You’re headed for the beach, so you drop by the local store for some sunscreen and find an overwhelming array of brands, types, claims and SPF numbers. Do you go with a lotion or spray? High or low SPF? Sunblock, sunscreen, or “tropical tanning” oil?
If all these choices make one fact clear, it’s that sun protection is a hot category of the cosmetics industry, topping a half-billion dollars in annual sales in the U.S. alone, and growing at 2 percent a year.
Coppertone led the charge in 1944, responding to the sunburns experienced by World War II soldiers. Now owned by Merck , Coppertone still dominates the marketplace, followed by Neutrogena (Johnson & Johnson ), Banana Boat (Sun Pharmaceuticals) and Hawaiian Tropic (Tanning Research Laboratories).
If your impulse is to choose one at random, don’t. The shade of your skin, hair and eye color, and, of course, the amount of time you spend in the sun, should all factor into your decision.
And if you’re one of the 42 percent of adults who, according to the National Cancer Institute, don’t use a sun protection product at all, you might want to consider a hard fact: of all cancers, skin cancer is the most common.
Last year, over one million new cases of basal and squamous cell cancers (the less serious, more common types) were reported. Melanoma, which can cause serious illness and even death, struck 69,000 new victims in 2009.
Despite a recent report by the Environmental Working Group, EWG, that only 39 of those 500 sunscreen products are safe and/or effective, watchdog groups such as the FDA and World Health Organization, as well as the National Cancer Society, confirm the effectiveness of sunscreens in preventing skin damage.
Or, in the words of John Bailey, chief scientist at the Personal Care Products Council, PCPC: “The importance of using sunscreen cannot be overstated. The sun causes significant damage to skin structure and a significant increase in skin cancer.”
The bright spot? All types of skin cancer are 100 percent curable, if recognized and treated early. And it’s never too late to start protecting yourself from those damaging UV rays.
Which, What, Why
So, back to that overwhelming number of choices. Which product will work best for you?
According to Dr. Julide Tok Celebi, associate professor of clinical dermatology at Columbia-Presbytarian Hospital, most brands are equally effective if used properly and chosen according to your individual traits.
Let’s start with the difference between “sunscreen” (a catch-all term) and “sunblock.”
Sunscreens contain chemical agents that absorb UV radiation before it can affect your skin. Sunblocks utilize physical blockers that reflect or scatter UV rays.
You’ve seen sunblock in the form of thick white cream that lifeguards smear over their nose and under the eyes.
Celebi generally recommends physical blockers, while pointing out that most sunscreens today contain a blend of chemical and physical agents.
More important, she says, is to look for the two active ingredients—zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These protect you from both UVB rays (which cause sunburn) and UVA rays (deeper-penetrating rays which cause tanning).
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, if you have fair skin, blond or red hair, or blue, green, or gray eyes, you’re in a higher-risk category for skin cancer. Look for a sunblock with those two ingredients.
On to the SPF number. Is higher necessarily better?
No, says Celebi. A lower SPF simply means that you’ll need to re-apply the product more often than you would a higher SPF product. “More often” depends on how quickly your skin burns.
Skin In The Game
Here’s a simple way to determine what SPF is best for you, and how often you’ll need to re-apply your sunscreen or sunblock:
- Multiply the SPF number by the time it takes you to acquire a sunburn. Let’s say it takes you 10 minutes to get a burn. An SPF 15 will protect you for 15 X 10 minutes, or 150 minutes (2 ½ hours).
- Or, to play it safe, just follow the advice of the American Academy of Dermatology: reapply your sunscreen every 2 hours—even if it claims to be “waterproof.”
- Although many dermatologists advise using an SPF of 15 or higher, only 30 to 40 percent of sunscreen users follow that advice. To make matters worse, Celebi points out, the average person does not re-apply often enough to keep the product effective.
- You might be surprised to know that the SPF rating applies only to UVB rays. But the FDA this year, under pressure by several industry groups, will change labeling rules to require manufacturers to provide a UVA rating next to the SPF on all sunscreen products.
Here are some essential ways to get smart with the sun this summer—and all year round.
- Apply sunscreen or sunblock 20 to 30 minutes before going outside and reapply it every two hours or so.
- Wear protective clothing between 10 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., when the sun’s UV rays are strongest.
- Use sunscreen even if you stay under an umbrella or in the shade. Neither keeps out UV rays completely.
- Since spray products wash off more easily than lotions, you need to reapply them more often—especially after swimming or sweating.
- Be cautious around reflective surfaces like sand, snow and water, which increase the intensity of UV rays.
- Tanning skin or darkening freckles tell you that sun damage may be occurring. If you notice anything changing, growing, or bleeding on your skin see a dermatologist.
- The best way to protect yourself? “Common sense,” says Celebi. “It goes a long way.”