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You are here:Home > Health Topics > Complete Guide to Sunscreen and Outdoor Skin Protection

On sunny clear days the allure of the outdoors can be difficult to resist. When time allows, most people can easily spend hours outside in the pursuit of enjoyable activities. For people who work outdoors, however, time spent outside is out of necessity, rather than fun. Regardless of why people spend prolonged periods of time outdoors, they all have one thing in common – they are each exposed to the sun. The sun is a two-edged sword - both beneficial and harmful - and because of its potential to be harmful, people must take steps to protect themselves. One way to do that is to use sunscreen.

The Importance of Sunscreen

The basic purpose and importance of sunscreen is to protect the skin from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation that comes from the sun. Even on overcast, cloudy days, this type of protection is necessary, as, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, 80% of UV rays will pass through the cloud cover. Unprotected exposure to UV radiation is the cause of a number of skin and health problems that affect millions of people worldwide. When UV radiation penetrates unprotected skin, some of the more minor problems that it can cause include freckling and others signs of premature aging of the skin, such as wrinkles, changes in skin texture, and yellowing of the skin. Unprotected and prolonged exposure to the sun's rays in a single event or outing may also cause some people to experience a radiation burn of the skin, which is commonly referred to as sunburn. A sunburn, like any other type of burn, is extremely painful and may be a first or second degree burn. They have long-lasting consequences, as sun burning may be linked to skin cancer and long-term damage. Skin cancer often falls into one of two classes, melanoma and nonmelanoma. According to McKinley Health Center, a single sunburn that occurs at 20 years of age or older can double one's risk of melanoma.

What is Broad Spectrum?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, when it comes to sunscreen, a broad spectrum sunscreen is recommended. To understand how this type of sunscreen differs from other sunscreens, it is necessary to understand the different types of UV radiation. There are three types of UV radiation that affects the earth: UV-C, UV-B, and UV-A. The two types of UV rays that affect human skin are UV-A and UV-B, as UV-C rays are almost entirely absorbed by the ozone layer. Both UV-A and UV-B are a threat to human skin and health, although UV-B rays also experience some filtering from the ozone. Both types can cause skin cancer if a person is exposed to them. UV-A rays, which have a long wavelength, also result in premature skin aging, while the shorter wavelength of UV-B rays affect the outer layer of skin and cause sunburn. Broad spectrum sunscreens block both of these types of UV radiation, as opposed to just one and, therefore, provide a wider range of coverage.

What is SPF and Which to Choose?

With a wide range of sunscreens available, it can be difficult to know which is best for specific conditions. One of the things that must be taken into consideration when purchasing is the Sun Protection Factor (SPF). The SPF is the rating used to indicate how much protection the sunscreen provides against UV-B radiation. Its ability to protect against UV-B rays and sunburn is indicated by a number that ranges from 2 to over 30. More specifically, the number indicates how long a person wearing it is blocked from sunburn, as compared to going out in the sun without sunscreen protection. A person who is wearing a sunscreen with SPF 30, for example, is protected from sunburn thirty times longer than he or she would be, if not wearing sunscreen at all.

There are a couple things to remember when contemplating the SPF of a sunscreen:

  • SPF only applies to UV-B, not UV-A rays.
  • The strength of the protection does not increase the higher the sun protection factor.

The American Melanoma Foundation notes that, while SPF 2 absorbs roughly 50% of UV radiation, SPF 34 sunscreens only absorb 97% and, no matter how high the number, none will absorb 100% of ultraviolet rays. When choosing the best sunscreen, it is important to follow the recommendation of skin care experts. The FDA recommends no less than SPF 15; however, the American Academy of Dermatology and many other professionals recommend using a sunscreen with SPF 30 protection.

Which Chemicals to Avoid When Choosing a Sunscreen

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) states that lab tests on chemicals have shown that there are some commonly used chemicals found in sunscreen that may pose a threat to humans. Some of these chemicals, such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, and 4MBC, affect the reproductive system and interfere with normal development. EWG notes that one of the greatest concerns is oxybenzone, an ingredient found in approximately 80% of chemical sunscreens and which may not only potentially disrupt hormones, but also cause women to have a greater chance of endometriosis and elevated risk of daughters born with low birth weights. Skin allergies are yet another problem associated with this chemical, which has been detected in mother's milk and in 96% of the U.S. population, according to representative sampling done by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Which Type of Formulas to Choose?

Choosing the right formula is also important when choosing a sunscreen. When a person plans to go swimming or engage in activities that cause them to sweat, it is strongly suggested that they select a water-resistant sunscreen. In order to be considered water-resistant, a sunscreen must follow FDA regulations stating that the sunscreen manufacturer must ensure that the product will provide the declared SPF protection while swimming or sweating for either 40 or 80 minutes. Additionally, the minutes of protection under these conditions must be stated on the label. The FDA has also mandated that manufacturers of these products cannot make certain claims, such as labeling their product as waterproof, sweat-proof, or a sunblock.

When buying sunscreen for children, keep in mind that any child under the age of six months should not be in the sun; therefore, sunscreen is not necessary. For children who are six months of age or older, use a sunscreen that is meant specifically for children. These sunscreens will be made using ingredients that are less irritating to their sensitive skin and that can protect without absorption. Spray-on sunscreens are often a good choice for children as well, as they are typically quick drying and easy to apply.

There are specific products available for each consumer need, such as:

  • Adult spray sunscreens; a good choice for people with balding patches or areas that may be difficult to apply cream or other types of sunscreens.
  • For those who want to apply sunscreen to only their face or their face and neck, there are moisturizers available that also have sunscreen. Cream formulas are also a good choice for the face as they are easy to apply. These formulas are also available and recommended for those with dry skin.
  • Select foundations, powders, blushes, lipsticks, and lip balm are available with sun protection.

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