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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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  • Susan Lopez says:

    I’ve been fooled! I’m going to stop buying SPF 50+ from now on because it’s basically useless. I tend to reapply when I’m constantly under the sun anyway so why on earth would I even be needing a higher SPF. Wow, they make profit from people’s confusion.

  • Joyce Gonzalez says:

    I guess I’ve been getting it all wrong. You’re right, I only needed the ant-aging properties of sunscreens but never have I taken into consideration that it might lead to cancer. ?

  • Lynda Diaz says:

    There’s another term that I usually come across with newer sunscreen, it’s the PA+++. What is that?

    • PA simply means Protection Grade of UVA rays, which is used to measure the SPF of a sunscreen and PA+++ is designed for normal skin that expose to very strong UV radiation. It’s just something to further confuse us, but we shouldn’t be.

  • Zoe Sawyer says:

    So there really is a need to re-apply sunscreen. But if I use makeup, it’s impossible to even re-apply it without ruining makeup. How do you guys deal with this?

  • Faith Lucas says:

    I also noticed that there are people who don’t have strong skin barriers so they experience easier sunburns compared to other people.

  • Alexis Weber says:

    I religiously apply sunscreen because my skin tends to dry up when I don’t… I’ve gotten used to the feeling of having it underneath whatever foundation I wear so I’m good.

  • Bridget Baker says:

    What… There’s isn’t much of a difference! ?

  • I could never skip sunscreen because my melasma tends to get worse. I also want to be on the safe side that I won’t get cancer in the long run.

  • Freda Dawson says:

    Why can’t people just wear sunscreen? It’s IMPORTANT. PERIOD.

    • Exactly, I don’t know why people need elaborate explanation before they could just use something that protects their skin.

  • So it’s the UVA that we have to avoid at all costs. Both are important but UVA seems to be the worst. I understand now. Thank you!

  • Ooh! So that’s why I tan slightly when I’m in a long car ride and it’s extremely hot outside.

  • I sweat a lot and sunscreens make me feel sticky. I usually buy makeup with SPF and I assume that’s enough.

    • I read that sunscreens from makeup or skincare isn’t enough. But I don’t have any basis on that.

  • What a fail. I usually buy high SPF sunscreens when I go to the beach because I always feel like it’s better. Joke’s on me because that % difference isn’t much but the $ difference is a lot.

  • Another thing is to use water-proof sunscreen if you’re going to swim in a pool/beach. Others think that as long it’s sunscreen, it’s the same as any other sunscreen. You also have to make sure that you let the sunscreen dry before going to the water. It’s the same for re-applying. Don’t ever dry your skin first and wait for the sunscreen to set. It’s just going to wash off and you’re good as burnt.

  • Cristina Bernal says:

    Why is this sunscreen thing so complicated anyway. ?

  • Lynn Saunders says:

    Does this mean hat even if I’m going to stay indoors all day, I still have to wear sunscreen? Since UVA penetrates through glass. If I keep the curtains shut all day, is is still necessary?

    • Violet Perkins says:

      I’m not sure about that either. Although, heavily tinted mirrors in cars seem to block these rays so maybe if the fabric is thick enough, it can really block UVA/UVB rays.

  • Rebecca Brand says:

    Since I have a foundation and compact powder on my face how am I suppose to reapply the sunscreen without spoiling my makeup or washing my face? Is that possible?

  • Laureen Yoon says:

    This article comes right on time.at I was wondering today what kind of sun protector cream I should buy. My skin is super sensitive, basically as white as feta cheese and I haven’t been out much for the last few months as I spend most of my time at the office. But with summer already here and a few trips already planned for my summer holiday, I shall be well prepared for my battle with the sun. Thank you for the great advice. As always informative.

  • Amelia Clement says:

    Thanks for all the information regarding sunscreen. It is very helpful.

  • Britanny Lozano says:

    Every day I mix my plain moisturizer with a bit of SPF 60 sunblock. Does mixing my SPF weaken the sunblock properties? I do it because it applies better. Is it okay or should I stop??

  • Kelyne Dove says:

    I don’t like wearing sunscreen under my makeup because it’s sticky, so I just use a moisturizer and foundation with SPF. Hope that’s enough.

  • Kristi Weems says:

    I have sensitive oily skin, can I use baby sunscreen? Actually, thank you for this article, this just made everything clear in my mind about sun protection.

  • Victoria Ament says:

    I’m black and I wear sunscreen. Sun rays cause early wrinkles I’ve heard. Plus my skin doesn’t like the feeling of direct sun, It burns literally. I do tend to forget sunscreen often though, so I’m usually at least not without an umbrella. personal shade form sun and goos for when it decides to rain without warning. Double win!!

  • Joy Greenough says:

    So many people say “but I am all good I don’t burn I tan” skin cancer will hit you when you will be 40. Have fun than dying from a melanoma at 50.

  • Sofia Barton says:

    At the end o the day there are too many things to avoid and too many things that cause cancer. Live your life, do what you want. and have a sexy tan.

  • Marika Chien says:

    Sunscreen has chemicals, so wearing it all the time can be more harmful than helpful. For people with normal skin, not too sensitive or strong against burns, try to go out in the sun at a sensible time, so you don’t get burned or have to use too much sunscreen.

  • Anissa Ridge says:

    All the more reason to sit in the room playing on the computer.

  • Lorette Foret says:

    The rate of melanoma incidence has increased so significantly, probably because of societal changes in exposure to sunlight, people these days generally wear fewer clothes than they did 35 years ago.

    • Tiffany Wafer says:

      Not only fewer clothes but also increase of UV’s because of ozone depletion due to greenhouse gases.