun protection, you should be reapplying after two to three hours. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this until about a year ago, so I was probably a lot less protected than I thought I was.

(Also: if you’re using a chemical sunscreen, you should make sure to apply it 30 minutes before going outside. Your skin needs to absorb it before the protection really kicks in.)

UVB ain’t the half of it

UVB protection is important but it’s UVA rays we really need to watch out for. UVA exposure is what causes wrinkles and discoloration and high risk of skin cancer. And UVA rays pass through glass, so you need protection from them even if you’re in your car, or inside near a window. (As I type, rays are falling across my arms. It’s 4pm and I haven’t reapplied all day. Excuse me for a moment, will you?) (Okay, I’m back.) A sunscreen that boasts “broad spectrum” coverage is promising protection against both UVA and UVB rays.

But even there, you have to make sure those words have you covered—literally. What you really want is full spectrum coverage. Japanese sunscreens tend to be more serious about this than most Western brands. There’s a whole different rating system (PA++++ etc), and this dedication to truly full spectrum coverage is what sends a lot of people to online marketplaces in search of proven brands like Biore.

My unsettling discovery

skin recovery daily moisturizing lotionA few months ago, I ran out of my Cellular Defense, and Paula’s Choice was out of stock. I tried one of her other mineral SPF moisturizers instead—Skin Recovery Daily Moisturizing Lotion SPF 30. It wasn’t love at first smear, but I found it to be an acceptable substitute. Texture: great. Shine factor: possibly a bit better? Aroma: well, you can’t have everything. No sunscreen smell (which I think is probably because it, too, is a mineral sunscreen; I think the scent I so dislike, that strong, sharp fragrance that so immediately evokes the beach and the swimming pool, only not in a good way, is caused by ingredients in chemical sunscreens). Skin Recovery SPF 30 is almost fragrance-less, but when it first goes on there’s a faintly unpleasant scent that fades quickly. Maybe it’s just me.

Since I wasn’t in love with this product, I decided to try something new. A friend of mine had high praise for a particular sunscreen that she absolutely loves, including its light, citrusy scent. It contains oxybenzone but I decided to give it a try nonetheless. Well, it wasn’t for me. The citrus scent was actually pretty nice, but it had a hint of That Sunscreen Smell underneath. Also, I broke out in a pretty intense rash (first time ever!) later that day—but I can’t pinpoint that to the sunscreen because I stupidly tried a new cleanser and skin cream the same day, breaking a cardinal rule of skin care. Don’t try more than one new product at a time, and give it a couple of weeks—better yet, a month—before you add something new.

Okay, so my trial was a bust. I returned to the mineral-sunscreens-only camp and was pleased to see my old Cellular Defense was back in stock. On a BOGO (half off the 2nd), no less. I stocked up.

Finally I’m getting to the thing I said I’d get to in a minute

But my allergic reaction from those other products (we’re talking red, itchy bumps on my entire face and neck) sent me on a quest to identify the particular ingredient I’m sensitive to. I’d like to avoid it in the future. (Understatement.) This quest became a rabbit trail into the fascinating world of skin care ingredients. And one of the things I happened upon was information that suggested titanium dioxide—the active ingredient of my beloved Cellular Defense—offers only partial UVA protection. Here’s one chart showing it covering UVB and UVA2 rays, but not far into the UVA1 range. Gulp.

Zinc oxide appears to cover the whole UVB and UVA spectrum (both UVA1 and 2). I felt stupid: why had I been blindly, blithely skating by with only partial UVA coverage for so many years? After I checked the active ingredients of my backup—the Skin Recovery SPF 30—I felt stupider. Its actives are 3.85% titanium dioxide and 3.12% zinc oxide. I have more reading to do to nail down optimal percentages, but the zinc/titanium combo makes me feel more at ease.

But I know Paula’s Choice is a company with integrity, so I reached out to customer service to express my concerns about the lack of UVA1 coverage in the Cellular Defense. After all, I’ve trusted my face to this product for over four years.

