Sunscreen 101: For those who love sun!

Megan Barber, Wellness Buyer, Co-op Owner


There is nothing quite like a day in the sun! Whether you’re throwing a BBQ, lazing in a backyard hammock, or maybe even swinging down some white water rapids, it is important to use sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB sunrays. Applying a sunblock might be the last thing on your mind during the summer season, but these preventative measures will pay off in the long run by helping to prevent early aging, certain skin cancers, and other damage to your skin.

There are more sunscreens on the market every year and I understand how hard it can be to find one that works best for you, that is the right coverage, and at the right price! Here is a break down of what sunscreens protect against, the effectiveness of various SPFs, what their ingredients do for you, and their environmental impact.

There are two types of sunrays we want to protect our skin from: UVA and UVB.

UVA rays can be remembered as the rays that cause premature aging (think UVA for Aging). These rays are the same year-round no matter where you might live, and are strong enough to reach your second layer of skin. They cause skin changes like leathery appearance, wrinkles, premature ageing, and worst of all, contribute to skin cancers. Numerous sunscreens don’t have ingredients that will protect you from UVA rays because many people simply cannot see the affects of UVA rays quickly enough to register that they should avoid them. Before I knew better, I thought of sunscreen as just the stuff to protect me against sunburns, which leads me to UVB rays.

Don't forget to reapply after getting wet!

Don’t forget to reapply after getting wet!

UVB rays can be thought of as the rays that cause sunburns (think UVB for Burns). These rays are mostly thwarted by our ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, but if you’ve ever had a sunburn, you know that not all UVB rays are stopped there! UVB ray intensity can change with cloud cover and the sun’s position or season, making cloudy days safer in terms of UVB, but not UVA rays. Exposure to UVB rays can lead to sunburns and even melanoma, a type of very serious skin cancer that could be fatal.

So let’s talk terms! The term ‘broad spectrum’ actually means that it only protects against UVB rays. It is a term that is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means companies and products can only claim broad spectrum if they meet certain standards first for UVB ray protection. For complete protection, look for sunscreens that clearly state they protect against UVB and UVA rays.

How about the term SPF? The Sun Protection Factor, or SPF, simply is a measuring unit of how well a product protects against just UVB rays and not UVA. The most common question I receive is, “Does a higher sunscreen SPF protect you better?” The answer is yes, but not by much! This table shows what the coverage from different SPFs would be if your skin were bombarded with 100 photons from the sun.

SPF: Is more really better?

Basically, a higher SPF doesn’t really offer a ton more protection, but any SPF provides more protection than no SPF at all.

Chemical versus Mineral Active Ingredients:

Chemical active ingredients are the main components that make conventional sunscreens work. These chemicals are absorbed into the skin and absorb UV rays as they hit you, but can take at least 20 minutes to absorb into your skin before becoming active. They protect against UVA or B, but not both. A study from the National Institute of Health (NIH) showed 97% of Americans have oxybenzone, a common conventional sunscreen ingredient, in their blood streams. Exposure from oxybenzone can cause endocrine disruption, cellular changes, be possibly toxic for your organs, etc. Why do we use them if they are so bad for us? Chemicals are cheap to make and use in products like sunscreen.

Mineral active ingredients in more natural sunscreens work to form a layer on top of the skin to absorb and reflect sunrays using zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that start working as soon as you apply them. Zinc oxide is the most effective and safe mineral for sun protection right now. It blocks both UVA and B rays providing a more comprehensive protection for your skin. Titanium dioxide doesn’t protect as well as zinc oxide when it comes to UVA rays, but it is often considered a safer alternative to chemical sunscreens. Look for the active ingredients on the back panel of sunscreen products to find out what is shielding your skin.

The application of sunscreen is one of the best preventative measures you can take to help prevent skin problems. Taking the time to apply and reapply when needed will help you prevent the after affects of long-term sun exposure. You’ll need to apply sunscreen every two hours or after sweating, toweling off, or swimming. The average adult should apply 1 ounce of sunscreen, which comes to about 2 Tablespoons.

And what about the effects of these chemicals and minerals on the environment? Between 6-14 tons of sunscreen enters the water each year. You may have heard that sunscreens can contribute to coral reef death and bleaching. A study from Environmental Health Perspectives has shown that four common chemical sunscreen ingredients help viruses kill important algae that coral depends on to survive. This impacts not only coral, but the entire reef ecosystem. Biodegradable sunscreens are made up of ingredients that can be reused in biological systems within a short time. For more information on sunscreens visit the Environmental Working Group.

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