Summer sun means different things to different people. While some think golf, grilled steaks, and acres of green, others think swimsuits, beach towels, and miles of sandy beaches. As a general rule, sun gods and goddesses across North America know to reach for the sunscreen. But what they don’t think of is what exactly is in that tube or bottle, and how often or how much to apply.
So Why Should I Wear Sunscreen?
For many who use sunscreen, it’s merely been a simple solution to avoid the unpleasantness of sunburn. However, in recent years there has been a lot of attention aimed at its ability to stave off cancer causing contact with the sun.
While a thing of beauty that also brings about glorious amounts of Vitamin D, the sun has a dark side, in the form of UV rays. Ultraviolet radiation comes in three forms, each of which is dangerous to our health in their own way.
- UVA- Responsible for as much as 95 percent of the radiation that will reach the surface of the earth. UVA rays pose a huge risk for skin cancer, sunspots, and wrinkling which are attributed to premature aging. These harmful rays can penetrate glass and clouds and are responsible for damaging the second layer of skin.
- UVB- The biggest cause of skin reddening and sunburn, UVB rays can damage the skin’s DNA as well as cause skin cancer. Dangerous to the top layers of skin, this type of UV ray can cause burns with just 15 minutes of unprotected exposure.
- UVC- The shortest and most hazardous form of UV radiation, these rays are exhibited by welding torches, mercury lamps, and older style tanning beds. They are not normally considered a concern for skin cancer.
Sunscreen or sun blockers are designed to protect our delicate skin. And even though our bodies are able to heal and regenerate new skin, some devastation such as skin cancer or DNA damage is not able to be erased. That’s why it’s best to protect ourselves right from the start.
What Does SPF mean?
It’s an acronym that stands for Sun Protection Factor. This is used as a basic measurement of how much protection one can expect from that particular formula. The higher the SPF, the better protection you should be able to expect.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, we should apply sunscreen every two hours if we’re exposed in any way. Even using an SPF of 15 can lower the chances of falling victim to squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) by approximately 40 percent and reduce the risk of developing melanoma by about 50 percent. An SPF of 30 can block 97 percent of UVB rays, while an SPF of 50 only increases protection by one percent, blocking 98 percent. Beware of claims by manufacturers touting SPF 100. This doesn’t mean you need to use less or apply less frequently.
What’s in It?
While it’s easy to imagine there are multiple types of formulas for sunscreens, many people are shocked to find out that some might actually be hazardous to them. There are currently two types on the market, chemical (also known as petrochemical), and mineral. Keeping in mind that whatever type you choose, they’re intended to be applied regularly, every two hours that you’re exposed to the sun, and often over large portions of skin.
With that being said, chemical sunscreens usually contain some form of potentially toxic ingredient such as something in the benzophenone family (ex: Oxybenzone, Octinoxate). These little gems are responsible for disrupting the endocrine system as well as a factor in many studies on cancer causing substances thanks to their ability to be absorbed into the bloodstream. They’re also known for causing damage to the environment in areas with coral reefs.
In 2018 Hawaii passed a law that banned the use of them in surrounding marine environments due to their toxic ingredients. When you think about the fact that it needs to be reapplied every two hours that we’re exposed to the sun, and the fact that this often means larger quantities over more of the body than just our face and hands, that’s a lot of contamination, both to marine life as well as our own bodies.
Mineral formulas are better suited to both our health and marine life. Zinc oxide, in which each zinc ion has a positive charge and each oxygen ion has a negative charge, creates a formula that sticks together thanks to its “opposites attract”-ability. This allows for a better coverage on the skin and less chance of random UV rays sneaking through to cause damage.
Titanium dioxide is another mineral additive that works well for a topical sun block. These mineral based formulas are both considered blockers as they block or reflect the sun’s rays from hitting the surface of the skin, instead of being absorbed into the bloodstream.
More effective, zinc oxide boasts noncomedogenic (oil-free, unlikely to cause acne) and microbial properties (promotes healing), but it also blocks both UVA and UVB rays and is often combined with other UVB blockers which creates a total broad-spectrum sunblock. Titanium oxide does effectively block UVA short wave rays, as well as UVB rays, but not as effective as zinc in blocking long wave UVA’s.
While studies are still ongoing, the big concern is whether the chemicals in some formulas are reaching toxic levels due to multiple reapplications. The question is, how much is too much? According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), studies report that testing after a single application shows these active ingredients appear in the bloodstream and that the amounts increase with repeated applications. They are also reporting that these ingredients stay in the body for a long period of time after the last application. At this point, the only safe bet is a mineral formula.
How Much Should I Use?
The average recommendation for whole body coverage is about a shot glass full of sunblock. If you don’t happen to have a shot glass available at the beach, no worries, there’s no likelihood that you overapplied it. Approximately two tablespoons is an appropriate amount for the average body, and about a nickel size drop for your face.
While overapplying doesn’t mean it’s going to last longer, it also has no negative side. There’s no harm in too much of this good stuff. Normally, people tend to use way too little, only applying about 25 to 50 percent of the suggested amount.
Who Should Use It?
Not only sunbathers and water babies should seek out this product, but anyone who spends time in the sun, whether it’s direct or through glass. And not even on sunny days, but cloudy ones too. Harmful UV rays can pass through the clouds and damage skin with not even a hit of sunshine on the horizon.
For those who work outside, it’s imperative to use a quality sun blocking product, remembering to reapply every two hours, more often if they sweat profusely. For leisure seekers, the same applies. Even for someone who is driving or riding in a vehicle. As UVA rays can pass through glass, that drivers tan isn’t just interesting to look at, it’s potentially dangerous.
And sunblock is not just for those fair skinned folks, but those of us who tan up easily or have dark colored skin. The color of skin has nothing to do with the ability to suffer a burn, it’s just harder to see. And any skin tone is subject to the harmful effects such as skin cancer, wrinkling, and premature aging.
It’s particularly important to teach your kids about the need to take precautions when out in the sun so they can grow up understanding why they should always protect themselves. Keep the elderly in mind as well. Just because they’ve seen more sun than you, doesn’t mean they need protection any less. So, don’t be shy with the sunblock, slather it on, rub it in.
Choosing the right option can save you time, worry, and heartache down the road. Becoming knowledgeable about your choices is the best way to avoid these problems, which can have lifelong effects on you and those you love.