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Sunscreen 101: The Nitty Gritty of SPF

I always talk about the importance of wearing sunscreen before heading out or being under the sun. But after looking through people’s usual concerns about sunscreens and why others don’t bother wearing them, it’s usually because they don’t fully understand what it is even down to the basics. I was thinking, that maybe if people were enlightened about the teeny tiny details, maybe there will be fewer cases of skin cancer diagnosed each year in the United States.

Currently, there is a ratio of one in five Americans will develop it by the time they reach the age of 70. The most common form of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma. However, it’s the least lethal. Squamous cell carcinoma is four times less common than the basal cell but causes 5 times as many deaths per year. Melanoma– or sometimes called as the big bad wolf of skin cancer is the least common but causes the majority of skin cancer deaths.

By educating more and more people about sunscreen, maybe this can lessen in the future.

What is SPF?

Some may say, “It’s Sun Protection Factor!”, or the degree to which a product can protect our skin from the sun. For the FDA, they refer to SPF as “Sunburn Protection Factor”, which is a more accurate term for sunscreens. SPF is meant to measure how long a product could delay the reddening or burning of the skin due to sun exposure. If you have normal skin, it would start to redden after 10 minutes under the sun. A sunscreen that has an SPF of 15 can extend that time to 150 minutes.

Sunscreen 101: Know The Nitty Gritty with SPF

What’s the difference between UVA and UVB rays?

I know that you’re wondering what UVA and UVB rays are because the packaging of your favorite sunscreen probably says something like: “Protects you from harmful UVA and UVB rays.”

UVB rays cause sunburn. You can think of B for a burn. UVB light contributes to basal and squamous cell carcinomas and is most prevalent between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM. However, it cannot penetrate glass (such as car windows for example) to a significant degree.

As for UVA, it is far more prevalent and can penetrate deeply into the dermal layer. Unlike UVB rays, it is present any time there is daylight and can penetrate glass. It is also what causes squamous cell carcinoma and also contributes to basal cell carcinoma. UVA can also cause photo-aging by damaging collagen and may cause immune suppression– making it easier for skin cancer and other cancers to gain ground.

The sun also emits UVC rays but with the help of our ozone layer, it is filtered out by the earth’s atmosphere. So, maybe it’s time to ask yourself, what if there’s no ozone layer anymore?

How high should the SPF be?

This can be very confusing for some because most people believe that an SPF 30 product can offer twice the sun protection of an SPF 15 product. It makes a lot of sense but in reality, an SPF 15 can block 93% of UVB rays, whereas an SPF 30 blocks 97%, and for SPF 50, you’re only getting 98% protection. Not much of a difference, right?

It’s usually just a trick made by companies in order for you to reach for the highest SPF– which is presumably twice as expensive as an SPF 15 product. Bottomline, you don’t really need anything that’s more than SPF 50.

Sunscreen 101: Know The Nitty Gritty with SPF

I have sensitive skin, what ingredients should I avoid?

I highly recommend that you avoid the ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate. These are significant skin allergens and have shown to have estrogen-mimicking effects on the body. Another non-active ingredient that you should avoid is methylisothiazolinone, which is a common preservative in sunscreens, even baby wipes. It is considered the allergen of the year by the American Contact Dermatitis Society in 2013.

On the other hand, you might want to opt for zinc oxide instead. It is considered the superstar of the sun protection! It can protect you from UVA and UVB rays by not letting it get absorbed by the skin. Instead, it sits on top of your skin and deflects the sun’s rays like a mirror. Another ingredient that is important is titanium dioxide. It is mainly active against UVB rays and Avobenzone is one of few ingredients approved in the United States for UVA protection and has a low toxicity profile. You may also refer to this article by Urbanette to narrow down your non-toxic sunscreen selection.

Recently, I’ve been wondering about the use of sunscreens in order to avoid premature aging. But then, the reason why I use sunscreen regularly isn’t that I’m scared of aging. I’m aware that I’m not getting any younger and that my skin isn’t as youthful as it was before. However, I do want to avoid any skin problems and I do want my skin to be healthy as I age gracefully. For me, it’s better to use sunscreens starting today (if you still haven’t gotten into the habit of using it) in order to avoid any skin cancer that might happen later in the future. It’s better late than never, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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