Protecting yourself against the sun’s rays is important throughout the year, but especially important in the summer when rays are more intense and we’re spending more time outdoors with fewer layers of clothing. Sun exposure, without protection, can lead to sunburn, early aging, damage to our eyes, and skin cancers. That being said, there is a lot of research that supports the benefits of sun exposure including mood enhancement, stress relief, improved sleep, and vitamin D production. It’s all about striking a balance between enjoying the sunshine and staying safe!
Some basic terminology
SPF (sun protection factor): SPF measures how effectively a sunscreen can help prevent skin damage from ultraviolet radiation. If it takes 20 minutes of sun exposure to start reddening your skin, using a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 theoretically prevents reddening 15 times longer, about 5 hours. There are many factors that decrease sunscreen’s effectiveness as time goes on, which is why the 5 hours of protection is theoretical.
Broad spectrum: broad spectrum sunscreen protects against UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are 500 times more abundant in sunlight, penetrate deeper into the skin, and are generally considered the wrinkle forming culprit. UVB rays, while less abundant, play a greater role in causing skin cancers.
Mineral vs. chemical: There are two types of sunscreen: chemical and mineral. Chemical sunscreens have an active ingredient which absorbs the sun’s UV rays. The result of the chemical reaction is the dissipation of the UV rays before they have time to cause damage. In order for chemical sunscreens to work, they must be absorbed into the top layer of the skin. Mineral sunscreens have an active ingredient which sits on top of your skin and reflects UV rays. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the most common active ingredients found in mineral sunscreens.
Chemical Suncreen Pros
- thinner, spreads easily on the skin
- easier for everyday use, even under makeup
- requires less to be effective
Chemical Sunscreen Cons
- requires at least 20 minutes to be effective
- irritation for those with sensitive skin
- efficacy wears off quicker
- research needed into the effects on ocean health
Mineral Sunscreen Pros
- immediate protection from UVA and UVB rays (naturally broad spectrum)
- better for sensitive skin
- less likely to clog pores
- longer shelf life
Mineral Suncreen Cons
- can rub off easily if sweating or swimming
- may stay visible on skin
- requires more to be effective
What to look for on the label
“Reef-friendly”, “sport”, and “clinically tested” are examples of terms you’ll find on labels across sunscreen brands. Unfortunately, there’s no industry standard or regulating body which verifies claims like these. If you’re looking for “reef-friendly” sunscreen or if it’s safe for sensitive skin, you’ll have to do your own research to make sure the brand is walking the walk. That being said, there are a few things to definitely look for on a label. The American Academy of Dermatology has isolated 3 things to always look for in sunscreen.
- “Broad Spectrum” Broad spectrum sunscreens protect against UVA and UVB rays, both of which can cause some serious damage to skin.
- “SPF 30” or higher SPF 30 blocks 97% of rays while SPF 50 blocks 98%. Experts recommend staying between 30 and 50 for days spent outdoors. SPFs above 50 provide consumers with a false sense of protection and usually come at a higher price tag.
- “Water Resistant” or “Very Water Resistant” No sunscreen is waterproof, sweatproof, or sandproof. Look for a sunscreen that is water resistant “for up to 80 minutes” for days spent outdoors sweating and playing.
How much to apply (and when to reapply)
Everyone needs to protect themselves from the sun, regardless of skin type and age. For your face and neck, a ½ tsp amount will do – that’s about a nickel-sized dollop. For the rest of your body, 1 ounce (a full shot glass) will do the trick.
Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before sun exposure (even if it’s cloudy – 80% of rays still get through). If you’re walking, standing, or doing a low-intensity activity outdoors, reapply every 2 hours (reapply the full shot glass’s worth). If you’re getting sweaty, swimming, or it’s windy, apply more frequently – after 40 or 80 minutes depending on your sunscreen’s water resistance.
Consider applying more frequently if you’re experiencing any of the following conditions which intensify rays.
Snow Sunlight reflected on snow can produce as much UVA and UVB penetration as sunlight on sand, regardless of temperature. This is especially true at higher altitudes. Protect exposed areas with sunscreen and eyewear if there’s snow on the ground.
Wind Wind can thin sunblock, so be sure to reapply more frequently if it’s windy.
Water Water does not filter sunlight enough to protect your skin. Reapply more frequently if you’re swimming or snorkeling.
Latitude Closer to the equator? Apply more sunscreen! Rays are more harmful the closer you get to the equator.
Altitude UV radiation increases 4% with every 1,000 ft. of elevation gain. Regardless of the temperature, use sunscreen and protective clothing.
Reflective surfaces Sand, concrete, water, and snow are highly reflective surfaces which can expose you to more of the sun’s rays.
In addition to sunscreen, consider the following protection measures when you’re exposed to sunlight.
Limit midday sun Avoid exposure between 10am and 2pm when the sun’s rays have the most potential to cause harm. Exercise early in the morning or in the evening. If you regularly workout midday, plan a shady route, wear lots of sunscreen, and keep it as brief as possible.
Wear a sun hat Baseball hats leave cancer-prone ears and the back of the neck exposed, so a wide-brimmed hat is recommended. Even a 2- to 3- inch brim offers more protection than a baseball cap. If your hair is thinning or it has completely thinned off your head, a hat is a must.
Wear long sleeves and pants if possible A typical cotton t-shirt has an SPF less than 15, so you should still apply at least SPF 15 under clothing. Otherwise, look for clothes made from tightly woven materials. Some clothing, like rash guards, are made for increased sun protection.
Protect your ears, nose, cheeks, lips, and hands The majority of skin cancers occur in these areas. Protect with sunscreen, hats, and gloves. It’s a good habit to apply sunscreen to your face every single day as part of your morning skincare routine. Lip-specific SPF creams and balms exist too! Keep one with you and reapply throughout the day.
Wear sunglasses The sun’s rays can cause some serious damage to your eyes. Choose sunglasses with UV protection. Bonus: you’ll protect the delicate skin around your eyes too!