by Deb Brothers-Klezmer, BSN, RN-BC, CRRN, NCTMB & Wendy Midgley, MEd, RD, CDE
UVA, UVB, SPF 15, 30, 45-50+!!! What do all these terms mean? How do we figure out what sunscreen products to use?
Summer is a wonderful time to relax and enjoy outdoor activities. It is also a time to take care re: sun exposure.
The Sun can re-charge our emotional and mental batteries, and decrease depression. But excess sun exposure also promotes skin damage ranging from: sunburn to dryness, aging and wrinkles, to certain skin cancers.
Natural sun-light on the skin(with no sunscreen) promotes the synthesis of Vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones, a strong immune system and protection from certain cancers.
But how many minutes in the sun (with no sunscreen) is safe? This topic is very controversial. The American Medical Association recommends that everyone get 10-15 minutes of direct sun (with no sunscreen) several times per week to promote natural Vitamin D production. The American Academy of Dermatology, however, states: “there is no scientifically validated threshold level of ultra-violet(radiation) exposure from the sun that allows for maximal Vitamin D synthiesis without increased skin cancer risk”. The Academy recommends getting Vitamin D that occurs naturally in foods, foods fortified with Vitamin D, and from Vitamin D supplements.
How can we enjoy the sun, yet protect ourselves and those we care about? First of all, get some background on what all the abbreviations mean! The sun emits several types of rays or ultraviolet radiation. Main ones are UVA (ultraviolet A) and UVB (ultraviolet B) and UVC (ultraviolet C). UVC rays are mostly absorbed by the Earth’s ozone layer and do not effect the skin.
UVA rays stay constant all year round and are the main type used in tanning beds. UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin and are a major source of wrinkles and skin damage. They are considered the most damaging (compared to UVBs), partly because we don’t feel a “sunburn” happening with UVAs. Some studies indicate that UVAs can also pass through glass: e.g. when you are driving along in your car. (UVBs do not pass through glass).
UVB rays are ultraviolet rays that are strongest in summer months when the Earth is closer to the sun. This is “the sunburn ray” or “tanning ray”–which is responsible for most of the tanning changes in lighter skin tones. UVBs affect the outer skin layer or epidermis. UVB rays can start effecting certain skin types in 60 seconds.
Both UVA and UVB rays can be very damaging to the skin. Excess sun exposure can promote collagen breakdown (collagen makes skin look more youthful), create damaging free radicals in the body, interfere with DNA repair, and decrease optimum functioning of the immune system. Both UVA and UVB rays can cause skin cancer.
What is SPF? SPF = Sun Protection Factor. The SPF number tells you how long you can stay in the sun without burning from UVB rays. (The SPF number does not address other kinds of skin damage from UVA rays). What do the numbers mean? EXAMPLE: SPF 15. If you normally start to burn at 15 minutes, SPF 15 lets you stay in the sun ~15x longer (3.5 hours) without burning.
SPF sun screen numbers indicate sun screen protection from UVB rays only. There is still (in 2011) no rating system for UVAs. However, broad spectrum ingredients are incorporated into some products to offer protection against both UVB and UVA rays.
How to Choose Healthy Sunscreen Products? All products are not equal in quality and safety. Some ingredients can actually enhance skin damage and some contain toxic products that are absorbed into the body.
NOTE: The FDA has updated their guidelines for sunscreens, with new labeling required for Summer 2012, especially in regard to UVA protection and claims allowed on labels.
Expiration Dates: Products are generally designed to be safe and effective up to 3 years. (check expiration dates.) However, many experts recommend buying new products each year.
TIPS for CHOOSING SUNSCREEN PRODUCTS:
- SPF levels: FDA recommends SPF of 15-50, depending on skin type. A 50+ SPF may protect against UVB rays that cause sunburn, but still leave the skin at risk for UVA damage. Another danger of high SPF is that many users consider 1 application per day enough, when they really should be applying sunscreen more frequently.
- Frequency of use. Sunscreen should be re-applied every 2 hours or immediately after swimming or after perspiring heavily.
