Summer is approaching all too quickly – it seems we’ve gone from winter, through a brief interlude of spring, and arrived at summer all in about a month. Take one look at the seasonal aisle of any grocery or drug store, and you’ll see the proof – rows and rows of various sunscreens. There’s a sunscreen for every skin type – sporty, sensitive, baby, or environmentally concerned – and for every cosmetic preference – sunscreens, sunblocks, lotions, creams, oils, and sprays. How on earth is one to choose an effective, safe product that smells good, won’t wash off in the water, and doesn’t make you look like you’ve been bathed in Elmer’s glue? Unfortunately it’s about as easy as selecting a safe non-leaching water bottle these days.
Why wear sunscreen in the first place?
Skin cancer is one of the most prevalent types of cancer. It strikes more than 800,000 individuals annually in the U.S. We’re guilty of not taking the necessary precautions that are so easy to do. The five most common offenses are lack of protective clothing, insufficient use of sunscreen, staying in the sun too long, overuse of indoor tanning facilities, and repeat offenders – those with a history of sunburn continue to sun. According to the American Skin Association, 90 percent of the wrinkles, brown spots, and sagging skin that we usually attribute to aging may actually be caused by sun damage. Doctors recommend that we not remain in the sun longer than 10-15 minutes with no protection from the harmful rays.
What exactly are UVA and UVB rays?
About 5 percent of the light reaching the earth from the sun is from UV (ultraviolet) rays. The light that causes sunburn is UVB and makes up just 4 percent of this light. For many years, the sunscreen industry has focused on the exposure to UVB rays, as those are the cause of immediate skin damage such as sunburn, but they are also responsible for increasing skin cancer risk. The SPF test is designed to measure the UVB protection of a sunscreen.
UVA rays, however, penetrate deeper into the skin that UVB rays. They create harmful free radicals when they interact with chemicals in the skin. UVA damage may occur before any visible sunburn. It is increasingly being recognized as a major contributor to skin damage and aging. All sunscreens protect against UVB rays, but only some protect against UVA. Those are labeled UVA/UVB, or "broad spectrum." Many sunscreens do not address the exposure to UVA rays – only to UVB, leaving users vulnerable and at-risk for increased sun damage.
What Does SPF Really Mean, and How High of an SPF Should I Look For?
At this point, SPF indicates only the amount of protection from UVB rays. There are currently no regulations about SPF and protection from UVA rays. The SPF, or sun protection factor, is simply a measurement of how well a product will protect you from UVB rays that cause sunburn. For example, if your skin would normally burn in 10 minutes, a sunscreen of SPF 15 would allow you to stay in the sun for 150 minutes (10 minutes x 15). Of course, this is a rough estimate, and there are several other factors to consider – any activity you participate in (are you in and out of the water? are you sweating?), along with the intensity of sun, can all reduce the effectiveness of your sunscreen. Another factor to keep in mind is that the SPF scale is not linear – SPF 50 does not allow you to remain the sun 5 times longer than SPF 10. In fact, an SPF 50 only blocks about 1.3 percent more UVB rays than SPF 30. Even the American Cancer Society recommends an SPF of only 15, as the difference in actual protection decreases as the SPF numbers get higher. So the extra cash you put out for the higher numbers may be reduced by going for a lower SPF and reapplying your sunscreen only slightly more often – and generously. Most people apply only ¼ to 2/3 enough sunscreen to reach the
What else can you do to minimize your risk of sun damage?
You know you need to apply your sunscreen before heading out the door for your run, golf game, the kids’ soccer game, or a bike ride. But is that all you can do to prevent sun damage? No – sunscreen is just one part of a healthy lifestyle. What else can you do to minimize your risk of sun damage?
When you do apply your sunscreen, make sure that it is SPF 15 or higher. And purchase new sunscreen every year, as it loses its effectiveness over time.
Make sure your sunscreen is applied generously and often. Anything that is repeatedly uncovered by clothing should be covered with sunscreen.
Avoid being outdoors in the sun during midday. Try to limit your sun exposure between the hours of 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Take extra care when in environments where the sun is reflected more – in the tropics, around sand, water, snow, and concrete.
Even when seeking shade, remember that UV rays can reflect up towards you from the ground.
Cover up with a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, a hat, and UV-protective sunglasses. Fabric is more protective the less sheer and more tightly woven it is.
Remember that kids are more sensitive to sun damage. Cover them in sunscreen, play in the shade, and keep infants out of direct sun when possible.
Check the UV index when participating in outdoor activities.
Don’t use sunlamps and tanning beds.
Check your skin for any changes or abnormalities. Any changes, lesions, or newly seen spots are cause for a check-up with your dermatologist. Be careful if you are fair-skinned, have freckles or moles, and are taking certain medications which may increase your sensitivity to the sun.
Infants should be carefully protected from the sun, as their skin lacks the protection of melanin. For newborns under six months old, follow manufacturer’s instructions carefully, as most do not encourage use on children before six months of age.
When applying sunscreen to young children and toddlers, it is a good idea to test the product first on a small patch of their wrists, as the child may be especially sensitive to certain chemicals in the product.
Make sure you are aware of your child’s school policy on the use of sunscreen.
Keep in mind that a teen’s interest in fashion may take precedence over diligence in applying sunscreen or wear sun-protective clothing. Additionally, teens may try to achieve a "healthy glow" by tanning in the sun or using tanning beds. Try and lead by example, making sunscreen a part of any outdoor activity, and help your teen find fashionable clothing, hats, sunglasses, etc.
Now you know how important it is to wear sunscreen, and you’ve got an armory of sun-safe habits to use in your defense. Next week we’ll address just what to look for when you’re faced with the plethora of products staring at you from the drugstore shelves. Until then – stay sun-smart!
Source: Information taken from the American Skin Association, the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database, and the American Cancer Society.
Meredith Nelson, M.Ed, is the owner of PrimeTime Fitness, Inc, on Sullivan’s Island. A Daniel Island resident, Meredith can be reached with your fitness questions at 883-0101, or Meredith@primetimefit.net.