Sunscreen 101


Do you find sunscreen shopping a bit confusing? Between choosing the right SPF level and determining the difference between sweat-proof, water-proof and water-resistant, the whole ordeal can seem next to impossible. But recent FDA guidelines are trying to minimize the confusion (and effort needed on your part) in picking the right protection. Here’s what you need to know: 

How sunscreens work: Think of sunscreens as your skin’s personal umbrella against UV radiation. The sunscreen acts as a chemical barrier that absorbs or reflects the sun’s harmful rays—UVB rays are primarily responsible for causing sunburns and UVA rays contribute to sunburn, skin cancer and skin aging (like wrinkles). Currently, sunscreens labeled with SPF protect against UVB rays; those that pass FDA testing and are labeled with broad spectrum protection will help shield against both types of UV rays.

What SPF you should be using: The FDA recommends looking for over-the-counter sunscreens with broad spectrum protection and SPF values of 15 or higher—only those will protect against both UV rays (with additional sun protection measures such as sitting in the shade). If you’re fair-skinned, don’t automatically grab the sunscreen with the highest SPF. The FDA hasn’t found evidence that SPF values over 50 provide any additional value. SPF values lower than 15 can only claim to help prevent against sunburn (not skin cancer and aging).

Ingredients: According to FDA dermatologist Jill Lindstrom, the FDA previously found the ingredients in today’s sunscreens to be safe. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends looking for these ingredients on the sunscreen’s label to ensure broad spectrum coverage (since the new labeling won’t take full effect until summer 2012): Avobenzone, Cinoxate, Ecamsule, Menthyl anthranilate, Octyl methoxycinnamate, Octyl salicylate, Oxybenzone, Sulisobenzone, Titanium dioxide, Zinc oxide.

How to use: Despite current labels like water and sweat-proof, the FDA says that once wet all sunscreens begin to lose effectiveness. For maximum protection, apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside and reapply at least every two hours (more if you’re sweating or going in and out of the water). Apply thoroughly (use about one to two ounces of sunscreen) and don’t apply to the easily forgotten spots including the ears, back of neck and tops of feet. If you’re using spray-on sunscreen, the FDA recommends spraying it on your hands and applying to the face to avoid breathing in the fumes.

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