Sunscreen 101: Tips for choosing the right skin protection

May 20, 2015 Providence Health Team

sunscreenIf you’re confused about how to pick a sunscreen, you’re not alone. There are countless sunscreens on the market, not to mention a whole new vocabulary to learn. Here’s some practical advice to help you sort through the sprays and lotions and understand the alphabet soup of SPF, UVA and UVB to find the best sun protection for you and your family. 

What are UVA and UVB rays?
UVA rays cause premature aging, while UVB rays can burn your skin. An easy way to remember is “A for aging” and “B for burn.” But whether you’re talking UVA or UVB, both are damaging and can cause skin cancer. So choose a sunscreen labeled broad-spectrum or full-spectrum, which means the product is designed to protect you from both.

Which SPF is best?
Sun protection factor, or SPF, measures how well sunscreens repel UVB rays. In other words, how much longer it takes you to burn when wearing sunscreen compared to skin without any protection. If it takes you 10 minutes to burn, a properly applied SPF 15 can extend this timeframe to 150 minutes.

It’s surprising to note, however, that a higher SPF only offers minimal increased protection. For example, SPF 30 doesn’t provide double the protection of SPF 15. In fact, SPF 15 filters out 93 percent of UVB rays, while SPF 30 filters out 97 percent.

For most people, a normal, every-day coverage of SPF 15 should do the trick. If you have fair skin or a family history of skin cancer, consider a minimum of SPF 30. Many brands offer lotions, lip balms and cosmetics with SPF built into the products, making daily applications nearly effortless.

There is no SPF-equivalent for measuring UVA protection. So pay attention to the sunscreen’s ingredients for effective UVA-blocking components. Keep an eye out for at least one of the following: ecamsule, titanium dioxide, sulisobenzone, avobenzone, oxybenzone or zinc oxide.

You’ve found the perfect sunscreen – now use it!
It may sound silly, but take the time to read and follow the label directions on your sunscreen. In general, apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before sun exposure to give your skin plenty of time to absorb it. Whether you are using a lotion or spray, apply a thick coat and thoroughly rub it in. Don’t overlook areas like the back of the neck, tips of the ears and tops of the feet. And reapply every two hours. If you’re sweating or playing in the water, consider reapplying more often. Water resistant doesn’t mean waterproof – and it’s better to be safe than sunburned.

And keep in mind, sunscreens expire. Check the expiration date on the bottle and toss it in the trash if it’s past its prime.

Beyond sunscreen
For more ways to defend your skin against the sun, consider these alternatives. Or, better yet, combine them with sunscreen for an extra boost of protection.
  • Cover up with clothes: Wearing wide-brim hats, long-sleeve shirts, pants, sunglasses or swim shirts are all simple options to help protect your skin from the sun.
  • Avoid peak sun hours: No matter the season or the weather, the sun’s rays are generally strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If possible, limit your time outside during these hours.
  • Review your medications: Many medications cause phototoxicity, or sun-sensitivity, which occurs when a drug reacts to UV rays. Talk with your provider about your medications and if extra sun protection is necessary.

Find a Provider

Contact your health care provider at Providence with your questions or concerns about sunscreen and skin protection.

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Sunscreen 101: Tips for choosing the right skin protection
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