When I was younger I didn't ever wear sunscreen. Mostly I was careless and lazy, but also refusing good advice is about wanting to believe that one can exert one's will upon immovable facts. I have too often hoped that by ignoring something hard enough, I might render it untrue.
Really, though, I didn’t wear it because my mom had spent so much time telling me to wear it. This reaction was ungrateful, and unfair to her, but my mother's version of the world is from end to end defined by worry, and I wanted to believe I could exist in a different way than that. I understand now that for her these worries are to an unfortunate degree justified; the people and actions she encountered long before I knew her, and then long after I was born, gave her reasons to approach everything at a default level of panicked dread. I understand, now, too, that the experience of living with anxiety is one in which one bad thing coming true proves that all the bad things one has ever worried about must also be true. Anxiety reasons that all the good things are only products of worrying hard enough to keep disaster at bay, as though the refusal to let down one’s guard were a kind of protection spell. But when I was younger, I felt that believing even the most logical warnings about things like skin protection would translate to having to accept wholesale a version of the world in which everyone was out to get me, in which everything was comprehensively trustworthy and unkind, up to and including the sun itself.
Unfortunately, it turns out she was right about the sun. The sun is out to get me. The sun quite simply does not like me. It is not on my side. It does not want to be my friend. The sun is gossiping with everyone who hates me, making plans behind my back, hanging out with my friends without me. The sun is a dick.
I have spent a truly upsetting amount of money on fancy skincare in the past five years or so, but if I’m really honest, sunscreen is the only product that I don't assume to be a scam and a placebo. The appeal of skincare is a gamble, going up against the odds: Let me put this on my face and see what happens, what the hell. Sunscreen, though, is real. Sunscreen has been the word for skin protection since before skincare was widely popular. Doctors recommend sunscreen. Parents recommend sunscreen. If skincare is a frivolity, sunscreen is a fact. Sunscreen isn’t a fad because it doesn’t need to be. The thing about aging, especially the surface-visible parts of it that relate to skincare, is that it's just such an insultingly robust metaphor. We are the product of our previous actions, and of the times in the past when we were careless, when we believed that nothing could touch us, innocent of ourselves, that each day was only a day, untraceably small in the larger fixture, and added up to nothing, when time did not yet feel like compounded interest. Sunscreen, solid and real, is a way to state that the world is not done with me yet, that there might still be days left that feel like a teenage summer, nothing required and everything on offer, the water glittering easily down at the end of the sand. Here are some reviews of some sunscreens.
La Roche-Posay Anti-Helios: La Roche-Posay’s Antihelios sunscreen is perfect and I hate it. The first reason I hate it is that talking about how good it is requires me to say the most obnoxious sentence a person can say: You can only get the good version in France (ok, I think you can get it in parts of Canada, too). The belief that French things are inherently better is in general both false and toxic, one neat trick by which a person can reveal both their fatphobia and their classism at the same time, but the fact is that European (and most non-American) sunscreens are simply better, owing to far more permissive FDA approvals of a much wider variety of ingredients, which in turn protect against a larger spectrum of potential sun damage. Honestly, though, I would hate La Roche-Posay’s sunscreen less if you simply couldn’t get it here at all. Instead, the real version is more and more easily available lately, but a small bottle here (or ordered online) costs at least three times what a large bottle costs at a French drugstore. A couple years ago I brought enough of it home in my suitcase that I thought I would never have to worry about sunscreen again. For the year or so when I wore it every day and never considered it might run out, I felt like I had very firmly checked one very small box in my life. This tiny having-my-shit-together success gave me the sense that the other, larger successes must be next, that surely if I could do this one small slippery thing, nothing else could truly be that hard. Then I ran out of it, so now any mention of it reminds me of my own failures. As with almost every good skincare product I’ve ever tried, I wish I didn’t know about it at all. Nothing should ever be good, things being good is a trap, anything being good is a very personal insult. You should probably buy this sunscreen; it will ruin your life.
CeraVe Hydrating Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50: Truthfully CeraVe’s products have never really worked for me, but people who are experts at skincare keep telling me it’s the best drugstore brand so I keep trying. I genuinely expected this to be great; CeraVe is endlessly beloved by women who are better than me, and this sunscreen costs more than seems reasonable, which, because I am an unreformable garbage person, reads to me as a mark of quality. Anyway, this sunscreen is terrible and part of why it’s terrible is that I will have to keep using it forever, since it was expensive and since a tiny bit of it goes a punishingly long way. God, I hate this sunscreen so much. The first time Thomas ever tried using it, he arrived to meet me at a friend’s place and for one reelingly awful moment I believed I had entered a living nightmare. A thing I would guess many of us fear, especially as we ourselves get older and start to consider our own mortality and therefore, stretching a web of dread over the whole relational world, the mortality of everyone we love, is that one morning we will wake up and overnight everyone will have gotten unrecognizably old. We will all at once no longer be able to delude ourselves about the fact that everyone and everything we have named permanent is in fact temporary as a held breath. Our recoil at the appearance of aging has something to do with our country’s rampant and poisonous and wildly counterproductive ageism, and with this particular extremely-online era in which one can only be either a dirtbag teen or basically already dead, but it also has to do with the simmering fact that we’re all going to die and sooner than we expect.
