Remember the days when sunscreen was the last think on your mind? The good ol' days when you would go outside and play all day and long for that “healthy glow” in your skin? Sunshine and summertime, right?
Having a tan was a goal. It was a symbol of summertime and of youth. Unfortunately, having a tan isn't as healthy as it was once made out to be. In fact, it can be dangerous. And worse, the misconception that having a tan is healthy is still very prevalent.
Reasons for protecting against UV rays?
Let's talk basics for a second so that we are all on the same page.
According to the Cleveland Clinic and the American Academy of Dermatology, sunlight consists of two types of harmful rays that reach the earth — UVA rays and UVB rays. Overexposure to either one can lead to skin cancer.
- UVA rays (aka, aging rays) can pass through window glass. These rays cause wrinkles and age spots.
- UVB rays (aka, burning rays) cannot pass through window glass. These rays are the primary cause of sunburns.
Harmful effects of UV rays include:
- premature aging (wrinkles, leathery skin, age spots)
- increased risk of skin cancer (especially deadly melanoma)
Further, UV radiation from the sun can damage your eye, including the eyelid, the cornea, and the lens. UV exposure can also contribute to the development of some cataracts and possibly macular degeneration.
What about the need for Vitamin D?
One argument for not using sunscreen is the need or Vitamin D. Here's the skinny on that essential vitamin.
People need about 600 IU of Vitamin D per day. Unfortunately, only a few foods contain Vitamin D naturally. The primary source of Vitamin D is synthesis by the skin in a reaction dependent upon exposure to UVB rays from sunlight.
Most people can fulfill their Vitamin D requirements with normal daily outdoor activities amounting to five to 30 minutes twice per week.
Prolonged sun exposure gives no extra production of necessary vitamin D, but it does expose the skin to the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation.
At the same time, a diet rich in fish, milk, dairy, liver, eggs and vitamin D supplements provides the daily requirements for people.
How to Protect From Harmful Exposure: Sunscreen 101
Sunscreen – you hear about the need to use it all the time, and you see it in practically every store.
However, do you really need to wear it every day? And do you know the best practices for effectively using sunscreen?
What to look for in a sunscreen
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends everyone use sunscreen (everyday) that offers the following:
- Broad-spectrum protection (protects against UVA and UVB rays)
- SPF 30 or higher
- Water resistance
Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with at least an SPF 30, which blocks 97% of the sun's UVB rays. Higher-number SPFs block slightly more of the sun's UVB rays, but no sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun's UVB rays.
Read the bottle label to determine whether your sunscreen:
- Is Broad Spectrum, which means the sunscreen protects against UVB and UVA rays and helps prevent skin cancer and sunburn.
- Has an SPF of 30 or higher. While SPF 15 is the FDA's minimum recommendation for protection against skin cancer and sunburn, the AAD recommends choosing a sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher.
- Has a Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert in the Drug Facts section of the label, which means the sunscreen will only prevent sunburn and will NOT reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging
- Is Water Resistant (effective for up to 40 minutes in water) or Very Water Resistant (effective for up to 80 minutes in water). This means the sunscreen provides protection while swimming or sweating up to the time listed on the label.
Pro Tip: the FDA now bans sunscreen manufacturers from claiming that a sunscreen is “waterproof” or “sweatproof“. The FDA has determined that those terms are misleading and harmful. Be sure to reapply after getting out of the water or after sweating, even if the bottle says water-resistant.
Best Practices for Using Sunscreen
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, most people only apply 25-50% of the recommended amount of sunscreen. Here's how to make sure you are using it to its fullest potential:
- Follow the guideline of “enough to fill a shot glass” which dermatologists consider the amount needed to cover the exposed areas of the body. You may need to adjust the amount of sunscreen you apply depending on your body size.
- Apply sunscreen to dry skin 15 minutes BEFORE going outdoors.
- Your lips are not safe from skin cancer! To protect your lips, apply a lip balm or lipstick that contains sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.
- Reapply sunscreen approximately every two hours, or after swimming or sweating, according to the directions on the bottle.
- And maybe most importantly, use it year-round, not just in the summer months.
