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If there’s only one thing you have to pick to spend the forthcoming summer with, it shouldn’t be that summer lover to shower you with kisses nor should it be that itsy bitsy teeny weeny bikini to help you net an Adonis. Drumroll please. The only thing you certainly can’t live without this summer will be your good old sunscreen. The truth is, anyone over the age of six months should use a sunscreen daily, and this is especially true during the sun soaked months of summer. Even those working indoors are exposed to ultraviolet radiation for brief periods throughout the day, especially if they work near windows, which generally filter out UVB but not UVA rays.
Skin protection is a 365-day job, and not simply for vanity’s sake. According to the American Cancer Society, about 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous skin cancer are diagnosed each year, with another 73,000 melanoma diagnoses (an even more dangerous type) expected. Sunscreens are products which combine several ingredients that help prevent the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation, divided into UVA and UVB, from damaging our skin. Newer generation of sunscreen also targets against blue light. UVB is the chief culprit behind sunburn, while UVA, which penetrate deeper into the skin causes photo-aging, characterized by wrinkling, leathering and sagging. Evolving research confirms that blue light, emitted from the sun and our digital devices, is also bad for our skin. More importantly, long term unprotected exposure to any kind of UV can lead to increased incidence of skin malignancies.
The Low Down On SPF
SPF otherwise known as the Sun Protection Factor, is a measure of a sunscreen’s ability to prevent UVB from damaging the skin. Here’s how it works. If it takes 20 minutes for your unprotected skin to start turning red, using an SPF 15 sunscreen theoretically prevents reddening 15 times longer, which is about five hours. If we look at this in term of percentages, SPF 15 filters out approximately 93 percent of all incoming UVB rays, SPF 30 keeps out 97 percent, SPF 50 keeps out 98 percent while SPF70 guards against almost 100% of them. They may seem like negligible differences, but if you are light-sensitive, or have a history of skin cancer, those extra percentages will make a significant difference. And as you can see, no sunscreen can block all UV rays. SPF should not be your only consideration while choosing a sunblock. As “reddening” of skin is a reaction to UVB rays alone, it tells you little about the photo-aging UVA rays you are exposed to, with plenty of damages done even without the red flag of sunburn being raised. In short, those who burn less often end up with a false sense of skin security and over time can put themselves in more danger. The truth is, UV exposure leads to photo-aging of the skin and increases the risk of skin cancer even when it doesn’t cause sunburn.
Physical Versus Chemical Blockers
Before we come to that, to ensure protection against both UVA and UVB, consider a sunscreen which offers broad spectrum protection notwithstanding the numeric value of its SPF. Only broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher help protect against skin cancer and early skin aging if used as directed with other sun protection measures. Physical sunscreens are at times known as “natural” ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. They literally sit on top of the skin and deflect or reflect the sun’s rays, acting much like a shield. Being thicker in texture, they can leave an opaque, white cast on the skin especially when applied in adequate amount. But being 100% chemical free, it is the sunscreen of choice for baby and children, sensitive skin and individuals who went through any lasers or light therapy.
Chemical sunscreens aren’t as thick, so they are often used in sunscreens specifically made for the face as well as those found in spray bottles. Since chemical sunscreens need to be absorbed into the skin, they must be applied at least 20 minutes before heading outdoors. Chemical sunscreens contain several ingredients that, when applied, are absorbed in the top layer of skin and hence do not leave a tinge of white as compared to physical sunscreens. They react with the skin to absorb UV rays and convert them before they can harm the skin.
There have been great strides made in water-resistant sunblock, but toweling off after a swim still wipes away most of it. So once you’re out of the water, it’s time to reapply. As of Dec 2012, FDA had stipulated a law against the false declaration of “water-proof” and “sweat-proof” on sun-care products as strictly speaking, no products will stay on the skin and offer the same amount of sun protective effects forever. Sunscreens may however be labelled as “water-resistant,” if they specify whether they protect the skin for 40 or 80 minutes of swimming or sweating, based on standard testing. As a rule of thumb, sunscreens formulated for the face can be used elsewhere on the body, but not in reverse. Facial skin is generally more sensitive to irritation than body skin, so face formulations have been tested to cause less irritation and not clog pores nor trigger acne.
How Much, How Often?
To ensure that you get the full SPF of a sunscreen, you will need to apply 1 oz of sunscreen to cover all exposed areas adequately. As a gauge, this amount is equivalent to a full shot glass, no less, with a nickel-size blob to protect your face. Studies have shown that most people apply only half to a quarter of that amount, which means the actual SPF they have on their body is lower than what’s advertised on the label. Under-applying an SPF 15 means that you’re really getting an 8. During a long day at the beach, one person should use around half to a quarter of an 8 oz bottle. Sunscreens should also be applied 30 minutes before sun exposure to allow the ingredients to fully bind to the skin. This is especially important to take note if you are using the chemical variant
A common mistake is to slather on the sun protective film only after getting out under the sun. Reapplication of sunscreen is equally important as its initial use. But reapplication isn’t important only when you’re lounging at the beach. If you spend your day next to a window or driving around in a car, you are getting UV exposure through the glass too. And take note of oft-neglected sites such as behind the ears, back of neck and lips! With the correct type of sun protection, everyone should be allowed to enjoy a little warmth under the summer’s sun without worrying.
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