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Family Nutrition & Health

Sunscreen by the Numbers

When you reach for the sunscreen, are you confident about the protection you’re getting? While new labeling rules from the FDA have eliminated misleading terms like “waterproof” and “sunblock” and added warnings about what you can and can’t expect from the products, you may still be exposing your family to dangerous rays. That’s because high SPF numbers don’t always add up to higher protection.

Spelling out S-P-F
SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, is calculated scientifically by exposing skin to the sun’s rays to determine how long it would take to burn with and without sunscreen. Someone who turns red after 20 minutes in the sun without sunscreen, and who applies a sunscreen with an SPF of 15, theoretically, would be protected from burning for 5 hours (20 minutes X 15). BUT, sunscreens wash off, and we sweat them off, so that 5 hours is purely theoretical.

SPF only measures the UVB radiation (ultraviolet B rays) that it protects against – not the deeply penetrating ultraviolet A radiation, or “aging” rays that also come from the sun. Both UBA and UVB are associated with skin cancer. That’s why dermatologists suggest you reach for a “broad spectrum” lotion with an SPF of at least 15 and the UVA-defensive chemical avobenzone or Mexoryl SX. 

Bright Ideas
Keep these tips in mind year ‘round as you protect yourself and your family outdoors:

Timing is everything
Apply sunscreen to clean skin 20 minutes before going into the sun. Then reapply it every two hours and immediately after sweating or swimming. No matter how high the SPF, this is a solid and serious rule.

Quantity counts
Apply enough sunscreen. An adult in a bathing suit should use 3 tablespoons each time you apply lotion. That adds up when your whole family is at the beach, and is probably why so many people fall short in their skin protection. If you only use half of the recommended amount, you’re getting less than half of the benefit.
Quality doesn’t always count

The higher the SPF, the higher the protection, right? No. SPF 100 blocks 99% of UVB rays and SPF 50 blocks 98%. SPF 30, which we all used to consider a high number, still blocks 96.7% of the harmful rays. Considering the fact that price often rises with the higher SPF, and you’re going to reapply frequently, you might as well get the SPF 30 lotion and save some money.

Take cover
Don’t rely strictly on sunscreen. Limit your time in the sun, especially at midday, and protect skin with hats, shirts and cover-ups. Keep babies younger than 6 months out of the sun completely. DO NOT USE SUNSCREEN ON INFANTS. If your infant is outdoors with you, keep them in the shade and completely covered.

Teens: Burning isn’t cool
You’ll double your chances of getting melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, later in life if you get a bad sunburn in childhood or adolescence. Use the right broad spectrum lotion and get a tan – not a burn.

Spread it, don’t spray it
The FDA has banned sunscreen powders and is considering a ban on spray sunscreens. Why? Not enough sunscreen makes it onto the skin, and the spray inhaled into the lungs may be harmful.

Read up
Look for “broad spectrum protection” in a sunscreen that protects against UBA and UBV rays. Products with an SPF lower than 15 will be labeled that they don’t protect against skin cancer. That should be a strong heads-up on what to avoid. Also, products can no longer claim to be waterproof (only water-resistant), and labels must list the time limit of either 40 or 80 minutes before the sunscreen is ineffective.

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