After years of repeated warnings about the dangerous effects that too much sun can have on skin, it’s obvious that sun block should be a staple in any beach bag. What’s not so obvious is what sun block you should be choosing and if you’re using the right amount of sun protection for your age and skin type. All sun blocks are not created equal and choosing the right one can be the difference between pain and protection.
Understanding the Role of Sunscreen
The sun emits two different types of UV light: UVA rays, which penetrate deeper into the skin, and can cause wrinkling and age spots, and UVB rays, which can burn your skin. However, a sunscreen’s SPF, which stands for sun protection factor, only measures how well sunscreen protects against UVB rays, leaving us partially unprotected against UVA rays. Currently, there is no way to measure UVA protection.
“SPF is a measure of how long it takes to skin to burn with sunscreen, compared to how long it would take to burn without sunscreen,” explains Rochelle Weiss, MD, dermatologist at Lankenau Medical Center. “For example, if it typically takes you 10 minutes to burn, an SPF of 15 would allow you to be outside for 150 minutes before burning. It really does vary for everyone.”
Which SPF is Right for You?
Most people look to the highest SPF label, typically 60 or 75, for the best sun protection, but an SPF of at least 30 is recommended to allow for adequate protection from the sun. For children older than six months, look for a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Children younger than that should be kept out of the sun.
Still, cautions Dr. Weiss, no matter what your SPF is, your goal should be to enjoy your time outdoors, while doing your best to minimize tanning. Sunscreen must be applied at least 15-20 minutes prior to sun exposure. In addition, once is not enough when it comes to application, it should be reapplied every 2 hours.
“No matter how high the SPF of your sunscreen is, it won’t matter if you don’t apply it correctly,” she says. “Apply 1 oz. (a typical bottle of sunscreen contains only 4 oz.) to cover an average adult body, and reapply every 2 hours, If you’ll be in the water, that needs to be shortened to 40 minutes. In addition, sun protective clothing, such as a rash guard, wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses, should be worn whenever possible.
Keep in mind to also apply sunscreen to your face, ears and lips, as they can all be affected by UVB rays, as well. In deciding what brand of sunscreen to use, it can vary from person to person. Try different brands until you figure out what works best for you.
Evaluating Your Skin Cancer Risk
If you’re using sun block and applying it correctly and regularly, you should be protected from many, but not all, harmful UV rays. However, there are some factors that can increase your risk for skin cancer, including:
- Fair skin or light-colored eyes
- A history of skin cancer in yourself or your family
- A history of sunburns as a child
- Spending a lot of time outdoors
If any of these factors affect you, it’s best to talk to a doctor to make sure you’re getting the appropriate protection. Everyone, whether or not they are at an increased risk, should schedule an annual skin cancer screening with their dermatologist.
If you’re not sure of what SPF to choose, or you have a skin condition that could be affected by additional time in the sun, talk to your doctor. Visit our website to make an appointment with a Main Line Health dermatologist.
- See related story: Sunscreen Smarts: Commonly-Asked Sunscreen Questions