Everything you ever hoped to learn about sunscreen, sun rays, and your skin.
It’s a blistering hot summer day in Loveland, Colorado. Our sweaty group, all in various stages of undress, had gathered beneath our shade tent before an outdoor yoga session at the Arise Music Festival. As bottles of sunscreen passed back and forth, we traded sunscreen secrets, some learnt (the hard way) from festivals past.
It seemed everyone had a favorite sunscreen, a best applied method, opinions on sprays and ratings of SPF 70+. While there were a lot of nods of agreement, we realized we didn’t know nearly as much as we thought.
As a whole, the public is becoming more savvy on the dangers of UV radiation in respect to our skin. But skin care products can still be a boggy world to wade through, and sunscreens are just as convoluted.
Skin cancer is the most commonly reported cancer in the U.S., with more than 3.5 million cases diagnosed every year. So while most of us know by now that we want to look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30, is that enough to protect yourself?
Myth: The higher the SPF rating, the better.
In 2011, the FDA released a whole new set of regulations regarding sunscreen, including a ban on any product with a SPF rating higher than 50. Sufficient data does not yet exist to support the claim that sunscreens toting anything above SPF 50 offers greater protection.
Another very important thing to keep in mind when looking at labeling on sunscreen – active ingredients. Sunscreens can be made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to filter out UVA and UVB rays. Still others use the chemical avobenzone.
Look for labels that use words like “non-nano”; zinc oxide, for example, can be made with nanoparticles that don’t offer nearly as much protection.
Myth: I have a nice base tan, so I won’t burn.
No matter how dark the tan, you aren’t protecting your skin from UV radiation and burning. If anything, you’ll receive an SPF level of 1-4.
Myth: It’s cloudy out today, I don’t need sunscreen.
There are two types of ultraviolet light: UVB, which causes sunburn, and UVA, which penetrates the skin more deeply and can cause wrinkles. Both UVB and UVA rays can lead to skin cancer. On cloudy days, UVA rays can actually be stronger due to the light refraction created by the water particles in the sky.
Myth: I’m inside all day today, I don’t need sunscreen.
While UVB rays are blocked by glass, UVA rays – those nasty, wrinkle-causing ones – can penetrate glass. Some windows or stick-on films will help filter out UVA/UVB rays, but why not give yourself peace of mind and apply some SPF anyway.
Myth: Simply apply in the morning, and you’re done for the day.
Sunscreen will oxidize over time and needs to be applied every 2-5 hours. Their half-life is determined by the active ingredients used. If you’re sweating, splashing, or swimming, you may need to apply more often. Check the recommended time on the bottle – FDA regulations require companies to put how long the product lasts. They can also only state they are water resistant , as “waterproof” would imply reapplication isn’t necessary.
Myth: Sunscreens last forever.
A general rule of thumb is that sunscreens should last about one year. I’m guilty of having over five open bottles of sunscreens open at a time, as I experiment with different products and sales!
Sunscreens break down just like any other chemical if you leave them in a car, near a window or in extreme heat for too long. Store them like you would any oil, in a cool, dark place.
While products with Helioplex or Meroxyl SX active ingredients are photostabilized, a.k.a. more resistant to breaking down in the sun, the heat from sitting in the sun will still be enough to break it down if allowed to sit for too long.
Your Skin at High Elevation
Living in Colorado, I don’t rely on simply a face lotion with SPF in it. Denver, the “Mile-High” city, is 5,480 feet above sea level, meaning your skin is that much closer to the sun. For every 1,000 feet above sea level, ultraviolet exposure increases 4-10%.
When we head into the mountains for a day hiking, snowboarding, or white water rafting, the altitude can be upwards of 9,000 feet, where exposure to UV radiation increases nearly 50% from that at sea level. Throw in things like sweaty faces, pollutants and ozone thinning, it’s almost never enough to simply apply sunscreen in the mountains. Billed hats, lip balms with SPF 30+, and polarized sunnies are the smart hiker’s choice in the Rockies. Keep in mind, folks: the cornea of your eyes need protection from the sun’s rays as well.
Feel free to ask any unanswered questions in the comments section below! Stay tuned for my upcoming post on my top five favorite sunscreen moisturizers and enjoy Mother Nature!