Sunscreen Is Only Effective If You Use It

I have a cousin who has lived all of his adult life in Hawaii. When he was diagnosed with melanoma he said to his doctor, “I guess that’s to be expected living here so long.” The doctor shook his head and said, “No, it’s not the sun exposure you have here, it was the sunburns you got at your grandmother’s in Miami Beach when you were a child.”

My cousin has survived multiple surgeries and seems to be in stable health today. But, it was a long journey and the moral of this story is to be diligent in protecting your children and grandchildren from the harmful rays of the sun.

That means using a good sunscreen that offers good protection and to use it liberally and often. Good habits can be learned at a young age and trust me, melanoma isn’t a disease you want to expose your loved ones to.

Let’s start with an explanation from Mayo Clinic, “There are two types of UV (ultra violet) light that can harm your skin – UVA and UVB. UVA rays can prematurely age your skin, causing wrinkling and age spots. UVB rays can burn your skin. Too much exposure to UVA or UVB rays can cause skin cancer.”

The best sunscreen offers protection from all UV light. Those products are called “broad spectrum.” Look for that term on the label. Only products that pass a test can be labeled as such.

Each product will have an SPF (sun protection factor) rating. It’s a measure of how well the sunscreen protects against UVB rays. UVA protection isn’t rated.

“Manufacturers calculate SPF based on how long it takes to sunburn skin that’s been treated with the sunscreen as compared to skin with no sunscreen,” Mayo says. The higher the SPF rating the better the protection. True? Yes, sort of. But SPF 30 isn’t twice as effective as SPF 15.

SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93 percent of UVB rays, while SPF 30 sunscreens filter out around 97 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. SPF 50 will filter 98 percent compared to SPF 100 which really is 99 percent effective, so unfortunately no sunscreen protects you completely. The FDA requires that sunscreen manufacturers disclose that SPF 15 products only protect against sunburn, not skin cancer or skin aging.

My personal recommendation, for what it’s worth, is to use a higher number SPF but caution you that just because the number is higher doesn’t mean it will be more effective. Why? Because you have to make sure you apply it correctly and frequently.

For instance, some products will say they are water resistant. “That means that the SPF is maintained for up to 40 minutes while swimming or sweating. Very water resistant means the SPF is maintained for 80 minutes,” Mayo says. You do the math. Reapply at least every two hours.

And, use a lot of it. The American Academy of Dermatology says that most of us only apply about 25-50 percent of the recommended amount. The guideline? One ounce. That’s enough to fill a shot glass. Apply sunscreen to all exposed parts of the body. And, do it fifteen minutes before going out.

Choose a type of sunscreen that you like so you’ll be sure to use it. If you have dry skin you may prefer a cream but lotions are thinner and less greasy. Gels work well if you’re hairy and sticks are good for applying near the eyes.

“Parents often prefer sprays because they’re easy to apply on children. Because it’s difficult to know how well you’re applying spray, apply a generous and even coating. Or consider using a gel or cram first and using a spray to reapply sunscreen later. Also, avoid inhaling the product,” Mayo says.

Sunscreens can be applied to children as young as six months old. Infants should not be exposed to the sun at all. So please, before you send a child outside without protection, think about what his or her adult life will be like.

Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.