Anyway, this sunscreen made it appear as though Thomas had aged ten or fifteen years overnight, his eyebrows and the edges of his hair gone pure grey, and his skin sunken from the bright vitality I had remembered - just that morning! How could it have changed so fast! - to a pallid grey-ish white. I felt awkward saying anything; I didn’t want him to feel bad about it. It was only after a few minutes of resolving to still love him just as much that I realized it was the sunscreen. It’s pretty silly that I didn’t figure this out immediately, since this sunscreen resembles nothing more than the aging makeup they use in high school plays, and makes anyone wearing it look like when a teenager has to play one of Charlie’s grandparents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It smells like paint and it goes on like paint and like paint it is nearly impossible to clean off of any surface, including skin. It really does protect you from the sun, though, and it is very sweat-proof, so it’s a decent option if you plan to be out in the sun all day but do not plan to see any people in front of whom you would like to look attractive. Even the absolute smallest amount is too much. It does not blend in at all. It lasts forever and I will be using this one bottle of it until I die.
Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protection Lotion WetForce Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 50+: This costs $40 and the bottle is so miniscule that holding it feels like being Gulliver examining the tiny belongings of the Lilliputians, or like you for some reason purchased for $40 the sunscreen that comes in a Polly Pocket or Barbie Dream House, if one of those had a sunscreen in it. I brought it to a political march and felt extremely embarrassed to be at a political march re-applying $40 sunscreen, and I used up the whole bottle by the end of the day, and still got a sunburn so bad it made me throw up. It smells great and looks great and feels great to apply, though, and if you spend your life mostly indoors, are a very small person, and happen to be the heiress to a massive shipping fortune or something, then this is probably a good option for you.
Sol de Janeiro My Sol Stick SPF 50: This brand’s whole thing is, I think, that Brazilian people are extremely hot, and therefore you would want to use products that have to do with Brazil in the hopes that you, too, might become extremely hot through some kind of deeply unscientific osmosis. They are best known for a butt cream. Unfortunately, given everything I just said, their products are also pretty great if you can get over the smell. Thomas says I smell “like a cake” when I wear this, but he’s being kind; this product, and every Sol de Janeiro product, smells like a Lipsmacker lip gloss from the early ‘00s that’s been left in an unventilated car during a heatwave. I love it, because as I mentioned earlier I am a garbage person, but the way I love how these products smell is basically the definition of how liking something and judging something to be good are more often than not two countries that don’t share a border. This is a great sunscreen; it works, it doesn’t have any chalky white film to it at all, it only irritates my eyes a little, it applies pretty easily. Besides the smell, the main drawback is that it lasts at best two and a half weeks per stick if you wear it every day.
Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sunblock Lotion SPF 60: All the bad things about the CeraVe except it has no staying power and hurts you eyes much more.
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch Sunblock SPF 100: This is the sunscreen I think of when I hear the word “sunscreen.” It is the sunscreen on which all other sunscreens elaborate or seek to improve, the blank standard from which all innovations deviate. It’s fine. It doesn’t exactly play well with makeup, and it hurts so much if it gets in your eyes that you will possibly spend the rest of the day explaining to people that you aren’t weeping, it’s just sunscreen. That’s actually part of why this sunscreen is my default idea of sunscreen: It feels like childhood, in the way that childhood is about being mildly to moderately uncomfortable but not having enough autonomy to fix it. There’s a weather I think of as “tourist weather,” the bright, oppressive, painful-squinting, nowhere-to-hide unpleasant sunlight that settles in permanently around any tourist monument that one might visit on a family vacation. This sunscreen is the same thing as tourist weather, the two bound up inextricably together. It blends in pretty well, though, and it’s the cheapest one on here. I find tubes of this everywhere in my life, in every bag I own, hidden around the apartment, like a grandma with candies in her purse. It is the sunscreen I use when I run out of other sunscreens, which means it gives me the sense of coming home that any mild defeat offers.
La Croix Coconut Sparkling Water: This isn’t a sunscreen, but it tastes exactly like one.
Others: I hear Tatcha’s sunscreen is great but it costs $65 and I can’t bring myself to buy it; I haven’t tried Supergoop yet but I hear mixed things, by which I mean I am probably going to buy a thing of it this week. Please recommend me your favorite sunscreen, please give me your opinions about the products reviewed here. The best post-sunburn product (fancy) is La Roche Posay’s AntiHelios, but the true best post-sunburn product is to buy an industrial sized jar of aloe from a hippie store (or the hippie store part of Fairway, upstairs, in the back), keep it in your refrigerator, mix it with unscented Lubriderm, and slather your entire sad, angry, grateful body with it.
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