Your Guide to Wearing Sunscreen - Science Everywhere
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Your Guide to Wearing Sunscreen

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Summer is in full swing for everyone north of the equator, with all its familiar blessings – amazing sunsets, patio drinks, and beach bodies. And, if you’re like me, most of your time spent in the summer sun is accompanied by with one prevailing thought:

 

“Oh God, how long before I get skin cancer?”

beach
I’m pretty easy to spot at the beach

And for good cause – for some people, getting a sunburn even once every two years can triple your likelihood of developing melanoma. Although that link is from Cancer Research UK, and people from the UK don’t understand why it’s weird that vampires combust in the sun.

England
Above: England, in the midst of a heat wave

Nonetheless, too much sun is bad for you, and as Baz Luhrmann said, you should wear sunscreen. The question is, when should you put it on, and how much should you wear?

mothers
Answers: “Always”, and “the whole bottle”, according to every mother on Earth

You could make a drinking game out of all the misinformation you hear about sunscreen. Take a shot every time someone says “SPF 30 means you need to reapply every 30 minutes”. Chug a beer if you if you hear “I have sunscreen in my make-up”. Shotgun a tall-can if you’ve heard “My sunscreen is waterproof, no need to reapply”.

scolding
If you’ve heard someone say “Don’t put on sunscreen for one hour after eating”, then that person is not only wrong, but an idiot

Compounding the issue is that sunscreen bottles don’t tell you much about their product. I have three sunscreens in my apartment right now. The first two are labelled “Beach Defense: Water + Sun” and “Sport Technology”, and the third says “Ultra Radiance: Protects, Softens, and Leaves Skin Radiant”. This leads me to wonder if Beach Defense also has Sport Technology, and whether either of these don’t leave my skin radiant. Then I wonder if I even want my skin to be radiant, because “radiant” is derived from “radiation”, which is what I’m trying to avoid in the first place. Then I decide I’m staying inside.

radiant
This is like a toothpaste that says “Leaves teeth extra decayed”

But don’t worry. I hate skin cancer, but I love my readers, so I’ve done the research so that you, too, can protect yourself from the sun’s harmful, damaging death rays.

sun
Go to hell, the sun. What have you ever done for us?

SPF: Sun Protection Factor

First thing to know: SPF is an acronym, not a word. It stands for “sun protection factor”, and not “SSPPFFFF!”, which explains some looks I’ve gotten at the pharmacy. It refers to how much extra time it takes to burn in direct sunlight; for example, SPF 30 means it takes 30 extra minutes to burn than not wearing any sunscreen at all.

radiant
Of course, if it also leaves your skin radioactive, then the health benefits are probably negligible

SPF factors are also associated with a percentage of UVB protection. It goes like this:

 

SPF 15: 93%

 

SPF 30: 97%

 

SPF 50-100: 98-99%

 

So anything above SPF 30 provides a minimal amount of extra UVB protection. In fact, in 1999, the US Food and Drug Administration recommended that anything above SPF 30 be labelled as “30+” to avoid lulling people into a false sense of security.  If someone tells you SPF 60 is twice as strong as SPF 30, take a shot.

pharmacist
And remember kids, it’s pronounced “S-P-F”. Don’t ask the pharmacist for “SSSPPPFFFF thirty”

UVA vs. UVB

You will note that I said “percentage of UVB protection” in the paragraph above, and not just “UV”. That’s because there are two kinds of UV rays you have to worry about, and because I have a keen sense for segues into subsequent paragraphs. Sunscreen focuses on blocking UVB rays, which are the ones that cause sunburn and lead to skin cancer. The “B” in this case stands for “bad”.

pharmacist
Be sure to tell your pharmacist you want protection from the “Ugly-Violent-Bad” rays

But that’s not to say that the “A” in “UVA” rays stands for “awesome”. Indeed, UVA rays cause skin damage, which can lead to skin aging and wrinkling. They can also contribute to sunburns. So you don’t want UVA rays, either. In order to protect yourself from both UVB and UVA, you need broad-spectrum sunscreen. Make sure it says that on the bottle.

ozone
Fun fact: There’s also UVC rays, which are much more dangerous than UVA or UVB, but they’re completely absorbed by the ozone layer. Less fun fact: We made holes in the ozone layer.

How much is enough?

Take a drink if you’ve watched someone squirt a tiny droplet of sunscreen into their palm, rub it across their entire body, and say “better safe than sorry!”

drinking
In fact, take a drink anyway. If you’re playing a sunscreen-themed drinking game, I’ll assume you’re just looking for a reason to get drunk.

Turns out most people don’t put on nearly enough sunscreen, and it’s not even close. A 155-lbs person should use the volume of a 1-ounce shot glass, or about the size of a golf ball. Apply it evenly across all body parts, including the face, ears, scalp, neck and upper-chest, parts which most people forget, but have the highest incidence rate of skin cancer. The sunscreen in make-up isn’t enough, you need 7-14 times that amount.

make-up
Putting on 7-14 times more make-up isn’t the answer, either

You should put it on 30 minutes before going into the sun, which most people don’t do, and reapply after getting out of the water, even if it’s water-resistant sunscreen.  Be sure to reapply every 2 hours even if you don’t go into the water. And reapply the full 1-ounce amount.

ounce
Be sure to rinse out the glass before resuming your sunscreen drinking game

Now, I know some of you are sitting at home, saying “why should I listen to Dan, he’s always giving out unsolicited advice, but he’s a complete moron, what does he know?”

 

“Thank you for reading this site enough to know I always give out advice!” I would respond, purposely ignoring the direct insult. And it’s true, I do give out a lot of advice, much of it probably unwise.

 

But trust me on the sunscreen.

Research by Tamara Rosner

 

Dan’s off to save beachgoers by rubbing sunscreen on as many as he can catch. Email him or post on our Facebook / Twitter to see your topic covered here.

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