As the warmest months of the year are approaching, I want to dive deep into the world of sunscreen.
Walk into any grocery or convenient store and there are shelves stocked with various kinds of sunscreens, SPF’s, some insist that they are for children, others must be used just on your face but what is the difference between them?
Most of us are probably familiar with the term “SPF” and the wide range of numbers that are printed onto sunscreen bottles… but what exactly does it mean?
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, or the measure of the sunscreens ability to prevent UVB radiation from damaging the skin. For example, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, it takes 20 minutes for unprotected skin to start turning red but using an SPF 15 sunscreen, it would theoretically prevent sunburn 15 times longer (or about 5 hours).
SPF 15 is the FDA’s minimum recommendation for protection against skin cancer and sunburn but the American Academy of Dermatology recommends choosing a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater. Unfortunately, there is not an SPF high enough to block out all UVB rays. SPF 15 filters out approximately 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 keeps out 97% and SPF 50 blocks out nearly 98%. Regardless of how high of an SPF a sunscreen has, the same amount should be applied.
Now, what is the difference between UVA and UVB?
Ultraviolet radiation is given off by the sun in the form of either UVA or UVB rays, which cause a number of complications including damage and premature aging of the skin and an increased risk of skin cancer. UVB rays are mostly responsible for sunburn while UVA rays are associated with wrinkling, leathering or sagging of the skin. Both are found to be a cause of skin center. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, more than 2 million people are diagnosed with skin cancer annual and many of them could have been prevented with protection from the sun’s harmful rays.
As we lie by the pool or play outside, it is important for everyone to lather up with sunscreen, regardless of age or skin type. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that children under the age of six months should not be exposed to the sun since their skin is highly sensitive to the chemical ingredients in sunscreen as well as the sun’s rays.
Interestingly enough, men over the age of 40 spend the most time outdoors and get the highest annual doses of UV rays. It is important to begin using sunscreen at a young age and to continue to do so throughout your adulthood. There is no age in which “it is too late”.
There is a wide range of skin types and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classify them on a scale from 1-6. Individuals with skin type 1 and 2 have fair skin and tend to burn more rapidly. Individuals with higher number skin types (5 or 6) do not burn as easily but are still capable. Those that are more prone to burning are also more vulnerable to skin cancer. Regardless, it is still extremely important to take action to protect your skin from exposure to the sun because everyone is at risk.
It is highly suggested that a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater is used to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. With sports or water activities, a water resistant sunscreen is recommended to stick to your skin for a longer duration. Keep in mind while purchasing sunscreen that the bottle will state whether the sunscreen is water resistant for up to 40 minutes or 80 minutes. The FDA recently determined that the terms “waterproof” or “sweat proof” are misleading and cannot be claimed by a sunscreen manufacturer. Sunscreen should always be applied around 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapplied every two hours, or more.
With regards to the specific type of sunscreen that you use, it is entirely up to you. There is a wide range of products available from lotions to spray-on to sticks. Some sunscreens are made specifically for babies or sensitive skin but it is up to the consumer to purchase a sunscreen that fits their needs and interest. Spray sunscreens are currently being investigated by the FDA for their risk of accidental inhalation but there has not been any substantial findings yet.
Always keep in mind that the sun is strongest between 10 am and 2 pm and sun exposure during this time should be avoided or limited, if possible. Unfortunately, sunscreen alone is not enough to fully protect us from any skin damage or skin cancer. Wearing protective clothing, spending time in the shade and avoiding tanning beds are also recommended by dermatologists. The United States Department of Health and Human services and the World Health Organization’s International Agency of Research have declared UV radiation from both the sun and artificial sources such as tanning beds as known cancer-causing substances or carcinogens. Extra caution should be taken near water, snow and sand as they reflect the sun’s rays, increasing your chance of sunburn!
There are a number of myths surrounding sunscreen that maybe preventing many people from using it, thus putting themselves at risk of skin damage. First and foremost, wearing sunscreen does not cause vitamin D deficiency and there have not been any studies that have shown this. It is important to get vitamin D from a healthy diet rather than depending only on the sun. Many people often believe that they do not need to wear sunscreen when it is cold or cloudy outside but this is a huge misconception and can lead to serious sunburns and skin damage. UV rays are emitted all year, not just during the warm months and even on cloudy days; nearly 80% of the suns harmful rays can penetrate your skin on a cloudy day. Lastly, there is no such thing as a healthy tan. Any change in your natural skin color is a sign of skin damage and a base tan does not protect you. Additionally, sunscreen will not completely prevent you from getting a tan. Do not skip out on using sunscreen to get a better tan.
Finally, a bottle of sunscreen should not last very long but just in case… the FDA requires that all sunscreens retain their original strength for at least three years. Once the expiration date has passed, the sunscreen should not be used.
If you’d like to look at the ingredients in your specific sunscreen (makeup, skin care, nail polish, shampoo and more!)… check out the Environmental Working Group. The ingredients, and the sunscreens themselves, are ranked by their hazard.