- American Cancer Society Recommendation: SLIP, SLOP, SLAP, WRAP. Slip on a shirt; Slop on sunscreen (every 2 hours), Slap on a hat, Wrap your eyes in protection. NOTE: always apply your sun screen with clean hands.
- Avoid products laced with Vitamin A (or retinyl palmitate), as they may accelerate the growth of skin tumors and lesions.
- Protect your lips with lip balm. (See www.ewg.org Click on “How Does Your Sunscreen Work?” and “Skin Deep” at the top of the page. Check out best lip balms.)
- Type of Products: It is better to use creams vs sprays or powders. (better coverage).
- Choose BROAD SPECTRUM products which offer protection against both UVA and UVB rays. Make sure your sunscreen contains at least one of these ingredients: Zinc, Titanium dioxide, Avobenzene, or Mexoryl SX. AVOID ingredients such Oxybenzene (a synthetic estrogen), Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) and combination insect spray/sunscreens. NOTE: The 2012 FDA guidelines are REQUIRING labels to provide information on broad spectrum protection. Claims for ‘broad spectum protection” will only be allowed if a product passes specific FDA tests for blocking UVA rays and have a SPF of at least 15. Products with lesser protection must carry a warning that they don’t protect against skin cancer. Terms such as sunblock, sweatproof, or waterproof will NOT be allowed.
- If you want bug spray protection as well, buy a specific product for that and apply BEFORE you put on sunscreen.
- Do look for WATER RESISTANT products for pool, beach and exercise (sweat). However, be mindful that sunscreens can lose their effectiveness after 40 minutes in the water. “Sunscreens rub off as well as wash off, so it you’ve towel dried, reapply sunscreen for continued protection.” (American Academy of Dermatology, www.aad.org) The 2012 FDA guidelines will require labels to state whether products are water-resistant for either 40 or 80 minutes.
- BE PREVENTIVE: Don’t get burned! Wear cover-up clothes: a shirt, hat, shorts. Find some shade. Wear sunglasses which offer protection from UV radiation, a cause of cataracts. (Remember: slip, slop, slap, wrap!)
- Avoid 10 AM-3 PM sun exposure times.
- SPECIAL RECOMMENDATIONS for INFANTS and CHILDREN: INFANTS: Keep infants less than 6 months old out of direct sun. Cover them up, make shade–if you can’t find natural shade. Avoid mid-day sun. Avoid using sunscreen products on infants–the chemicals can be toxic. (use only a small amount of product, only as a last resort.)
TODDLERS and CHILDREN: Choose 30-50 SPF. Test a small amount of product inside the wrist to make sure there is no rash or allergic reaction. Apply often. Check with children’s schools to make sure they can use sunscreen if frequently out in playgrounds, or doing outdoor sports training.
TEENS: Limit the use of tanning parlors—which expose the skin to as much as 15x the UV radiation of the sun. This may contribute to increased rate of melanoma skin cancer, as well as general skin damage. (Both UVA rays and UVB rays are used in tanning salons; but UVA rays are the main type used). Many chemicals are also used in tanning parlors and not FDA approved.
Natural tanning creams: Check with your dermatolgoist for the best, safest products. OR check out products at www.ewg.org (‘SKIN DEEP’)
Can some foods help protect you from skin cancer? The latest research suggests that lab mice fed compounds in grapes, berries and walnuts were better protected against skin cancer. (Weight Watchers magazine July/August 2011). Other foods that may help protect you from skin cancer include: citrus fruits, avocados, carrots, and pumpkin seeds.
References: www.ewg.org CLICK on “Does Your Sunscreen Work?” and “Skin Deep” at top of the webpage.
http://mayoclinic.com/health/sunlesstanning/SN00037 At the bottom of this Mayo Clinic article, check out other articles on skin care, e.g., “Best Sunscreen: Understand Sunscreen”; “Sunscreen Options,” “Does Sunscreen Expire?” “Skin Care: 5 Tips for Healthy Skin.”
Have a great Summer! And also protect your skin!
The Wellness Shifter Ladies!
Deb and Wendy