In the interests of information-sharing, here’s the response I received from Paula’s Choice:

Dear Melissa,

Thank you for your email.  We appreciate this opportunity to address what you have read about titanium dioxide as a sunscreen ingredient, and to reassure you that our RESIST Cellular Defense SPF 25 definitely provides sufficient UVA/UVB protection.  The amount of titanium dioxide in this product is 8, a concentration that provides reliable broad-spectrum protection and we have substantiated this with extensive testing from independent labs.

We’re not sure where the information about titanium dioxide not being a great active sunscreen ingredient came from but the reality is titanium dioxide is a very effective broad-spectrum SPF ingredient and is widely used in all manner of sun protection products worldwide.

What gets confusing for some consumers is trying to decipher research that ranks sunscreen ingredients by a UV spectrum graph or other general references. By most standards, broad-spectrum coverage for any sunscreen ingredient is defined as one that surpasses 350 nanometers (abbreviated as “nm”, this is how the sun’s energy is measured).  Titanium dioxide surpasses this measurement, but, like many sunscreen actives, the critical factor is how the ingredient is formulated into a sunscreen product.

Titanium dioxide, when properly formulated, can achieve a wavelength of 380 or higher, which is well within UVA II and UVA I (as well as, of course, UVB) levels and certainly qualifies for broad-spectrum protection. This is not easily understood in terms of other factors affecting how sunscreen actives performs (such as the base formula) so the issue of broad-spectrum protection can get confusing for some. While it is true that some sunscreen ingredients have varying levels of UVA protection, titanium dioxide’s abilities are strongly influenced by the particle size of the raw material—too small or too large and you won’t achieve that critical UVA/UVB level of protection.  The right size results in a powerful and reliable sunscreen formula.

You may have heard of the FDA’s revisions and improvements to SPF formula rating standards—all sunscreen products must pass new testing requirements that ensure broad-spectrum UV protection.  Our RESIST Cellular Defense SPF 25 far surpassed the new rigorous standards established by the FDA for UVB and UVA protection, and it otherwise would not have been approved for this claim on its packaging.

It is important to note that sunscreen is critical to Paula’s ChoicePaula and her Product Development team would never produce an SPF-rated product that did not provide reliable broad-spectrum protection.  Please let us know if you have any additional questions.

Best regards,

I replied:

Thank you for this thorough response. The information you have provided is encouraging. Thank you for clarifying the definition of “broad spectrum coverage.” For reference, here is the article I read which alarmed me:

It states, “Titanium dioxide protects against UVB rays, but not the full spectrum of UVA rays. Zinc oxide protects against the entire spectrum of UVB and UVA rays. “This chart ( indicates that Titanium dioxide protects against UVB and UVA II rays, but only partial protection against UVA I. On that chart, it looks like the cutoff appears around 345 nanometers. In your response you say, “Titanium dioxide, when properly formulated, can achieve a wavelength of 380 or higher.”Just to clarify, does that mean this particular product (Resist Cellular Defense) achieves 380 nm?  

Thank you for your time!

The Paula’s Choice representative responded that she was “reaching out to a member of our team to confirm this information, and will have a response after I receive details from them. Thanks for your patience.”

I really appreciated the effort she made to research the issue rather than give me a pat reply. A few days later, she replied with the following:

Hi Melissa,

Thank you for your patience regarding our reply. I reached out to our Director of Education who also reached out to a member of our Product Development Team to confirm some information. Interestingly enough, it appears that we need to update specific information regarding the previous reply I provided. Here is the current FDA regulated information at this time:

“Broad-spectrum coverage for any sunscreen ingredient is defined as one that surpasses 370 nanometers (according to FDA regulation)

Titanium Dioxide can reach 370 nanometers so it satisfies the Broad Spectrum Coverage requirement however, we are unable to confirm beyond 370 what the specific measure is. So, I cannot confirm completely if it does reach 380 nanometers.

I hope this information is helpful, and let us know if we can assist further.

