Sunscreen Simplified: Just The Plain Facts About UV Protection

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How often have you stood in the drugstore aisle, trying to choose a sunscreen product with no idea of what you should buy? Should you get a water-resistant sunscreen, one with full spectrum protection, or one that has a high SPF of 50? Sunscreen is one of those products that has become such big business in the past few years that even just looking at all the bottles, tubes and various numbers, rating, and ingredients on the labels is enough to give you a bad case of TMI (Too Much Information.)  Using sunscreen also brings up all kinds of interesting questions such as “What type is best for use on the face?”, “How often do I have to reapply sunscreen?” and “Do some sunscreens actually contain chemicals that can cause cancer?” It also doesn’t help that some sunscreen ingredient labels do seem to be almost written in code with mysterious double digits and abbreviations such as UVA and UVB to SPF written all over the box.

This concise mini-guide is intended to demystify the highly commercialized topic of UV sunscreen tell you everything you need to know about purchasing protection from the sun.

What Exactly Are Sunscreens?

Sunscreens are in essence, a solution that is combined in cream, spray or wax base to help prevent the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation from reaching the skin. There are two types of radiation that can damage your skin and increase your risk of getting skin cancer. It is recommended that anyone over the age of six months should use a sunscreen daily. 

There are two types of UV radiation. Ultraviolet A (UVA), which has a longer UV ray that can cause lasting skin damage, premature aging, and skin cancer.  UVA rays are able to penetrate the dermis deeply and cause photoaging, leathery and saggy skin. They also serve to deepen the penetration of much lighter Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays and make them much more carcinogenic.

Ultraviolet B (UVB) is a shorter ray causes sunburns and that can also lead to skin damage and skin cancer. Sunscreens vary in their ability to protect against both UVA and UVB rays at once so it is important to read labels. For instance, if you were planning on going on a long hike, then it would be important to buy a sunscreen that has a high UVA SPF.

The UV index is a measure of the strength of the sun’s rays at any time of the day. The higher the UV index, the stronger the sun’s rays, and the greater the need to apply sunscreen or even stay completely out of the sun.

In most countries the following UV index applies:

LOW        0-2


HIGH        6-7

VERY HIGH    8-10

EXTREME    11+

The daily UV index forecast is usually available online or as part of any type of broadcasted weather report.  In general, the UV index is highest between 11 am to 3p.m between April and September, even when it is cloudy.

What is SPF?

SPF is an acronym for Sun Protection Factor.  This is not an exact science, because it is a number that is based on how much time it takes for your skin to turn red once you are in the sun. For instance, if it takes 15 minutes for your skin to red then a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 would extend that 15 minutes by 30 times, meaning that it would take 450 minutes or 7.5 hours for your skin to burn. Of course, this is a bit dependent also on how strong the sun’s rays are as indicated by your area’s local UV index.

Ideally, you should be choosing a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which means that the product protects from both UVA and UVB rays. However, keep in mind that no sunscreen is capable of blocking out all UV rays and that only UVB rays cause the skin to redden. By contrast, UVA rays can penetrate deeply into the skin and cause cancer, without provoking any tell-tale sunburn at all.

How to Read a Sunscreen label

Here is a brief and simple breakdown of all the keywords that usually appear on sunscreen labels.

Broad Spectrum – This term means that the sunscreen offers protection against both UVA (ultraviolet A) and UVB (ultraviolet B) rays. Ultraviolet A can cause skin damage without a sunburn appearing and Ultraviolet B rays can cause evident burnt skin.  Exposure to both can cause skin cancer.

Sun Protection Factor (SPF) – This is a number tells how long a person can remain in the sun before the skin is burnt by UVB rays.  A sunscreen with SPF 30 will allow you to stay in the sun 30 times longer without getting burned. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF or higher.

Water-Resistant – This term usually means that the sunscreen will remain effective for 40 minutes while you are sweating. However, the FDA frowns on this term as no sunscreen is truly waterproof or sweatproof.

Avobenzone and Benzophenone –These are chemicals that are absorbed into the skin, deep into the dermis and work by reducing the penetration of UV light into the skin.

Titanium Dioxide and/or Zinc Oxide – These are inorganic ingredients that typically float on top of the skin and deflect UV ray and tend to look like war paint.

Most sunscreens on the market today have a mix of both chemical and physical ingredients in their formula.

Choosing the Right Sunscreen for Your Skin Type

Each person is an individual and responses to sunscreen can vary according to your skin type, your skin’s age, and it’s the condition.

Acne, Rosacea, and Allergy-prone skin.

Skin that breaks out or develops rashes needs a sunscreen solution with as few ingredients as possible.  Stay away from sunscreens with  PABA  or oxybenzone. Ingredients that add texture to the sunscreen such salicylates and ecamsule should also be avoided as should alcohol-based formulas. Gel-based sunscreens tend to contain alcohol which dries out the skin.  Creamy formulas, which are oilier in texture should also be avoided, as they add grease to the skin.  The best type of sunscreen for a person with acne, rosacea or allergy –prone skin is lotion-based, as it is least likely to cause inflammation.

