Reading sunscreen labels can seem like staring at alphabet soup-SPF, UVA, UVB- but what does it all mean and what actually matters? SPF stands for sun protection factor and is a measure of how long a sunscreen will protect you from ultraviolet B rays, which damage the skin’s outer layers and cause sunburns and the most common skin cancers. Ultraviolet A rays, which have long been known to cause photoaging, also contribute to and may even trigger the development of skin cancer. Sunburn during childhood is a major risk factor for melanoma, so it is important for kids to develop good habits at a young age.
To prevent sun damage, look for a product that is labeled “broad spectrum,” which means that it blocks UVA and UVB rays. The sun protection factor (SPF) rating should be between SPF 30-50 (higher than 50 is not better.) In general, there are two kinds of sunscreens: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens deflect the UV rays with ingredients such as titanium oxide or zinc oxide and usually are thicker and slightly more difficult to apply, but last slightly better. Chemical sunscreens, which often contain avobenzone or benzophenone, absorb or scatter the rays to offer broad protection and tend to be lighter once applied, but need time to be well-absorbed so they can function appropriately. Sunscreens can also be labeled as “water-resistant” or “sweat-resistant” for a certain period of time (usually 40 or 80 minutes), meaning they are more likely to protect your skin in wet or damp environments for the stated amount of time.
Whichever type you choose, correct application and reapplication is what truly protects you and your child’s skin. Sunscreen should be applied 30 minutes prior to sun exposure and then reapplied every 2 hours or after swimming or sweating (even if it is labeled water resistant). Also make sure you don’t skimp on the amount of lotion- for a young adult, it should take about 2 tablespoons to sufficiently cover sun exposed skin.
Aside from sunscreen, practice sun safety by avoiding direct exposure during 10am to 4pm and stay in the shade as much as possible. If feasible, your child should wear a wide brimmed hat and UV blocking sunglasses. If prolonged sun exposure is expected or unavoidable, it is worthwhile to invest in high-tech clothing with a UPF rating such as sun shirts or rash guards. You should also keep in mind that there is a wide range of drugs that increase sun sensitivity, so make sure to check your medication labels for cautions about sun exposure. Common medications include acne treatments, antihistamines, some antibiotics, certain anti-inflammatories and even herbal supplements.
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Jackie Phillips, MD, May 8, 2023