Once again I appreciated the effort behind this reply—clearly there was some in-house conversation taking place—but I confess I feel like a crucial bit of info is missing from this answer, which is: “Titanium Dioxide can reach 370 nanometers” (quoting the above) but does the percentage of titanium dioxide in this particular product protect up to 370 nm? I love this product and would be happy to go on slathering it on my face for the rest of my life if I can be assured it offers sufficient UVA protection.

So as I said: research still in progress. In the meantime, I have a small stockpile of Cellular Defense to use up. I could send it back—PC is good about returns, although you have to pay your own shipping—but I think I’ll keep it to use for mostly-indoor and errand-running days. For now, I’m using the Skin Recovery tube for longer outdoor excursions, and I’m once again researching other brands. I ordered samples of the much-beloved-on-serious-skincare-and-k-beauty-forums Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence SPF 50+ PA++++ and Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Gel SPF 50+ PA++++ (affiliate links but obviously I have no real experience yet with the product)**, and I am astonished to discover that they DO NOT have That Sunscreen Smell, even though they are chemical sunscreens. Whether my face will like them is another question, and since I’m currently testing a new serum, I can’t embark on a sunscreen test for several weeks. (File under: Lessons Learned.)

(You guys, I keep sitting here sniffing the backs of my hands. I’ve got the Biore Watery Gel on one hand and Watery Essence on the left. It’s kind of…yummy? Like lemon candy? And it seems to have dried pretty matte, as far as I can tell. Hmm. Here’s the ingredients list at CosDNA, if you’re interested. No idea how my skin feels about these particular chemical sunscreen actives, or the products in general. I’ll report back later.)

**Here’s a substantive review of the Biore Watery Essence at Fifty Shades of Snail borne of real experience with the product. Fiddy is an excellent skin care and k-beauty blogger, and if you decide to order this product ($8 on Amazon Prime, which is a heck of a lot more attractive a price point than my Paula’s Choice stuff), you should use her affiliate link instead. 🙂  Use me for books. 😉

As for Paula’s Choice

I’m still a fan. I love and highly recommend several PC products, including (especially) her Moisture Boost Hydrating Toner, her Resist Daily Smoothing Treatment 5% AHA, and (swoon) her deliciously rich Skin Recovery Replenishing Moisturizer. My recent studies have taken me into the highly absorbing world of Korean skincare products (the k-beauty scene) and there are a number of enticing creams and serums I’d like to try, but I imagine there will always be a lot of Paula stuff in my cabinet. And on my face.


1. Know what’s in your sunscreen

2. Reapply it every three hours at least

3. I hate wearing hats

4. I was in a serious relationship with Paula’s Choice Resist Cellular Defense Daily Moisturizer SPF 25 for four years, but we might be breaking up

5. But I still love and highly recommend several PC products, especially that moisturizer I mentioned

6. My skin is on the dry side, if you can’t tell from the above

7. I’m pursuing other sunscreen options


9. If you think I’m longwinded about sunscreen, you don’t want to get me started on skin care in general

10. This Biore stuff smells pretty great

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14 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Emily says:

    This is so well-timed. I’m immunosuppressed because of a lung transplant, so me and sunscreen are BFFs. My dermatologist recommended neutrogena to me, so that’s what I use. I like the spray but I also love the stick formulation, which is really easy to apply and it stays pretty “solid” in my bag, even when it’s hot. I’m just embracing the pale, a la Lady Mary.

  2. Kathryn says:

    I can only fantasise about living in a climate where sunscreen is anything more than an occasional requirement. I guess I maybe use sunscreen between 5 and 10 times a year on average unless we take a holiday somewhere with sun. I do use a very light foundation with SPF6 – only just on the foundation side of tinted moisturiser – but that is it for me for skincare!

  3. Lisa says:

    GREAT job!! My folk both have had small episodes of skin cancer so I try to stay up-to-date on sunscreen. While researching the post in my blog address I found a good way to show kids about sunscreen with a simple science experiment. My kids are grown now but I know other Mom’s hate the whole sunscreen battle so I’m sharing my link to help!

