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Sunscreen: The One Beauty Product Everyone Oversees – But You Shouldn’t

Kristina Cadwell  
October 2, 2019  

Living in the desert means feeling the warm and pleasant sun year round. But while we’re never freezing and can enjoy a lot of poolside time in the state that tops the charts for the nation’s brightest and hottest sunshine, it also means that we’re under a lot of risk.

The sun’s ultraviolet rays present a danger that many underestimate. Solar rays are responsible for tanning, but also burning of the skin, and they contribute to premature aging and skin cancer in the long run. The best way to protect yourself (beyond staying indoors) is by using sunscreen.

Sunscreen, or a sunblock, stopped being a beach product a long time ago, and we should all be extra careful even when running errands in the city center or hanging out in the back yard. This is a test where many fail, though. The majority of people believe that they don’t need a cream or a lotion with SPF for the twenty minutes or half an hour tops that they will spend outside.

Why is sunscreen important, how does it work, and why should you know what SPF to choose? We’ll cover it in this post. Read on and see why sunscreen is essential for Arizona citizens every day of the year.

What Is Sunscreen and Why Does It Matter?

Sunscreen is a product that helps keep your skin safe from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. You’ve probably heard of the two types of ultraviolet radiation: UVA and UVB rays. Both of these types damage the skin, making it age prematurely and even contributing to skin cancer.
Before we dive into sunscreen, it’s essential we first understand how UVA and UVB work. UVA rays are long enough and penetrate the deeper layers of the skin, where they cause long-term damage – e.g., aging and wrinkles. UVA rays are also the dominant tanning rays, as the dermal layer that they reach is also where the cells that promote skin darkening are.
On the other hand, UVB rays are responsible for sunburn. They are shorter and burn the skin on the surface, causing immediate damage – that’s the sunburn – and long-run damage that can lead to skin cancer. Most sunscreens protect from UVB but not UVA rays. If you want the greatest protection possible, you should get a broad spectrum sunscreen, a product that protects against ultraviolet rays of multiple types. The somewhat discouraging news is that no sunscreen will protect you from 100% of UVB rays. While your best bet is to get a high SPF sunscreen, there is no way to stay 100% protected.
This is because sunscreen provides a screen, not a block (even though one of the names for the product is sunblock!). Let’s borrow a model from a screen door: air gets through without any problems, but flies and mosquitos don’t. Similarly, sunscreen will let some of the radiation onto the skin.
How much is that? It depends on the SPF.

What is SPF?

SPF stands for “Sun Protection Factor” and it is the relative measure of the sunscreen’s ability to protect the skin from the UVB rays.  The higher the SPF, the less radiation can pass through.

The calculation is, in its base, simple: if it takes 10 minutes in the sun for your skin to start turning red, using SPF X will prolong this time to X times 10.

In practice, that means that if it typically takes you 10 minutes until your skin starts to burn, using SPF 30 means you will be safe for 300 minutes (or 5 hours) in the sun.

However, the scale of SPF is not linear, so using SPF 30 does not equal to using SPF 15 twice. In fact:

SPF 15 allows 1/15, or around 6.7% of UVB rays to get to the skin. This means that it blocks approximately 93% of UVB rays.

Likewise, SPF 30 lets 1/30 of UVB rays or around 3.3% and blocks 97% of UVB rays.

SPF 50 gets 1/50 or 2% of the radiation through, while it filters 98% of UVB rays.

If you thought there was a vast difference between SPF 30 and SPF 50, now you know it’s actually modest. But at the same time, those few percentages add up throughout years of being exposed to the sun. They are also important if you have a history of skin cancer or are especially sensitive to the light.

SPF products also specialize in UVB protection in the sense that they offer minimal UVA protection. If you want a broad-spectrum protection, make sure that you are using a product whose UVA protection is around 1/3 of the UVB protection.

Will Using High SPF Save Me From Radiation?

SPF products are a necessary means of protecting your skin from UV rays, but they’re not enough.

If you’re now wondering why we are insisting you use them, go back to this part: SPF products are a necessary means of protecting your skin from UV rays.

First, the calculation we showed about how much radiation gets through with different SPF works in controlled conditions. Think of a lab where you can predict and control just about anything and everything. However, chances are you won’t be sunbathing in a lab this summer. When out and about, intensity and wavelength distribution of UVB rays will vary throughout the day and by location. Another catch is that the SPF calculation only applies to UVB rays, but not UVA.

