“Always use sunscreen.” No doubt you will hear this advice sometime over the summer, and for good reason. Using sunscreen is one of the most important things you can do for your health, skin-related or otherwise. But did you know that not all sunscreen is created equal, or that “sunscreen” does not always mean an application of lotion or cream? Here are some sunscreen facts that could make a huge difference in your health.
Why is it important to use sunscreen? Because being out in the sun, and exposing yourself to UV rays, damages your skin. This skin damage can eventually lead to skin cancer. Because of an increasingly active, outdoor lifestyle among Americans, incidents of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers have risen dramatically in recent years.
Sunscreen helps block these rays according to SPF factor. For example, an SPF factor of 2 means you would absorb the same amount of UV rays in two hours as you would absorb in one hour without sunscreen.
UV radiation can also cause premature aging of the skin, which, while not necessarily harmful, can be cause for concern. Sunscreen use can minimize wrinkles, sunspots, and loss of elasticity in the skin.
In addition to SPF, sunscreen should provide two types of protection: UVA and UVB. In short, UVA ray protection helps prevent premature aging, and UVB ray protection applies predominantly to preventing skin cancer. When choosing a sunscreen, you should choose one that offers each type of protection. Don’t assume every sunscreen product will offer both.
There are two basic types of sunscreen. Barrier sunscreens are highly visible zinc and titanium applications. They go on white and are less aesthetically pleasing, but cover the UVA / UVB spectrum very well. Chemical sunscreens offer different varieties of application (sprays, gels, lotions, creams) and offer a combination of UVA / UVB protection. These can sometimes be irritating to the eyes, or to those with sensitive skin, creating rashes or other conditions.
The simplest sunscreen you can use is cover. People often forget that clothing can and does act as sunscreen. A simple tee shirt offers modest protection from the sun. Some fabrics and materials have an SPF rating on them, which you can look up at the time of purchase. A hat is also a great, simple choice for sunscreen.
Similarly, dark glasses with polarizing filters can provide great protection — but be wary. Cheap sunglasses can dilate the pupils without providing any shielding from UV rays, increasing the damage from the sun instead of preventing it!
Consider your activity when choosing your sunscreen. The sun promotes the production of vitamin D in the skin, which your body needs, so go with a sensible level of sun protection: SPF 15 for everyday use, or SPF 30 or 50 for long days under intense sunlight. Daily use of high-SPF products is not recommended, except for those people who have a history of (or disposition for) skin cancers.
You should also keep in mind that sunscreen is not only for the summer: the sun can do damage to your skin even if it isn’t shining down warmly. People at higher elevations must be particularly vigilant about sunscreen. Finally, don’t forget to apply lip balm, which many people often neglect. Your lips need sun protection too!