  4. Karen Edmisten says:

    I am well acquainted with my own fish-belly white, but don’t have to use as much sunscreen as you do. Actually, I rarely use it because I try to stay out of the sun, but you’re making me think twice. And if you want to get started on skin care, go ahead, because I need an education.

    p.s. I hate hats, too. My daughters look cute in them and like all kinds of hats, but I hate them on me.

  5. Haley says:

    This is great info! Thanks! What sunscreen do you have your kids use?

    • Melissa Wiley says:

      Usually Aveeno Baby or Banana Boat Baby (mineral sunscreens SPF 50). CVS has a less expensive dupe of the Banana Boat Baby (pink tube) but I find it is really hard to rub in. Huck runs around looking like a mime quite often… 🙂

      I keep the Aveeno Baby stick by the front door for the little kids to swipe on as they run outside.

  6. Melissa Wiley says:

    Haley, PS — I’m getting a lot of FB comments recommending Blue Lizard. I’ve heard good things about it in the past but haven’t tested it. Yet!

  7. Heidi says:

    This was a great post! I too am a lady with sun regrets! I have been using skinceuticals tinted
    Sunscreen on my face and it goes on so easy and sheer. I tried a few other blocks for the face(Clinique, Cerave) and I really hated how you had to tug at your skin several moments to get it worked in and not streaked or white tinted. Now I am going to check the ingredients after reading this tho! I picked up some blue lizard today for my arms, which I thought were tan but are really just riddled with age spots. And this is just from running around town, not sunning!

    • heidi says:

      Another thing-how do we balance the sunblock with our other concerns(pores, breakouts). I didn’t use anything on my face for years, and I never even noticed I had pores. But after trying to adopt a good skincare routine, they got big and then clogged. :/ I am very cautious about what I put on my face now. The blue lizard sunscreen has both beeswax and castor oil. The blue lizard face version has a lot of great ingredients for your face, does not have castor oil, but does have beeswax and does not have Titanium Dioxide. I am worried about clogging pores. The biore looks promising if my sensitive skin can handle it. I would love to hear what you all have to say about the blocks you have tried that did or did not clog your face up.

  8. sarah says:

    I devoured this post–after years of reading exhaustively about sunscreen and always feeling like a dog chasing its tail, I finally had to throw up my hands and just pick. We have mostly used the Neutrogena with Helioplex for years, but continued frustration with the small containers and high pricing led me to return to Banana Boat for our recent beach trip. When the older girls were little, I was emphatic about only using mineral sunscreens on them and was religious about applying Blue Lizard whenever we were out. At the time there were fewer options for mineral sunscreens and I figured that those Aussies should know what they are doing with sunscreen, so it seemed a logical choice. I’ll admit that I had a really hard time using it myself–it was just too heavy–which was why I switched to the Neutrogena, which I love for minimal odor although it does have one) and that it is very light, sheer, and effective. However, it is full of harsh chemicals–I really try hard to use hats and choose shady areas to be in when possible to minimize use for myself, but we still use sunscreen a lot. We’re just outside too much not to. Anyway, back to BL–as the girls got older, there really began to be resistance against using it to the point that I noticed they were choosing not to go outside rather than to put the sunscreen on. Overall, I loved BL, as I said, but the effort to rub it in and its heavier feel was becoming a burden, so I switched them over to NG, too. After the FB comments about BL; however, I think I may give it a try again–their formula may be different now. We haven’t used it in at least eight years. Curious about the mineral baby BB, too. May try that for Evelyn who had a reaction to something at the beach that we think may be the sunscreen.

    • heidi says:

      After reading this post, I did get two tubes of blue lizard-the sensitive skin and the face version. I am not sure if the face version is okay for all over body, but it rubbed in a ton easier than the regular version. It still left a white cast, but it rubbed in alot faster and easier.

  9. Jen says:

    You know about this, yes? FWIW, I have very sensitive skin and burn if I think about the sun. I have had excellent success with Badger products and California Baby. Good luck!