Furthermore, even though using SPF 50 theoretically means that you can stay in the sun 50 times longer than usual, if you are exposed to the sun’s radiation for 500 minutes, or 8 hours, it will almost definitely make your skin burn! The rule of thumb is not to expect any SPF to stay effective for more than two hours without reapplication.

How effective SPF will be also depends on your skin type, the intensity of sunlight, and how much sunscreen you actually used. Also, as we mentioned, if you want to be extra cautious, you should invest in a broad spectrum sunscreen.

You should also not rely solely on sunscreen for sun protection. Hats, appropriate clothing, and staying in the shade or indoors during peak hours will add to the protection.

What Is Broad Spectrum Sunscreen?

We covered the basics of UVA and UVB rays, so now you know that there are differences between these two types of ultraviolet rays. Most sunscreens only work against UVB rays, those that cause surface burns. On the other hand, SPF doesn’t apply to UVA rays, the ones that cause long-term damage, including skin aging and wrinkles.

Regular sunscreens are made to protect your skin from UVB rays by absorbing them, degrading, reflecting, or deactivating. But as you can imagine, UVA rays have no problems reaching the deeper layers of the skin no matter how much sunscreen you apply, and what SPF you are using.

To get the most protection, using a broad spectrum (also called full spectrum) sunscreen is a great idea. Broad spectrum sunscreens protect from both UVA and UVB rays. The FDA is strict about sunscreens, and they must pass a broad-spectrum test against UVA radiation. If you’re looking for one, remember that no product of SPF 15 or under can offer broad-spectrum protection.

Broad spectrum sunscreens offer protection from UVA rays in the same ratio that SPF blocks UVB.

How Often Should I Apply Sunscreen?

You should first apply your product containing SPF – or a broad spectrum sunscreen – at least 20 minutes before being exposed to the sun. This will allow the product to bind properly to the skin.

Experts agree that your sunscreen most likely won’t give you the ultimate protection for more than 2 hours whichever product you use. That means you need to reapply after the time is up!

Of course, if you are using low SPF, or you take very little time to burn in general so, for example, an SPF 30 will get you through an hour – reapply after an hour.

Don’t forget to reapply sunscreen after you’ve been in contact with water. Sunscreens are also not waterproof, only water-resistant. You will see that information on the product itself, as the FDA requires it.

Applying sunscreen is especially important if you are active and sweating: if you’re swimming, running, or just towel drying yourself and gently removing the product. Don’t forget to reapply! Even things like hugging people or brushing up against them or even wiping water from your eyes remove some of the sunscreen and lower its effectiveness.

On a similar note, just because you applied a product that theoretically allows you to stay in the sun for several hours, it does not mean you should. Sunscreen is not armor, and please don’t treat it as such.

How Much Sunscreen Do I Need?

When sunscreen is tested in lab conditions, one of the things they account for is the exact amount of the product to be applied. What happens on the beach, however, is different: people usually apply less product.

The testing amount of a product used to determine the SPF number is 2 mg of lotion or cream on every square centimeter of exposed skin. In other words, this is about six to seven teaspoons or a shot glass for the whole body in a bikini.

Of course, you won’t be carrying a teaspoon with you to measure the exact amount of the product. But be aware that most people use too little product – a quarter to half the product needed for complete protection – so use it generously.

Another thing to remember is that the right amount of sunscreen depends on the formulation of the product: whether it is a lotion, cream, gel, or a spray.

Keep in mind that you should spread the product as uniformly as possible. This might be difficult for the back or parts of the body that sweat more than others. Ask a friend or a spouse for assistance with those hard-to-reach areas, and don’t forget to reapply for ongoing protection.

What Sunscreen Should I Choose?

There are so many different products on the market. Even if you are looking for a broad-spectrum product, you get to choose from a wide array of lotions, gels, mousses, creams; then you need to decide whether you want a water-resistant sunscreen or a very water-resistant one.

For daily endeavors such as taking a walk and being in the sun for a short while you might be safe with your regular moisturizer or an after-shave lotion: check whether they contain an SPF.

If you spend a lot of time outdoors, especially when at the beach or near any large body of water, aim for getting SPF 15 to 30, and a greater one during the first several days while your skin is still unaccustomed to the sun.

If you’re very active, water-resistant options will be right for you, though you shouldn’t forget that they are not waterproof, so you should reapply them on schedule. On the other hand, if you’re wearing makeup, avoid these, as they’re heavy and sticky.

Whichever product you opt for, don’t wait until you get to the beach to take it out of the bag and start the application. Apply sunscreen half an hour to twenty minutes before you are even exposed to the sun, as this is the time necessary for the product to fully set in.

