It’s summertime, and the livin’ might be easy, but choosing the right sunscreen is not. An informal poll of family and friends quickly showed that most people know that sunscreen helps prevent sun damage and skin cancer but are less informed about how to use sunscreen correctly.
To try to set the record straight, we’ve got the answers to all your burning (pun intended) questions about safe sunscreen use.
What is sunscreen?
Let’s start with the basics. Sunscreen is a mix of chemicals that prevents ultraviolet rays from being absorbed by our skin. Two types of ultraviolet rays cause sun damage. UVB rays cause sunburn, whereas UVA rays are mostly responsible for prematurely aging skin and exacerbating the cancer-causing effects of sunburn.
The terms sunscreen and sunblock are often used interchangeably. Both protect against UV rays, but there is a difference between the two.
Sunblock typically contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, inorganic chemicals that literally block the sun, reflecting UV rays away from skin. Sunscreen, on the other hand, contains chemicals that absorb UV rays through chemical bonding before they can reach the skin.
Interestingly enough, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) blocked the use of the word “sunblock” in 2011, because it believed consumers were led to overestimate the protective factor of UV-blocking products. Even if your spray or lotion is labeled sunscreen, you need to look at the ingredients to determine whether your sunscreen blocks or absorbs UV rays.
One isn’t necessarily better than the other. These days, most products contain a mix of inorganic and organic chemicals that both block and absorb UV rays for optimal protection.
Are the chemicals in sunscreen dangerous?
Short answer? No, the chemicals in sunscreen have not been proven to be toxic.
Although some studies have shown that nanoparticles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide found in sunblock could cause inflammation, and some chemicals in sunscreen could damage the endocrine system, these studies are largely inconclusive.
Both studies used animal test subjects who ingested the chemicals directly at much higher amounts than are ordinarily used. Since sunscreen is applied topically in much lower amounts, there isn’t much evidence to support claims that sunscreen is harmful to your health. And most doctors agree that the benefits of using sunscreen vastly outweigh any associated risks.
What is SPF?
SPF, or sun protection factor, is the measure of how well sunscreen protects skin from UV rays.
If you normally get a sunburn after being out in the sun for 15 minutes, an SPF 15 sunscreen should protect you roughly 15 times as long.
So SPF 30 protects twice as long as SPF 15?
You’d think so, but the answer is no.
In reality, SPF 15 blocks about 94 percent of the sun’s UV rays. SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of UV rays, which is only about 3 percent more than SPF 15.
No SPF can guarantee 100 percent protection from UV rays, which is why most dermatologists recommend sticking with SPF 15 or 30 and reapplying often. Anything with a much higher SPF is really just a marketing ploy.
How often should I apply sunscreen?
According to the American Academy of Dermatologists, most people only apply about 25 to 50 percent of the recommended amount of sunscreen. Yikes!
Any skin that is not going to be covered by clothing should get a layer of sunscreen. That especially includes places we often forget, like ears, lips, and toes.
Most dermatologists recommend liberal application. If you’re using a sunscreen lotion, it should be about one ounce. Spray sunscreens are a little more difficult to measure, but try to apply until an even sheen appears on the skin. If you’re sticky and shiny after applying spray sunscreen, you’re probably doing it correctly.
Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours—and more frequently if you’ve gotten wet or sandy or have just toweled off.
Do I only need to wear sunscreen in the summer?
NO! Sun damage can happen all year long.
You might not be able to see the sun, but those pesky cancer-causing UV rays aren’t blocked by clouds. That’s why you should wear sunscreen every single day.
Does sunscreen expire?
Everything has an expiration date. Sunscreen, if stored properly, will last about three years.
If sunscreen is stored in hot places (like beach bags placed in full sun), it could expire much faster.
But if you’re applying sunscreen daily like you’re supposed to, your sunscreen should never reach its expiration date.
What about kids?
Those adorable floppy hats exist for a reason! Babies who are under 6 months old should be kept out of the sun as much as possible. All other kids should have sunscreen applied any time you head outdoors.
The same application rules apply for kids, though. Make sure to liberally apply sunscreen every two hours (probably much more often if you’re at the pool or beach). If your kid gets sandy or sweaty, towel them down before applying sunscreen to ensure good coverage.
Lotion sunscreens are often simpler to apply because it is easy to see missed spots. If you’ve got a wiggler, though, it’s ok to use spray sunscreen.
Sunscreen is all I need for sun protection, right?
Sunscreen does offer great protection against UV rays, but it isn’t 100 percent effective. Staying in the shade is the best protection of all, but that’s just not a realistic goal, unless you’re from Island County, Washington (the least sunny place in the continental U.S.)
Instead, the American Cancer Society recommends a handy acronym to help you remember tips for optimal sun protection:
–Slip on a shirt.
*Don’t be fooled by clothing that promotes an SPF. These clothing items actually don’t contain sunscreen. The SPF refers to the tight weave of the fabric.
Instead, you can check your regular clothing by holding it up to the light. If you can’t see through it, then it will provide sun protection.
–Slop on the sunscreen.
–Slap on a hat.
*Even if you applied sunscreen to your ears, nose, and lips, most people forget the top of their head and the back of the neck, thinking that hair is sufficient sunblock.
Protect your scalp by wearing a wide-brim hat that extends out past the nose for full-face coverage.
–Wrap on sunglasses
*All sunglasses are not created equal. Make sure to protect your eyes from UV damage by choosing sunglasses with a UV protection label. Remember, UV rays can pass through clouds, so even if the sun isn’t out, you should always wear sunglasses outside.
Does sun damage really cause cancer?
Yes, sun damage caused by UV rays really can cause skin cancers, including carcinoma and melanoma.
Even if you aren’t outdoorsy, short amounts of sun exposure are enough to cause skin cancer, especially if you’ve got fair skin.
Even if you never get a sunburn, tanning can cause melanin to build up in the skin, which is a sign of damage. Over time, this damage can lead to aging, wrinkles, and even skin cancer.
Skin cancer can also hide in unlikely places as a result of sun damage. For example, two of the sneakiest places skin cancer can develop are on the soles of your feet and under your nail beds from repeated UV exposure.
If I’ve never applied sunscreen, is it too late to start?
Definitely not! You may have spent your youth bronzing in the sun, but it’s never too late to start using sunscreen. In fact, a recent study showed that daily sunscreen use reduced signs of aging in participants regardless of their age.