- Children under 6 months should not use sunscreen and should be kept out of direct sunlight as much as possible. However, it is safe to use sunscreen for children over 6 months. Be sure to keep it away from their eyes (a mistake I made as a new mom – it was just close enough that he rubbed his face/eyes and got sunscreen in his eye – ouch!).
If you live at a higher elevation, consult your child's doctor about when to begin using sunscreen, as the UV intensity is stronger at higher elevations.
Other Sources of UV protection
Here's a sad fact: as the Earth's ozone layer continues to deplete, our exposure level for UV rays continues to increase.
If you are looking for alternatives to using sunscreen, here are additional ways to reduce your exposure to UV rays:
- Seek shade – remember that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If you don't know the time, a helpful guide is that if your shadow is shorter than you are, seek shade.
- Wear protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, swim shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat.
- Remember your eye protection! Sunglasses (check to verify they have UVA/UVB protection) and contacts with UV protection do wonders!
- Use extra caution near water, snow, and sand because they reflect the damaging rays of the sun, which can increase your chance of sunburn. Keep in mind that they reflect these rays, meaning that the rays will come up from below in addition to coming directly from the sun. You are likely to not only get sunburned more severely but also in spots you might not normally think about (like under your chin).
- Avoid tanning beds. Ultraviolet light from tanning beds can cause skin cancer and skin wrinkling just like UV light from the suns rays. If you want to look tan, I suggest using a self-tanning product. Be sure to continue using sunscreen with it!
- Check your birthday suit on your birthday. If you notice anything changing, itching or bleeding on your skin, see a dermatologist right away. Skin cancer is highly treatable when caught early.
Why Avoid Sunscreen Chemicals?
Keep in mind that what you put on your body matters almost as much as what you put into your body.
There are two ways that sunscreens provide UV protection: a chemical barrier, or a mineral barrier.
Mineral sunscreens typically contain ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide which create a physical barrier to physically block and protect the skin from the sun's UV rays. These sunscreens can be thicker and take longer to apply (which can be frustrating for kids), while also leaving a light white film on the skin.
Chemical sunscreens use one or more synthetic chemicals including oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octocrylene, and paraben preservatives, just to name a few. These chemicals are absorbed into the skin to create a deep layer protection against UV rays.
However, because they are absorbed, they can cause skin irritation and disrupt hormones, as well as causing cell-damaging free radicals when exposed to the sun.
In my family, we work to limit the number of unnecessary chemicals that we are exposed to. To that end, we use mineral sunscreens (much to my kids' displeasure!).
Does Expired Sunscreen Protect Against the Sun?
The old rule of thumb was to buy new sunscreen every year.
However, according to the Mayo Clinic, sunscreens are designed to maintain original strength for up to 3 years. This means you can use the same bottle of sunscreen from one year to the next.
If there is an expiration date on your sunscreen bottle, check it and don't use that sunscreen after the expiration date because it is not effective.
Find the Best Sunscreen for Kids and the Entire Family
Ultimately, the best type of sunscreen is the one you will use again and again. Just make sure it offers broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection, has an SPF of 30 or higher and is water resistant.
While I personally recommend using a mineral sunscreen to reduce your exposure to chemicals, the kind of sunscreen you use is a matter of personal preference. Either way, in my opinion, it's better to use any sunscreen than to not use it and get sunburned.
Pro-Tip: high-number SPF sunscreens last the same amount of time as low-number SPF sunscreens. A high-number SPF does not allow you to spend additional time outdoors without reapplication.
**All sunscreens should be applied approximately every two hours or according to instructions on the label. This is true even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating.**
Some of my personal recommendations for favorite sunscreens
If you want a sunscreen that is a little cheaper or rubs in a little easier, I recommend:
To Find More information
The EWG is a great resource for up to date information on sunscreen. Each year they do extensive testing on many brands of sunscreen to determine their safety rating on each brand. Check out their site to find out your sunscreen is safe and to find alternatives, if you need them.
It's important to exercise caution with regards to sun exposure and use best practices when protecting against UV rays. As our ozone continues to deplete, now is the time to become a master at reading sunscreen labels. Learn which brands work for your family.
Overall, your best bet is to use a combination of protective clothing and seeking shade along with a mineral barrier sunscreen.
Tell us in the comments…what is your favorite sunscreen to use? What are your concerns (if any) about using sunscreen?
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