Family Sunscreen Guide
Tips to have fun in the sun safely
Carol Torgan, Ph.D.
This article was reviewed by Dr. Joshua Rotenberg, a Texas pediatrician and neurologist.
Gels, lotions, ointments, powders, creams, sprays, sticks, balms. With drugstore aisles overflowing with brightly colored products, how do you know what sunscreen to buy for you and your family? It’s simple: The trick is to look for a few key words on the labels.
The sun does more than give us stunning sunrises and breathtaking sunsets. It produces light, heat, and ultraviolet (UV) radiation, including UVA and UVB rays. Unfortunately, exposure to UVA rays can lead to premature aging (wrinkles, age spots), and exposure to UVB rays can cause sunburn. (Remember UVA for aging and UVB for burning.) Both UVA and UVB exposure puts you at risk to skin cancer.
It's crucial to protect your children from UV rays. By protecting kids from the sun early in life, and by teaching them good sun safety tips, you can greatly reduce their chances of getting skin cancer.
How Sunscreens Work
Sunscreens absorb, reflect, or scatter the sun’s rays so they can’t penetrate your skin. The SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, is a number that refers to a product’s ability to deflect the sun’s UVB rays. For example, if your skin normally turns red after ten minutes in the sun, then by using a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 it would take about 300 minutes for your skin to turn red.
Protection, however, does not increase proportionately to the SPF number. (e.g. SPF 15 screens 93% of UVB rays, but SPF 30 screens 97% of UVB rays.)
The SPF indicates a product’s ability to screen UVB rays only. Currently there is no way to determine how well a product blocks UVA rays, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed a four star rating system.
What to Look for When Buying Sunscreens
The right number:
The FDA and the World Health Organization recommend selecting sunscreens with a SPF of 15 or higher. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends choosing products with a SPF of 30 or higher. The FDA and the World Health Organization recommend selecting sunscreens with a SPF of 15 or higher. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends choosing products with a SPF of 30 or higher.
Select products specifically labeled “broad spectrum,” “multi spectrum,” or “UVA/UVB protection.” This indicates the products include ingredients that block both UVA and UVB rays.
Waterproof or resistant:
For general use select products labeled “water-resistant” as these tend to stay on the skin longer. If you are going to be sweating a lot and/or swimming, reach for a product labeled “waterproof.” Products labeled “water-resistant” maintain their SPF level after 40 minutes of water exposure, while those labeled “waterproof” maintain their SPF after 80 minutes of exposure to water.
Avoid 2-in-1 brands:
Skip products that contain both sunscreen and insect repellents. Sunscreen should be applied liberally and often, whereas insect repellent should be applied sparingly and infrequently. Using a combination product can result in an unnecessarily high exposure to the repellent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Keep it fresh:
Sunscreens can lose their effectiveness after 1-2 years, so pick up a new bottle if you’ve been using an old one from the back of your closet.
Dress for Success: How to Apply Sunscreen
Apply sunscreen to dry skin generously, 30 minutes before heading outside to allow time for it to penetrate your skin. Be sure to cover all exposed areas, including the lips, nose, ears, neck, hands, arms, and feet. You should use about one ounce (enough to fill a shot glass) to properly cover exposed areas of the body. Most people apply less than half the recommended amount of sunscreen, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Apply sunscreen to children older than 6 months, every time they go outside. Check with a health care professional before applying sunscreen to children under 6 months old.
Reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours. Reapply even if it’s cloudy outside and/or if you’re using water-resistant sunscreen. Sunscreen breaks down and rubs off with normal wear, especially in salt water and surf, and with towel drying.
Reapply sunscreen after swimming or sweating.
Apply sunscreen to skin before insect repellent, if using both.
In addition to sunscreen, wear a wide-brimmed hat, UV-blocking sunglasses, and protective clothing. Children should wear real (not toy) sunglasses that indicate UV protection on the label.
Bathe your kids before they crawl into bed at night to get rid of any remaining sunscreen and insect repellent.
Tips to Have Fun in the Sun
Be especially careful around water, snow, and sand. These surfaces reflect UV rays and can increase the chance of sun damage.
Don’t pack away your sunscreen with the summer beach towels. Sun damage can occur during fall hiking trips, winter snowball fights, and spring gardening.
Don’t be fooled by overcast weather. Up to 80-90 percent of UV rays can pass through clouds.
Stay in the shade during the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. A good rule of thumb: If your shadow is shorter than you are, head for shade or indoors.
There are literally hundreds of sunscreen products to choose from. Select ones that have a texture and smell you and your family enjoy; keep them within arm’s reach (in your purse, by the back door); and use them regularly. Then get outside with your family and have some fun in the sun, and enjoy a stunning sunrise or breathtaking sunset.
Carol Torgan, Ph.D. is an award-winning health scientist, e-health strategist, educator and consultant. She is passionate about improving health by encouraging everyone to go outside and experience their five senses in four dimensions. Her Web site, www.caroltorgan.com , addresses the interplay of science, technology, and movement and includes a list of 100+ top play resources .
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