Skin health experts want you to enjoy the sun—no need to hide away under a parasol all summer long in the name of good skin—but making sure you’re properly protected from damage is crucial. “The sun makes us happy and provides vital vitamin D,” says Danielle Gronich, a cellular biologist, licensed esthetician, and co-founder of CLEARstem. We all have a vague awareness that wearing sunscreen every day is a good idea, but there are so many other precautions that estheticians encourage us to take to make sure we’re not wrecking our skin, even by accident.
“What’s important to understand when you’re out in the sun and in direct sunlight is that your skin is in a vulnerable state and so the main focus is to give it the protection it needs to defend itself,” comments Renée Rouleau celebrity esthetician and founder of her eponymous product line. Translation: We’ve got to make sure we’re not using any products that will exacerbate our skin’s vulnerability. “Instead, use things that puts the skin on offense,” says Rouleau.
So what are some products we should never use before going out in the sun, and what are some we should always use instead? Keep scrolling for the ultimate estheticians’ guide to before-sun skincare: four products you should avoid at all costs before catching some rays, plus four to use in their place.
Pretty much every skin expert we consulted for this story named Retin-A and other retinols as the top ingredient to avoid before sun exposure. They’re incredibly potent ingredients for fighting wrinkles and acne—but should be used strictly at nighttime. “These chemical exfoliants are extremely drying and likely to irritate, plus they keep working at a rate that is hard to control (versus a scrub exfoliant, which stops as soon as you’re done scrubbing),” Gronich explains. This drying process removed the skin’s natural barrier of protective oils, leaving it defenseless against the sun’s relentless rays. “This means that UV exposure is intensified, and potential for DNA damage is greatly increased,” says Grorich. So leave your retinol use for the evening.
Yes, yes, sunscreen; you’ve heard this a million times. But here are the most important sunscreen tips to remember: Use a physical sunscreen (aka, one whose key ingredient is zinc or titanium dioxide) and choose one that’s SPF 30 or higher.
Physical, as opposed to chemical, sunscreens provide a shield reflecting the sun’s rays and preventing UV penetration. Studies show that traditional white zinc oxide (as opposed to nanoparticles of zinc) continues to be the absolute safest and most effective sunscreen ingredient, defending against UVA and UVB rays, says Elina Fedotova, celebrity esthetician, cosmetic chemist, and founder of Elina Organics. They don’t absorb into the skin quite as well as the chemical or nano stuff, but ultimately, they are just better all around. Not to mention, zinc oxide is anti-inflammatory and can soothe irritated skin while protecting it even further.
You’ll also want to choose an SPF of level 30 or higher—though SPF 30 is about as protective as you can realistically get. “SPF 30 has a 97% protection rate,” explains celebrity esthetician Danné Montague-King, founder of DMK skincare. “Going higher in count (e.g., 50 to 60) will give you a bit more: 98% protection.”
They may smell good and make you feel awake, but don’t put them on your skin before going outside in the daytime. Why? Citrus fruits contain compounds that protect against pathogens, but when applied to human skin and exposed to sunlight, these compounds elicit a photo-toxic reaction that can cause redness, pigmentation, and even burns, explains Jordan LaFragola, celebrity esthetician and founder of Flora Mirabilis Face Oil. So definitely avoid using citrus oils for at least 24 hours before going in the sun (like serums or moisturizers with grapefruit oil).
Definitely try applying a vitamin C serum under your sunscreen in the morning (letting it sit for five minutes beforehand to absorb). This provides a layer of antioxidant protection. “No need to get the highest percentage—a 10% is more than enough for daily use,” adds Gronich, who likes Obagi’s hydrating C serum. Jessica Alba and Lea Michele’s esthetician Shani Darden loves iS Clinical’s Super Serum for Vitamin C.
There are some caveats here, though: While some say vitamin C increases photosensitivity (meaning it may actually make your skin more prone to sun damage), this doesn’t seem to be the case, empirically. “However, those with sensitive skin sometimes find that using it during the daytime can cause irritation [thanks to] the lower pH level typically found in vitamin C products… being out in the sun can exacerbate the irritation,” explains Alicia Yoon, founder and CEO of Peach & Lily and licensed esthetician in both New York and Korea.
The bottom line on vitamin C: Sensitive skin types might opt to use citamin C serums at night. But if you are using it for daytime, apply a moisturizer overtop that contains ingredients that prevent water loss, like SkinCeuticals’s Emollience or straight-up Aquaphor. And follow up with sunscreen, of course.
These include acids like lactic, glycolic, malic, mandellic, salicylic, and azelaic. While these chemical exfoliators are amazing for brightening, hydrating, acne-treating, and de-wrinkling the skin, be sure only to use them at night (before moisturizer). That’s because they eat away at surface cells, leaving the fresh skin underneath super exposed and susceptible to UV damage.
Exfoliating in the morning is totally fine though, as long as you use a gentle scrub. That will keep the skin soft and smooth without making it super photosensitive all day long. Just make sure (not to be too redundant) to follow up with a protective layer of moisturizer and SPF.
Like retinol, antibacterial agents like benzoyl peroxide and clindamycin are great for treating acne, but they’re super drying. “They prevent the skin from being able to naturally defend against UV rays, particular sunny UVB rays,” Gronich explains. “Using these items prior to sun exposure is very likely to lead to hyperpigmentation (brown spots) that can take months to fade, especially for ethnic skin.”
Vitamin C is not the only antioxidant that will serve your skin well in the sun. “I love using products that contain antioxidants like niacinamide or matcha when going out in the sun,” says Yoon, “like the Peach & Lily Glass Skin Refining Serum and Matcha Pudding Antioxidant Cream to help give your skin that boost of brightening benefits.”
Eating antioxidant-rich foods in addition to using them topically totally helps, too. “Consume tomato juice and green tea!” says Gronich. “These two food items naturally fight free radicals and are known to increase your body’s natural SPF factor.” Colorful fruits and veggies like blackberries and spinach will also provide protection, as will eggplant, which will stimulate your immune system to fight side effects of UV exposure from the inside, adds Fedotova.
Next up: Don’t miss the 15 best natural sunscreens you’ve never heard on.
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