Parent applies sunscreen on toddler

Coming to Terms with Sunscreen

What to look for on the label
Author: Sarah M. Aldridge, MS

That tropical-smelling stuff you rub or roll on your skin now has higher standards for what it can and can’t say on the label. As of December 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required all sunscreen products to revise their labels based on new data. 

Before you grab your tennis racquet or beach towel, learn more about the best way to create a barrier between you and Old Sol. Remember: sun damage to the skin is cumulative. The more you expose your skin to the ravages of the sun, the greater your risk of developing skin cancer years from now. 

What’s harmful in sun rays

Sun rays send ultraviolet (UV) radiation to the earth. The two main types that cause damage to the skin are UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are longer and penetrate the skin more deeply. They cause long-lasting damage, such as premature aging in the form of wrinkles, age spots and sagging. UVA rays are the main type of radiation you receive in tanning salons. Tanning beds provide up to 12 times as much UVA rays as the sun. In contrast, UVB rays are shorter and cause surface layer sunburns and blistering. Both types can cause skin cancer by damaging skin cells’ DNA.

Sun exposure is most intense in northern latitudes away from the equator during spring and summer months, especially between 10am and 4 pm. Surfaces that reflect sun rays, such as snow, sand and water, can magnify the effect of the sun, causing even more intense sunburn. And people who live in the mountains or hike on sunny trails also have to plan for prevention. UV rays reach the ground faster at higher altitudes. 

Don’t be fooled by cloud cover. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), up to 80% of damaging UV rays are present when it’s overcast or cloudy. Contrary to popular belief, all that sun exposure as a kid doesn’t ward off the sun’s harm during adulthood. Men over 40 spend the most amount of time outdoors and account for the greatest yearly UV exposure, says the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Even sunny windows let in a certain amount of UV rays. The Skin Cancer Foundation warns that up to 50% of UVA rays penetrate windows in vehicles and buildings. So, yes, that does mean wearing sunscreen on long car trips, if you sit near a window at work or when you curl up with a book in a sun-drenched nook at home.

During hot summer months your local weather forecast probably includes the UV index. This international standard measurement tells you how intense the UV rays are that day. The scale goes from 1-11+, with color-coded categories. A day rated a 1-3 has a low UV index and is coded green. In contrast, a day rated 11+ has extreme UV radiation, code purple.

Defining SPFs

Sunscreens are grouped by sun protection factors, or SPFs. The higher the number, the longer you’re protected from harmful UV rays. So if your skin usually turns red after 20 minutes, a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 would give you 15 times more protection, or 5 hours’ worth. The AAD recommends all people use at least a 30 SPF, which blocks 97% of the sun’s rays. For comparison, 15 SPF blocks 93% of the rays; 50+ blocks 98%.

However, because SPFs are determined in lab conditions, they are not real-world ready. All sunscreens should be reapplied at least every 2 hours. Slather on the stuff even more frequently if you’re popping in and out of the pool, or wiping off the sweat between holes on the golf course.

Enlightened about labels

These are the main FDA changes to sunscreen labels, in effect since late 2013:

  • The term “broad spectrum” can only be used if the product protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Only broad-spectrum products with an SPF of 15 or higher can state something to the effect of: “helps protect against skin cancer and early skin aging if used as directed with other sun protection measures.”
  • Broad-spectrum products with an SPF of 2-14 must include this type of warning: “this product has not been shown to help prevent skin cancer or early skin aging.”
  • The terms “sunblock,” “sweatproof” and “waterproof” are history. However, the term “water resistant” is allowed when combined with a time period stating how long it’s effective—either 40 or 80 minutes of swimming or sweating.
  • If a sunscreen is not water resistant, it must recommend that consumers also use a water-resistant sunscreen if they plan to swim or sweat.
  • No product can claim it is effective for more than 2 hours without  providing data to the FDA for approval.

The FDA is testing the effectiveness of such products as sunscreen wipes and towelettes.  Further, it is evaluating the safety of sunscreen sprays because of a possible concern over accidental inhalation. Finally, the FDA is seeking more data before it proposes a ruling that sunscreens higher than 50 simply state “SPF 50+.” That’s because anything over 50 has very little advantage over products with SPF 50, says the agency. 

How to buy and apply

Sunscreens come in many different forms, from lotions and gels to sprays and roll-on sticks. The AAD recommends lotion for the face and if you have dry skin; gel for hairy places, such as your head or a man’s chest; and roll-ons for the skin around your eyes. Don’t forget to protect your lips. A lip balm with an SPF of 30 or more is needed, says the AAD.

In the Drug Facts section of the label, you should see at least three ingredients, says the Skin Cancer Foundation. That’s because several different agents are needed to protect you from the different wavelengths of UVA and UVB rays. Chemical ingredients, such as avobenzone, absorb UV rays, decreasing their penetration into the skin. In contrast, physical ingredients, such as zinc oxide, reflect UV rays. That thick, white pastelike stuff on lifeguards’ noses is typically zinc oxide. Look for the Skin Cancer Foundation seal, indicating that an independent review committee tested the product.

People with sensitive skin, babies and young children should avoid para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), which can cause skin reactions, cautions the Skin Cancer Foundation. Also, parents should not apply sunscreen on babies under 6 months because of possible allergic reactions. Instead, dress them in protective clothing and hats, and keep them in a well-ventilated place in the shade.

Generosity is the key when applying sunscreen. Most of us squirt a small amount or rub just enough in to feel like we’re covered. The rule of thumb, though, is 1 ounce, a shot glass size amount, says the Skin Cancer Foundation. For a full day of fun in the sun at the beach, expect to go through up to half of an 8-ounce bottle, it says. Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before you start your tennis match or dip your toes in the ocean. It takes that long for the ingredients to bind to your skin, so the UV rays don’t penetrate. The 2-hour rule should be your guide. Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours or more, especially if you towel yourself dry after you swim or sweat. 

News reports tell us that most Americans don’t get enough vitamin D, the so-called “sunshine vitamin.” But that’s no excuse for unprotected sun worshipping. Although sunscreen does block your body from fully absorbing vitamin D, you’re still getting some of it, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Further, some sunscreens contain vitamin D3. There are many dietary sources of vitamin D these days, says the organization. It stands behind the research showing that any sun exposure causes irreversible skin damage.

Avoiding the “C” word

Nobody wants to hear the “C” word—cancer—from their dermatologist. But the reality is that 1 out of 5 Americans will get skin cancer during their lifetime, says the American Cancer Society. The organization states that 90% of skin cancers result from the amount of time and intensity of your exposure to UV rays. That means skin cancer is preventable.

Try these tips to avoid sunburn:

  • Stay out of the sun when it’s most intense, from 10am-4pm
  • Wear light-colored clothing, long-sleeved shirts and pants. Some clothing lines now have ultraviolet protection factors (UPFs). For example, a UPF of 30 means 1/30th of the UV radiation reaches your skin. 
  • Protect your head, face and shoulders by wearing a broad-brimmed hat.
  • Purchase sunglasses that block 97%-100% of UV rays.
  • Say “no” to tanning beds.

Load up on sunscreen when it’s on sale. Then stash a tube in your athletic bag, in your purse or on your desk at work. That way you’ll be armed and supplied when those sun rays starting heating up your world.