Dry Skin.

Dry skin benefits from sunscreens that also contain moisturizers such as lanolin.  Silicones such as dimethicone can also prevent the skin from drying out.

Darker Skin.

If your skin is darker and tans easily you may feel you do not need a sunscreen, but that does not mean that UVA rays are not doing your skin extensive damage. In fact, the fact that you don’t burn tends to hide the issue that damage is being done .  Your best bet is to use a broad-spectrum preparation with an SPF of 15 or more.

Children’s Skin.

Young skin is very easily irritated with the main two culprits that cause allergic reactions being PABA and oxybenzone. Sunscreens that contain zinc oxide and titanium oxide are better tolerated by children.

Older Skin.

If you were born before the seventies you might be thinking that “the damage is done” so what’s the point of using sunscreen. A broad spectrum sunscreen with moisturizers is recommended to prevent UVA rays from causing you additional skin damage and possibly triggering skin cancer.

For People Recovering from Melasma or Skin Cancer. Melasma is a condition caused by overexposure to the sun that causes the sun to break out in brown blotches. People with this condition or who have had skin cancer should be sure that they are using a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

Should You Worry About Chemicals in Your Sunscreen?

The fact is that every ingredient in sunscreen is a chemical and some people do have an allergy or sensitivity to an ingredient itself. However, it is more common for people to be allergic to a fragrance, plant extract, preservative or emulsifier in the product. To stay safe, stick with products that contain as few ingredients as possible and that are fragrance-free.

Each chemical in FDA-Approved sunscreens has its own job to do:

UVA absorbers include avobenzone, Mexonyl SX, and meradimate

UVB absorbers include para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), cinoxate, ensulizole, homosalte, octocrylen,, octisalate, padamiate 0 and trolamine salicylate

UVA and UVB absorbers include dioxyibenzdone, oxybenzone and suflsobenzone

UVA and UV physical sunscreens include titanium dioxide and zinc oxide

The most toxic ingredient in sunscreens is oxybenzone, which might possibly be a hormone disruptor that causes cancer.

What Type of Sunscreen is Right for Your Lifestyle?

The rule of thumb is that you need to use sunscreen when the UV index is 3 or higher and that is now generally every day in most places in the world.

The type of sunscreen that is going to be the best for you is dependent on how many hours a day you typically spend in the sun and if you are already using products that have UV protection. For instance, many face creams, aftershaves, foundation liquids and powders and body lotions already have UV protection in them.  If you spend a lot of time in an office and wear a lot of makeup, you are probably “covered.”  If you are not then it is recommended that you make the application of sunscreen part of your daily beauty routine.  However, opposite to what you might think, dermatologists recommend applying your sunscreen on top of moisturizers and makeup rather than making it a base for your makeup.  Don’t be tempted to mix sunscreen in with your moisturizer as that will only dilute it and also possibly result in a patchy tan.

If you work outdoors, play sports outdoors or just simply love hot weather and going to the beach it is recommended that you get a sunscreen labeled “water resistant” or “very water resistant” because they are less likely to run down your face.

Don’t Skimp on the Sunscreen

Sunscreen can be expensive but you need to apply one ounce at least for it to be effective. This equates to being about a shot glass full. If you spend a full eight hour day at the beach you know you have used enough when you have used about one half of an 8 oz bottle.   It is also best to apply the sunscreen half an hour before you actually go outside because it allows the ingredients to be fully absorbed by the skin.

Ideally, you should be applying sunscreen every two hours and then reapplying it immediately after swimming, sweating or toweling off.

Tips and Tricks for the Use of Sunscreen

  • If you buy sunscreen in spray form it is best to spray it on your hands and then rub it onto your face rather than to spray it right into your face.
  • Always check to see if your shampoo, hair conditioner, after-shave lotion, make-up foundation, lipstick, and powder has UV protection as most beauty products nowadays use sun protection as a selling point. 
  • It is important to apply sunscreen if you sit in an office with exposure to a lot of sun as UVA rays can easily penetrate through the window pane and cause sun damage.
  • No sunscreen stays effective for longer than 2 hours, so it is important to apply it often.
  • If you sweat a lot, choose a water-resistant sunscreen because the formula is stickier and can prevent sweat from running down into your eyes.
  • The highest effective SPF protection is 50. After that the amount of protection that you will receive from a higher number is negligible.
  • Remember to wear sunscreen even if it is cloudy out, as UVA rays penetrate through clouds, fog, and mist and can cause sun damage without reddening the skin.
  • Avoid applying sunscreen to babies under the age of six months as their skin is quite sensitive to the chemical ingredients in sunscreen. Keeping the child in the shade and the wearing of protective clothing is the best way to protect them from the sun.

Finally, never minimize the importance of wearing sunscreen. Skin cancers are more common than ever with one out of ever. Always wear sunscreen when you are outdoor.

Sunscreen Simplified: Just The Plain Facts About UV Protection


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