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Demystifying Sunscreen: 5 Things You Need to Know


Demystifying Sunscreen: 5 Things You Need to Know

Erin Boyle July 24, 2013

When it comes to sunscreen, I admit to being a little bit cranky. First there’s the way it makes me feel: sticky and grimy–and that’s before I’ve spent the day in the garden. Then there are all of the acronyms, numbers, and utterly unpronounceable ingredients that I’m expected to parse.  

As someone who’s already more than a little bit cautious about the products I use on my skin, I have had moments when going without sunscreen has seemed like the lesser of the evils. But while choosing to stay out of the hottest sun and wearing protective clothing are certainly viable sun protection options–and a good thing to do even if you do wear sunscreen–it’s important to know a thing or two about the white stuff. And, alas, to wear it.

According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, skin cancer is currently the number one form of cancer in the US: one in five Americans develop skin cancer over the course of a lifetime. Whether we like it or not, sunscreen is a necessary component of our daily routine. 

Photographs by Erin Boyle

Here are a few helpful guidelines for knowing what to pack in your beach bag or garden tote:

1. Look for sunscreen labeled UVA/UVB Broad Spectrum. In 2011, the FDA passed new legislation that went into effect in December of 2012 and changed the way that companies are allowed to market their products. Products labeled “broad-spectrum” or “full-spectrum” are now required to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. The Skin Cancer Foundation explains that “UVB rays are the chief culprit behind sunburn, while UVA rays, which penetrate the skin more deeply, are associated with wrinkling, leathering, sagging, and other light-induced effects of aging.” Now is the time to let out a communal sigh.

2. Use SPF 15 or above. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, “SPF–or Sun Protection Factor–is a measure of a sunscreen’s ability to prevent UVB from damaging the skin.” An easy guideline: SPF 15 filters out approximately 93 percent of all incoming UVB rays, SPF 30 keeps out 97 percent, and SPF 50 keeps out 98 percent. Under the legislation mentioned above, products with an SPF of 15 and above are allowed to make claims of reducing the risk of skin cancer and early skin cancer as well as preventing sunburn. Start protecting your skin early: sunscreen should be used by everyone, including infants ages 6 months and up (consult your pediatrician for recommendations). Who wouldn’t want to protect tiny toes?

3. Know your options. As a general rule, sunscreen falls into two categories: physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens. If you’re like me and wary of chemical ingredients, you can opt for a sunscreen with physical blockers like zinc oxide, which are generally considered to be safer than chemical blockers. The downside to these sunscreens is the white film they tend to leave behind. This summer, I’ve been using Mychelle’s SunShield-Coconut; $19.19. It smells really good and helps save me from looking like I’ve just applied clown makeup.

4. Put on more than you think you need. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a whopping 1 oz. of sunscreen applied 30 minutes before going into the sun. This means that a day at the beach might add up to a half a bottle of sunscreen or more. Stock up!

5. Reapply often. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends reapplying sunscreen every two hours and more frequently if you’re sweating or swimming. Wearing a hat (or skin-protective clothing) can help extend the time between applications. Thank goodness.

Looking for a hat to help protect against the sun’s rays? See 10 Easy Pieces: Gardening Hats

On the hunt for the perfect light cotton shirt to wear berry picking? See Summer Berries: How to Pick Your Own Like a Pro.

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