If you want to find out more about choosing a sunscreen, make sure to read our article how to choose a sunscreen and make sure not to skip our article about eight best sunscreen products for maximum sun-blocking effect..

Who Exactly Should Put On Sunscreen?

Anyone over the age of six months.

Even if you work in the city and feel that you don’t need to slather on sunscreen, you will be exposed to the ultraviolet radiation for brief periods, for example, when getting to the car. Global warming is a thing, and ultraviolet rays have been getting stronger and stronger, so these short periods all add up. Better be safe than sorry.

If you’re working near windows or driving for extended periods of time, you should also protect yourself with sunscreen. Windows usually filter out UVB rays, but not UVA. That means that you should look for a broad spectrum sunscreen.

When it comes to babies under six months of age, they generally should not be exposed to the sun as their skin is vulnerable and sensitive to both the ingredients in the sunscreen and the sun’s rays. Cover your baby with protective long-arm clothing and keep them in the shade.

Am I Safe Out of Direct Sunlight?

No, not really. That’s because it’s not just direct sunlight that poses a risk. Certain surfaces reflect the UV rays to the skin: water, metal, snow. If you’re swimming, you can still burn even though you applied the sunscreen. Water-resistant products usually don’t last for more than 40 minutes, and UV rays can penetrate up to one meter under water.

Even when you expect to be more protected, it can be risky, e.g., in the shade or under an umbrella or on a cloudy day. Your best chance is to put on sunscreen nevertheless.

Why Have I Burnt And My Friend Hasn’t?

It has happened to us all at some point in our lives. We go to the beach with a friend who hasn’t yet been to one that year, we use the same sunscreen, but one gets those nasty sunburns, and the other one doesn’t. Why is that?

People differ by the type of their skin and how much melanin each skin contains. Melanin is the black or brown pigment in our skin. A person having a lot of melanin probably has darker skin, while a fair skin person has little of it. Melanin absorbs UV light, so very fair skin is under high risk of sun damage. This doesn’t mean that darker skin types are safe – they are just less safe than the fair skin types.

To make sure you don’t get a sunburn, be cautious, and always apply sunscreen.

What Are Other Sun Protection Tips I Should Know?

You should avoid direct exposure to the sun in its peak hours when the rays are stronger than throughout the rest of the day. It’s better to stay inside between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm. Read a book or a magazine, spend time with friends and family, or watch your favorite Netflix shows. It’s warm enough both before and after this period, so that you won’t be missing out.

According to the FDA, when the sun is high, we get four times as much solar energy than we do in the morning or late afternoon. That’s not something you want to test out yourself!

When you’re out and about, try wearing a wide-brimmed hat and good sunglasses that come with UV protection.

Clothing is also important. If you can wear long sleeves, opt for those. If you feel it’s too hot, try choosing fabrics that absorb harmful UV rays or at least don’t allow them from passing through. Thick material such as denim prevents the rays from passing through, while loose-weave fabrics are not that good at it. You can even find fabrics treated with UV absorber online.

When it comes to colors, bright and dark ones will absorb more UV. Unfortunately, you will also get warmer in a black shirt than a white or beige one, but a white one will allow more UV rays to get to the skin.

For more prevention tips and advice on how to treat sunburn, make sure to read our article best sunburn treatment.

Do I Need to Apply Sunscreen If It’s Cloudy?

Yes. A completely cloudy day still lets 40% of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation through. This means that you can get sunburnt on a cloudy day if you haven’t applied any sunscreen and still spent the day outside.

What Is the Most Important Thing I Need to Remember About Sunscreen?

It is necessary without doubt, and you should make it a part of your beauty routine if you want to maintain the youthful and fresh look of your skin, but also lower your risk of skin cancer. However, don’t just put it on every day and think your job there was done. A good sunscreen is a part of your sun protection regimen, but not the whole regimen itself.

To learn more about other skincare products for summer that are essential, make sure to read our article about summer skincare products. Take care!

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About the Author:
Kristina Cadwell
PA Kristina Cadwell graduated from Arizona State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology. She then completed the Physician Assistant program at A.T. Still University graduating with a Masters of Medical Science degree. Kristina has been working in the Aesthetic Medical field for over 10 years. She is certified in neurotoxin cosmetic injection, dermal fillers, Plasma Pen skin tightening, chemical peels, and laser therapy. She is known for producing natural results and has extensive knowledge in diet and exercise allowing her to help you achieve vibrant skin from the inside out.
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